Tehee: Banksy's urban artwork is subversively cool

October 16, 2013 

Whether you see Banksy as an artistic genius hinges on your attraction to the subversive.

The enigmatic graffiti artist/political activist has made a career of pushing the boundaries of what is considered "art" by ignoring all traditional conventions — down to the very way his art is presented.

Banksy forgoes white gallery walls and presents his work in graffiti style in places that can be easily seen by the mass public (though he's also snuck pieces on to the walls of Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Museum officials were not happy).

His current work is an installation piece titled "Better Out Than In," which runs through the month of October and uses the entirety of New York as an interactive gallery.

It is the artist's "residency on the street of New York," and guerrilla-style pieces have been popping up around the city almost daily. You can follow along at www.banksyny.com.

In once piece, a delivery truck is converted into a mobile garden, complete with a rainbow, waterfall and butterflies. In another, a slaughterhouse truck full of stuffed animals — pigs, chickens and cows — drives around the meatpacking district.

There's a fiberglass replica of a frowning Ronald McDonald. It's getting a shoe shine from "a real live boy." The sculpture has been outside a different McDonald's during lunchtime all week.There are also any number of graffiti-style wall murals. In Brooklyn, the image of a red, heart-shaped balloon covered in bandages floats up a gray wall.

For the past two weeks, fans, collectors and the media have been on an all-out scavenger hunt — both in the city and via social media —to see where the next Banksy piece will appear.

From the beginning, Banksy has marked his work with a viable — and lucrative — brand. Despite graffiti's stigma and obvious legal issues, Banksy made his graffiti acceptable. Building owners would love to have Banksy's work on their walls, if only to increase property values.

In Detroit, a Banksy piece showed up on a dilapidated building, and when a local arts organization removed the wall to put it in the gallery the building's owner — no doubt looking for a payday — took legal action. It raised legitimate questions as to whether graffiti can be owned.

It can.

As an artist, Banksy is edgy and dangerous and a complete mystery. His real identity is still widely up for debate. The established arts community loves him for it. At auction, his work has sold for up to $150,000 and been bought up by celebrities like Christina Aguilera.

Yet, on Sunday, Banksy set up a stall in Central Park and sold original canvas works for $60 apiece. His take for the day was $420.

This is Banksy's genius. He thumbs his nose at those who legitimize his work while cashing in on their need to bandwagon anything that is remotely popular.

Banksy knows what he's doing. He's not much for hiding it. Yet, he's still popular and his work is still in demand. That, I find to be genius.

This columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6479, jtehee@fresnobee.com or @Joshuatehee on Twitter and Instagram. Read his blog at Fresnobeehive.com

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