Banksy Was Here: New Yorker Article

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Dept. of Popular Culture
Banksy Was Here
The invisible man of graffiti art.
by Lauren Collins May 14, 2007

The British graffiti artist Banksy likes pizza, though his preference
in toppings cannot be definitively ascertained. He has a gold tooth. He
has a silver tooth. He has a silver earring. He’s an anarchist
environmentalist who travels by chauffeured S.U.V. He was born in 1978,
or 1974, in Bristol, England—no, Yate. The son of a butcher and a
housewife, or a delivery driver and a hospital worker, he’s fat, he’s
skinny, he’s an introverted workhorse, he’s a breeze-shooting
exhibitionist given to drinking pint after pint of stout. For a while
now, Banksy has lived in London: if not in Shoreditch, then in Hoxton.
Joel Unangst, who had the nearly unprecedented experience of meeting
Banksy last year, in Los Angeles, when the artist rented a warehouse
from him for an exhibition, can confirm that Banksy often dresses in a
T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. When Unangst is asked what adorns the
T-shirts, he will allow, before fretting that he has revealed too much
already, that they are covered with smudges of white paint.

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The creative fields have long had their shadowy practitioners, figures
whose identities, whether because of scandalous content (the author of
“Story of O”), fear of ostracism (Joe Klein), aversion to nepotism
(Stephen King’s son Joe Hill), or conceptual necessity (Sacha Baron
Cohen), remain, at least for a time, unknown. Anonymity enables its
adopter to seek fame while shielding him from the meaner consequences
of fame-seeking. In exchange for ceding credit, he is freed from the
obligations of authorship. Banksy, for instance, does not attend his
own openings. He may miss out on the accolades, but he’ll never spend a
Thursday evening, from six to eight, picking at cubes of cheese.

Banksy is a household name in England—the Evening Standard has
mentioned him thirty-eight times in the past six months—but his
identity is a subject of febrile speculation. This much is certain:
around 1993, his graffiti began appearing on trains and walls around
Bristol; by 2001, his blocky spray-painted signature had cropped up all
over the United Kingdom, eliciting both civic hand-wringing and
comparisons to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Vienna, San
Francisco, Barcelona, and Paris followed, along with forays into
pranksterism and more traditional painting, but Banksy has never shed
the graffitist’s habit of operating under a handle. His anonymity is
said to be born of a desire—understandable enough for a “quality
vandal,” as he likes to be called—to elude the police. For years now,
he has refused to do face-to-face interviews.

Having fashioned himself as a sort of painterly Publius, Banksy
surfaces from time to time to prod the popular conscience. Confronted
with a blank surface, he will cover it with scenes of
anti-authoritarian whimsy: Winston Churchill with a Mohawk, two
policemen kissing, a military helicopter crowned by a pink bow.
Typically crafting his images with spray paint and cardboard stencils,
Banksy is able to achieve a meticulous level of detail. His aesthetic
is clean and instantly readable—broad social cartooning rendered with
the graphic bang of an indie concert poster. Since street art is
ephemeral, he occasionally issues books filled with photographs of his
work, accompanied by his own text. He self-published his first three
volumes, “Existencilism,” “Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall,” and
“Cut It Out.” His latest, “Wall and Piece,” was published by Random
House and has sold more than two hundred and fifty thousand copies.

As his renown has grown, Banksy has parlayed his knack for reducing
ideas to simple visual elements into what a critic recently termed “red
nose rebellion.” He is both a lefty and a tweaker of lefty pieties. At
a London antiwar demonstration in 2003, he distributed signs that read
“I Don’t Believe In Anything. I’m Just Here for the Violence.” Later,
he produced revisionist oil paintings (Mona Lisa with a yellow smiley
face, a pastoral landscape surrounded by crime-scene tape) and,
disguised in a trenchcoat and fake beard, installed them, respectively,
in the Louvre and the Tate. For the Natural History Museum, it was
Banksus militus vandalus, a taxidermy rat equipped with a miniature can
of spray paint. In 2005, Banksy travelled to the West Bank, where he
painted the security fence at Bethlehem with a trompe-l’oeil scene of a
hole in the concrete barrier, revealing a glittering beach on the other
side; it looked as if someone had dug through to paradise. Banksy
sometimes satirizes even his own sanctimony. “I have no interest in
ever coming out,” he has said. “I figure there are enough
self-opinionated assholes trying to get their ugly little faces in
front of you as it is.” Still, he posts news clips on his Web site,
alongside video footage of successful stunts.

Whoever he is, Banksy revels in the incongruities of his persona. “The
art world is the biggest joke going,” he has said. “It’s a rest home
for the overprivileged, the pretentious, and the weak.” Although he
once declared that “every other type of art compared to graffiti is a
step down,” in recent years he has produced his share of traditional
works on canvas and on paper, suitable for hanging indoors, above a
couch. His gallerist in London, Steve Lazarides, maintains a warm
relationship with Sotheby’s, authenticating Banksy pieces that the
house offers for auction, and thereby giving Banksy’s tacit endorsement
of their sale on the secondary market. In February, Sotheby’s presented
seven works by Banksy in a sale of contemporary art. “Bombing Middle
England” (2001), an acrylic-and-spray-paint stencil on canvas,
featuring a trio of retirees playing boules with live shells, was
estimated to bring between sixty and a hundred thousand dollars. It
sold for two hundred thousand. (“Bombing” is slang for writing
graffiti.) Last month, a painting titled “Space Girl and Bird” sold at
Bonham’s for five hundred and seventy-five thousand, a Banksy record.
Ralph Taylor, a specialist in the Sotheby’s contemporary-art
department, said of Banksy, “He is the quickest-growing artist anyone
has ever seen of all time.” Banksy responded to the Sotheby’s sale by
posting a painting on his Web site. It featured an auctioneer presiding
over a crowd of rapt bidders, with the caption “I can’t believe you
morons actually buy this shit.”

Such antagonism goads people, as it is designed to. For a while, the
Wikipedia entry for Banksy began, “Banksy is a nancy boy. Banksy is a
rip-off. Banksy is a bloody sod.” Diane Shakespeare, an official with
the Keep Britain Tidy campaign, told me, “We are concerned that
Banksy’s street art glorifies what is essentially vandalism,” while
Jonathan Jones, of the Guardian, recently wrote on his blog, “I think
there’s some wit in Banksy’s work, some cleverness—and a massive bucket
of hot steaming hype.” But for every litter freak or culture purist
driven to indignation by Banksy there’s a person who is entranced.
While setting up the show in Los Angeles, Banksy ordered a pizza, ate
it, and tossed the box in a Dumpster. Within weeks, the pizza box was
sold on eBay, for a hundred and two dollars. The seller suggested that
a few anchovies that had been left inside might yield traces of
Banksy’s DNA.

Banksy’s first formal exhibition was in 2000, at a Bristol restaurant
whose owners he knew. Soon enough, he had established a comer’s
reputation among cool kids and tabloid editors, but it was not until
three years later, with an event called “Turf War,” that he attracted
the attention of the London art world. A Barnumesque spectacle, staged
at a secret location, it included live pigs and a heifer spray-painted
with Andy Warhol’s likeness. Queen Elizabeth II, who had just
celebrated her Golden Jubilee, was depicted in a portrait as a chimp.

For his next show, “Crude Oils,” Banksy stocked a Notting Hill gallery
with two hundred free-roaming rats. Rodents are a favorite motif. “Like
most people, I have a fantasy that all the little powerless losers will
gang up together,” Banksy wrote in “Existencilism.” “That all the
vermin will get some good equipment and then the underground will go
overground and tear this city apart.” His most famous street paintings
are a series of black-and-white stencilled rats, the majority of them
slightly larger than life-size. Each is different, but they all possess
an impish poignancy that made them an immediate hit with London
pedestrians. One, a “gangster rat,” painted on a wall near the
Smithfield market, wears a peace-sign medallion and carries a sign that
says “Welcome to Hell.” Another pleads, “Please love me.” Cheyenne
Westphal, the chairman for contemporary art in Europe at Sotheby’s,
told me, “My first experience with him was in October, 2004, when he
left a piece outside a party we were throwing for Damien Hirst.” It was
a rat, holding up a placard that read, “You lie.” Banksy, typically,
was flipping off the art world and begging it to notice him at the same

Pleasing crowds, not cognoscenti, however, remains his stated aim. “The
last time I did a show,” he said, before the Los Angeles opening last
September, “I thought I’d got a four-star review, then I realized they
said, ‘This is absolute ****.’ ” He elaborated: “Hollywood is a town
where they honor their heroes by writing their names on the pavement to
be walked on by fat people and peed on by dogs. It seemed like a great
place to come and be ambitious.”

Banksy and his confederates (a team of “fun-loving Englishmen,” Joel
Unangst said) work flexible and light. Their m.o. is stealth: drop in
on a city, perform reconnaissance, erect—in the style of a World’s
Fair—a temporary gallery, and, almost before anyone knows they’ve been
there, break it all down and get the hell out. Unangst recalled, “Some
people I work with called me up and said, ‘Can they come and look at
your warehouse?’ We set up a meeting in the middle of the night. Banksy
rolls up in an S.U.V. and looks around. He asked me if I had any
problems with him bringing in a live elephant, and I said, ‘No, it’s
cool.’ ” Unangst was instructed to refer to Banksy by an alias, which
he refused to divulge, except to say that it was “a regular male name.”

In February, Unangst showed me around the warehouse, a
twelve-thousand-square-foot former fruit-and-vegetable depot. “This is
where it all happened,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a quaint
little art show.”

Friday, September 15th, was the first day of the exhibition, titled
“Barely Legal.” Its location was not announced until that morning; the
warehouse, situated downtown, off I-10, is not easy to find. Still,
Keanu Reeves and Jude Law had shown up at a V.I.P. preview the evening
before, as had Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who bought several pieces.
“These days, everyone is trying to be famous, but he has anonymity,”
Pitt told reporters. “I think that’s great.” The irony may have been
lost on Pitt that one of Banksy’s publicists had invited him.

By Saturday, Los Angeles’s many animal-rights activists were
registering their displeasure. Banksy was displaying an
eight-thousand-pound elephant named Tai, whose hide he had painted red
and embellished with gold fleurs-de-lis, to match the wallpaper of a
parlor he had constructed. (The elephant in the room, a handout
proclaimed, was global poverty.) The activists said that the paint was
toxic. Ed Boks, Los Angeles’s general manager of animal services, said
he regretted that his office had issued a permit and, after visiting
the show, wrote on his blog that looking into the elephant’s eyes
“nearly brought me to tears.” He eventually ordered the animal hosed
down. The L.A. Times, which had not planned to review the show,
published two stories. Al Jazeera reported on the controversy. Other
people were angry about a large portrait of Mother Teresa overlaid with
the words “I learnt a valuable lesson from this woman. Moisturise
everyday.” By Sunday, thirty thousand people, waiting in lines five
blocks long, had seen the exhibition.

I asked Unangst what more he could tell me about Banksy, and he
replied, “The only thing I can say is he’s like everybody, but he’s
like nobody.” And so began the koan of Banksy, whose own talents as an
aphorist—“Never paint graffiti in a town where they still point at
aeroplanes”; “Only when the last tree has been cut down and the last
river has dried up will man realize that reciting red Indian proverbs
makes you sound like a ***** muppet”—seem to inspire all who cross his
path. Banksy has convinced nearly everyone who has ever met him that
promulgating his image would amount to an unconscionable act of soul

“Banksy is a genius and a madman,” Unangst continued.

“He’s a guy from Bristol,” someone who knows him told me later.

“I’m not obliged to say more than I’m obliged to,” another loyalist said.

Cheyenne Westphal was in Los Angeles during “Barely Legal,” attending a
dinner for the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. “Everyone there was
saying, ‘Who is this Banksy?’ ” she recalled. During his time in
California, Banksy did not meet with any potential patrons, but he
managed to “get up,” in the argot, a few works of art for the enjoyment
of all Angelenos. Along with graffitiing several local buildings, he
bought a blowup doll and dressed it in a hood and an orange jumpsuit,
as a Guantánamo prisoner. Then he sneaked into Disneyland and installed
it along the path of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride, where it
remained for ninety minutes. A week earlier, he had created five
hundred doctored copies of Paris Hilton’s début CD and distributed them
in record stores all over the U.K. Hilton appeared topless on the
cover, and her song titles included “Why Am I Famous?” and “What Am I

Unangst wandered behind the warehouse, toward what looked like a
rusted-out paddy wagon. It was parked against a wall. Banksy had tagged
the side that was obscured with a pixillated Dorothy, from “The Wizard
of Oz,” a noose in her outstretched hand. I wrote down a phone number
from a painted decal—“How’s My Bombing?”—on the truck’s bumper, hoping
that it might offer a hint about the Banksy mystery. It connected to a
Navy recruiting station in Arizona.

Even on Banksy’s home turf, it’s hard to know what to look for, or
where to look. For many of his admirers, that’s the fun of it: scouring
a city for him, or his art works, invests a potentially monotonous
activity with the possibility of discovery. When I arrived in London,
in March, my only clue to who Banksy might be was a series of pictures,
posted on the Internet in 2004, by a Jamaican photographer named Peter
Dean Rickards. That year, so the story goes, Banksy flew to Kingston to
work on a project. He visited the reggae singer Buju Banton, at his
studio, and Rickards documented the occasion. Eventually, he became
disgruntled. “Banksy swanned around Jamaica as if he owned the place,”
he told the Evening Standard, to which he sold the images. “He’s too
much of a ***** to protest having his picture taken once he found
himself in Kingston, Jamaica—nowhere near the nice, safe media offices
. . . that he’s accustomed to,” he wrote on his Web site, in a rant
that accompanied the pictures, which have since been removed. Steve
Lazarides confirmed to the Standard that Banksy had been in Jamaica,
but said that Rickards had the wrong guy. When I contacted Rickards, he
said that he wasn’t at liberty to discuss the incident. “The best I can
do is to tell you,” he wrote in an e-mail, “that they don’t call him
BANKsy for nothing.”

Buju Banton, reached on the telephone, did not dispel the notion that
the man in the pictures was Banksy. “Rickards tried to ruin something
that has a mystique, and that isn’t cool,” he said. “Banksy’s an artist
that not everyone should have a piece of,” he added, and then started

Colin Saysell, an anti-graffiti officer in Bristol, who has been
tracking Banksy for years, concluded that the photos were legit. So did
Simon Hattenstone, a writer at the Guardian, who met Banksy, or at
least a Banksy decoy, in 2003, before Banksy swore off the press. I
showed him a makeshift lineup of supposed Banksy photographs—there have
been several others—and he gravitated toward the Rickards shot. “That
picture is definitely Banksy,” he said. Elizabeth Wolff, who is now a
reporter at the Post, was with Hattenstone, as a summer intern, for the
Banksy encounter, which took place over pints of Guinness in a
Shoreditch pub. She, too, said the Rickards picture was “definitely”
Banksy. “He was the grimiest person I’d ever met,” she said. “He looked
like someone from one of those British industrial towns from the
nineteenth century. There was a layer of grit on him.”

Steve Lazarides’s gallery is housed in a former sex shop on the ground
floor of a four-story brick building in Soho, in London. Lazarides,
like Banksy, grew up in Bristol. His mother was a housewife; his father
sold kebabs. Lazarides and Banksy did not know each other as kids, but
friends introduced them when they were in their twenties, and Lazarides
began taking pictures of Banksy’s graffiti. (Lazarides was a
professional photographer for a time, having also worked mixing
concrete and plucking chickens.) He gained Banksy’s confidence and
began serving as his fixer, gatekeeper, and, eventually, agent. As
their fortunes rose, Lazarides was able, in 2005, to establish his

The gallery’s motto is “Art by People,” but its affiliates exhibit a
caginess toward anyone outside their circle of trusted accomplices,
many of whom work in semi-symbiosis. Banksy, for instance, illustrated
the cover for “Think Tank,” a 2003 album by the band Blur, of which
Damon Albarn is a member. (Banksy later declared that he’d never do
commercial work again.) Albarn went on to found Gorillaz, a band whose
public face is represented by four animated characters. Remi Kabaka,
who provides the voice for the band’s drummer, works at the gallery as
a sort of majordomo. At a recent party at a bar nearby, his name was
the password for entry.

On a Friday morning, a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk in front of
the gallery, an increasingly common problem for Lazarides. “The hookers
get really upset if you block their doorway,” a neighbor told me,
pointing upstairs. The gallery was supposed to open at noon, but the
doors were locked.

Peregrine Hill and Dan Mitchell, partners in a London law firm, were
among those on the sidewalk. Worried that the show would sell out
before they got there, they had cut out of work. They were dressed in
suits and ties and had come armed with a P.D.A. and a computer printout.

The night before, Lazarides had thrown an opening party for Faile, a
graffiti collective from Brooklyn. “They’re probably all hung over,”
Mitchell said of Lazarides and his crew.

“We need to get ourselves invited to the previews,” Hill replied.

Eventually, a young man with lime-green high-tops and messy hair came
bounding down the street, rolling a cigarette. He was not, it turned
out, a Lazarides acolyte but another anxious collector.

“Pictures on Walls got sold out of Nick Walker prints,” he said,
striking up a conversation with the lawyers. (Nick Walker is another
graffiti artist from Bristol. Pictures on Walls is the Web site through
which Banksy sells, and invariably sells out, his limited-edition
prints, which go for under fifteen hundred dollars apiece. “When we
sell prints at below their true market value that is done at the
artist’s request, not because we’re stupid,” the Web site reads.)

“That was rubbish!” Hill answered. He then asked, in the manner of a Beanie Babies enthusiast, “Did you get one?”

“I missed it. Dickhead!”

The next to arrive was Caitlin Stapleton, on spring break from
Northeastern University. “Me and my sister are here visiting, and I’m
obsessed with Banksy,” she said. “I’m like, I’m going to go on an
actual trip and find things by him.”

A woman arrived, unlocked the door to the gallery, and disappeared inside, without acknowledging the crowd.

“Even if I just found one of his little rats, it’d be awesome,” Stapleton said.

Eventually, an assistant named Sam materialized and began rehashing the
previous night’s events. “It was insane,” he said. “People were
fighting—‘I want this, I want that.’ ”

I was supposed to have a meeting with one of Lazarides’s deputies. He
didn’t show. Eventually, Lazarides called in. I’d heard that he kept a
secret office nearby. Someone handed me a cordless phone. “We let the
art speak for itself,” Lazarides said, gruffly. “I don’t want to be
Banksy’s spokesman.”

“All these little lads look at Banksy the way the youngsters who are
into football look at Beckham—he’s their hero,” Denise James, the
director of an organization called Bristol Clean & Green, said
recently, sitting in a café on the top floor of a Bristol motorcycle
dealership. Clean & Green is charged with cleaning up graffiti
blight, which costs the city more than three hundred thousand dollars
each year. “It annoys me, it frustrates me, because it’s just so ugly,”
James said.

The graffitist’s impulse is akin to a blogger’s: write some stuff,
quickly, which people may or may not read. Both mediums demand wit and
nimbleness. They arouse many of the same fears about the lowering of
the public discourse and the taking of undeserved liberties. Graffiti
aficionados like to say that the form is as ancient as cave drawing,
and Banksy takes a similarly romantic view. “Imagine a city where
graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw wherever
they liked,” he once wrote. “Where the street was awash with a million
colors and little phrases. . . . A city that felt like a party where
everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big
business.” Detractors of graffiti, however, can trace its spread as
assiduously as epidemiologists mapping an outbreak of diphtheria. Colin
Saysell, the anti-graffiti officer, explained that graffiti had first
appeared in the U.K. around the same time as the Rock Steady Crew, the
Bronx hip-hop group, in 1983. “They went on a European tour and brought
with them a number of very famous graf writers from New York as a
fringe act,” Saysell said. At the end of the eighties, he said, there
was a crackdown, which succeeded in squelching local graffiti culture
for a moment. “Since 2003, it’s been going crazy again.”

If Bristol is, as James told me, “the graffiti capital of England,”
then Banksy is its patron sinner. One morning last June, citizens were
surprised to find a new mural downtown, on the side of a sexual-health
clinic. It depicted a window, a perfect imitation of others nearby.
From the sill, a naked man dangled by his fingertips. Inside, a fully
dressed man scanned the horizon, next to a woman in dishabille.
Directly facing the fake window are the offices of the Bristol city
council, which, in a departure from policy, decided to put the mural’s
fate to a public vote. Of about a thousand respondents, ninety-three
per cent said the mural should stay. So it did. (In late April,
however, London authorities whitewashed Banksy’s famous “Pulp Fiction”
mural, which showed John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson holding bananas
instead of handguns.) “Banksy’s latest work of art is superb,” a man
wrote to the local paper. “If the council wants to do something it
should cut down that dreadful shrub which is obscuring the piece.” Gary
Hopkins, a councilman, told me, “I think we undermined his street cred
by making him mainstream.” Even James admitted to a grudging affection
for Banksy. “I like the one where he’s got a picture of a stream and a
bridge and he’s just dumped a shopping trolley in there,” she said,
referring to a painting that Banksy did in the style of Monet. “I can
relate to that, because we’ve got a problem with shopping trolleys.”

Municipal lawmakers are not the only Bristolians to have taken a
faddish interest in Banksy: in a run-down part of town called Easton,
where Banksy is rumored to have lived in the nineties, a couple named
Sarah and David Anslow were trying, on behalf of an “anonymous party,”
to sell one of his early murals. The mural, which is spray-painted
freehand, with bubble letters and looping “wild-style” arrows, and
bears less resemblance to Banksy’s recent work than to something you
might see on a PATH train, adorns an exterior wall of a crumbling
Victorian terrace house. For a minimum bid of four hundred thousand
dollars, a buyer would receive the mural—with the house thrown in “for
free.” The Anslows, who have an art gallery in Devon called the Red
Propeller, announced the offer just after the February Sotheby’s

When I met Sarah Anslow at the house this spring, she began by making a
confession. She and David were the actual owners of the house. They had
bought it and several others in the neighborhood in the early nineties,
as investments. She said that they had decided to come out as the
owners only after a local reporter called them on the charade. “We had
been concerned that it could get reported in the wrong way,” she said.
“‘Greedy Owners Try to Cash In on Banksy Mural.’ ” Anslow talked about
her and David’s passion for street art. “We want to get hold of
Banksy,” she said. As she detailed their dreams of becoming the Medici
of graffiti, it was easier to see why Banksy makes himself scarce.

A white station wagon pulled up. Its driver, in an orange trucker hat,
rolled down a window and regarded us warily. When he asked who we were,
Anslow did not identify herself as the owner. The man introduced
himself as Ben Bloodworth, and wondered if we knew that, a few days
earlier, a city contractor had tried to destroy the mural.

“The guy said, ‘If you can get a group of more than twenty people to
come down, then maybe that’ll be enough to stop me,’ ” Bloodworth told
us. Twenty people, at least, had shown up, as had news cameras. It was
Bloodworth’s opinion that the incident was part of a publicity ploy by
the sellers. (Two weeks ago, the mural was defaced with a bucket of red

“The house is fucked. It’s completely shabby. That’s why they can’t
sell it.” He launched into an impersonation of the putative landlord:
“‘It’s this really lovely three-bedroom shithole in Easton, but it’s
got a masterpiece painted on the side.’ ” Bloodworth said that he had
been interviewed on the BBC about the showdown. Banksy, watching, had
phoned a neighborhood friend and got him to put Bloodworth on the
phone. “He said, ‘It all came across very well. I owe you a pint.’ ” I
showed Bloodworth the Rickards picture and asked him if its subject
looked familiar. “Naw, that guy looks like De Niro,” he said, with a
shake of his head.

A few weeks earlier, Anslow had attempted to reach Banksy through his
Web site. Someone named Dean had responded with an e-mail: “Mr. Banks
is away polishing one of his yachts.”

“Fings have gone a little bit nuts lately,” Steve Lazarides said, with
the burry inflection of his native city. “Suddenly, it’s become all
right amongst the proper art world to collect street art.”

It was April, and Lazarides had agreed to meet me at the gallery, where
he would be setting up an exhibition by a thirty-six-year-old sculptor
named Mark Jenkins, who makes anthropomorphic figures from packing
tape. I arrived at the gallery first. Hip-hop was blasting from the
speakers; an empty Red Bull can had been tossed on the floor. After a
few minutes, a slight man with a shaved head burst through the door. He
was wearing jeans and carrying a camera. It was Lazarides—he’d been
around the corner snapping pictures of a tape sculpture that Jenkins
had planted on the sidewalk. Lazarides seemed elated. “It’s a proper
piece of street art!” he yelled.

Lazarides talked to an assistant for a few minutes about preparations
for the evening, and then swept out the door and around the corner,
into a bookstore. He bounded up a few flights of stairs: the secret
office. It was furnished with stained leather gym mats and loads of
art. There were fake Picassos signed by Damien Hirst, packing-tape
babies, a Banksy canvas of a monkey wielding a gun. Near a window was a
vending machine stocked with prosthetic limbs. “I get all the crazy
shit, basically,” Lazarides said.

After a few minutes, he scooted out of the building and into the
vestibule of another, where he rang a buzzer. A hostess opened the
door. It was a private club, where we were to eat lunch. After ordering
lamb chops and a glass of white wine—“whichever”—Lazarides talked about
his path to art-world dominion. “It wasn’t open to us, so we just
decided to open up a different branch of art,” he said. “It’s a bit
like being a d.j.—you’re in the club and they’re playing nothing you
like. All of a sudden, you have to put on your own club night.” He went
on, “To be honest, I have no idea how I got made the designated gallery
owner, out of everybody.”

Across town, meanwhile, amid the fashionable shops of Knightsbridge, a
show titled “Banksy” had been mounted by a gallerist named Acoris
Andipa, a descendant of what he says is civilization’s oldest
art-dealing clan. “The Andipa family was first recognized in 1593 in
Venice, although our history actually goes back much further, to the
time of the Bible,” he told me when I visited.

Sitting at his desk, dressed in a pin-striped suit, Andipa acknowledged
that this was an unusual show for him. “Being urban art, I thought it
was a little too far away, but I decided to test it on the back of a
Damien Hirst exhibit we did,” he said. “Four out of five Banksys were
snapped up in the first hour. That then satisfied me artistically, and
then, frankly, we went to a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week
focus on putting together a major collection that would be worthy of
making a big noise about.” Cheyenne Westphal, from Sotheby’s, confirmed
that the market for Banksy has exploded over the past year. “I feel in
many ways that we are only at the beginning,” she said. Michael
Fischer, a hedge-fund manager who collects Banksy, put it this way:
“He’s gone from zero to a hundred in, like, three seconds.”

Andipa does not represent any artists, so all his shows are privately
sourced. “At first, we had Banksy followers, if you like, telling us it
would be impossible,” he said. He had called Lazarides, but the
conversation “lasted a minute.” I asked him if he thought Lazarides was
unprofessional. “Let’s just say we have picked up a lot of clients with
the way we do business,” he said.

For his show, Andipa had instituted a no-street-art policy—although he
saw some “cracking good pieces,” he said, “street art must remain on
the street”—but he managed to acquire fifteen signed canvases and more
than thirty signed limited-edition prints. Having previewed the show in
Gstaad, he had now, a week after its opening, sold nearly half of the
pieces, which he was offering at prices ranging from ten thousand to
two hundred thousand dollars. Twirling a pen, he reported that walk-in
traffic at the gallery had increased fifteenfold. “We’ve had a lot of
youth, and we’re not talking about well-heeled youth,” he said. “A lot
of street kids, the kids who sort of hang around and hang out and what
have you. They’re all very polite.” Andipa said that he would love to
know what Banksy thought of his efforts. “In theory, he’s anti-art
establishment, and here I am in this Knightsbridge art gallery, but I
would also like to think, deep down, that he would be proud to think of
his work being surrounded by Picassos.”

Banksy is so intimately tied to Lazarides’s success, and Lazarides to
his, that, of people who care about these things, more than one has
speculated that Lazarides is Banksy. This seems unlikely: fielding, or
refusing to field, all the world’s questions about Banksy is occupation
enough for one man. Still, Lazarides is in deep. When I asked him, over
lunch, about a statement he’d once made, denying that he and Banksy
meet in person for the delivery of art works—“I get a phone call and go
pick ’em up, back of a supermarket”—he admitted it wasn’t quite true.
It is that kind of stagemanship that led a British observer to describe
him to me as “exactly like Malcolm McLaren.” (Lazarides is no rube:
type “Banksy” into Google and ads for Laz Inc. come up.)

Whatever guile Lazarides possesses is offset, however, by a winning
ingenuousness. He was not happy about the Banksy exhibition at Andipa.
It was “piracy,” he said. He mentioned that Andipa had tried to reach
him. “He called me Stavros, and I called him a *****,” he said,
breaking into a grin. “Nothing I love more than failing aristocrats.”

Lazarides’s cell phone, which he had politely ignored for two hours,
buzzed with a text message: “Bloke on Neal Street doing a roaring trade
in fake Banksys.”

That night, I went to the Jenkins opening at the Lazarides gallery. For
the first hour, Lazarides and Jenkins hung back, drinking Tiger beers
on the sidewalk across the street. When Lazarides finally ventured
inside, he was approached by a serious-looking man in important
glasses. “What drew you to Mark’s work?” he asked.

“It’s fuckin’ funny, man.”

During a phone conversation in March, Lazarides had insisted that
Banksy was “lying low” for at least a year. An edition of his “I Can’t
Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit” painting had been released
on Pictures on Walls that month, crashing the Web site for five hours,
but, aside from that, he had not been heard from.

One Friday at the end of April, when I checked my e-mail there was a message from Banksy.

“Hello there,” it went. “Thanks for taking an interest in my stuff.”

Banksy agreed to answer some questions over e-mail. He was wryly
eloquent, but his banter seemed less playful than it has in the past.
“I don’t think art is much of a spectator sport these days,” he began.
“I don’t know how the art world gets away with it, it’s not like you
hear songs on the radio that are just a mess of noise and then the d.j.
says, ‘If you read the thesis that comes with this, it would make more
sense.’ ”

I’d heard that Banksy had become “increasingly paranoid,” and I
wondered whether the accusations of hypocrisy had worn on him, and
whether he was able to enjoy his success. “I have been called a
sellout, but I give away thousands of paintings for free, how many more
do you want?” he wrote. “I think it was easier when I was the underdog,
and I had a lot of practise at it. The money that my work fetches these
days makes me a bit uncomfortable, but that’s an easy problem to
solve—you just stop whingeing and give it all away. I don’t think it’s
possible to make art about world poverty and then trouser all the cash,
that’s an irony too far, even for me.” He went on, “I love the way
capitalism finds a place—even for its enemies. It’s definitely boom
time in the discontent industry. I mean, how many cakes does Michael
Moore get through?”

“Why do you do what you do?” I asked.

Banksy replied, “I originally set out to try and save the world, but now I’m not sure I like it enough.”

We discussed his mural in Bristol (“I think because it turned out there
was a sexual-health clinic on the other side of the wall helped, which
just goes to show—if you paint enough crap in enough places sooner or
later one of them will mean something to someone”) and the city
council’s decision to preserve it (“I think it’s pretty incredible a
city council is prepared to make value judgments about preserving
illegally painted graffiti. I’m kind of proud of them”).

Banksy has always had a fatalistic streak: in one of his books, a pair
of lovebirds is juxtaposed with the dictum “As soon as you meet
someone, you know the reason you will leave them.” In another, a little
girl releases a heart-shaped red balloon: “When the time comes to
leave, just walk away quietly and don’t make any fuss.” Recently, the
London Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak wrote that Banksy’s “chief
achievement, and I believe it to be a mammoth one, was finding a way to
operate so successfully outside the art world,” signalling, with the
use of the past tense, that his era of underground credibility had come
and gone. The game of anonymity must also have its limits, and its
limitations. “What happens if you are found out?” I wrote.

For a cipher, Banksy was surprisingly direct: “Maintaining anonymity
can be kind of crippling. I gave a painting to my favorite pub to
settle a tab once, which they hung above the bar. So many people came
in asking questions about it I haven’t been back there for two years.

“In retrospect getting your work in the newspapers is a really dumb
thing to do if what you do requires a certain level of anonymity. I was
a bit slow there. Brad Pitt told a journalist ‘I think it’s really cool
no one knows who he is’ and within a week there were journalists from
the Daily Mail at the door of my dealer’s dad’s chip shop asking if he
knew where they could find me. All the attention meant I lost some of
the element of surprise. A few days after the show in Los Angeles
opened I was painting under a freeway downtown when a homeless guy ran
over and said, ‘Hey—are you Binsky?’ I left the next day.”

At the bottom of the e-mail, Banksy had appended a file. I opened it,
and the screen filled with a black-and-white image. An artist—shown in
profile, with proud posture and Vandyke whiskers—sits in the shade of a
parasol. Next to him, propped on an easel, stands a canvas covered with
graffiti. The artist’s fingers are gnarled, like a rat.