Banksy 2.0, or “The Vandal Formerly Known as Robin Gunningham”

A Banksy classic  

A Banksy classic

I have been experimenting with stencil graffiti in the past few months, mostly spraying a few images in my sketchbook, testing paints, Exacto knives and other materials – generally learning the craft.  I was first inspired to try it out when my sister bought me the book Stencil Graffiti, by Tristan Marco, a couple Christmases ago.  When I recently how cheap and easy it is to create basic stencil images, I bought a few materials from my local art store and got to work.  One of my inspirations – and probably an inspiration for anyone who’s tried or even admired stencils – was Banksy, a British stencil artist who started way back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and has used the guerrilla aspect of the art to make his pieces accessible to the public.  In other words, he sprayed in public places, just like any other tagger.  But his witty images challenge traditional concepts of hierarchy and authority in a way that isn’t stuffy.  It addresses all classes of people.

Some would call him a vandal.  I would call him that.  But Banksy calls himself a vandal, too.  That’s the whole point.

Time Magazine reported this week that Banksy’s real identity has been revealed – Banksy now has a real name we can attach to it.

That name is apparently Robin Gunningham, a 34-year-old native of Bristol, England.  The details of how Banksy’s “real” identity leaked to news sources is unimportant, but the implications of the apparent discovery and leak to the public could have a major effect on the impact that Banksy’s art will have, now that his image as an anonymous vandal has been imperiled.

Banksy’s message is somewhat intertwined with his image as an anonymous renegade.  The only matter up for debate is the degree to which those two concepts are related.  Some would say that there are extremely dependent on each other, to the point that where if the image of the artist changes, the art loses most of its meaning.

Will Robin Gunningham Kill Banksy?

Will Robin Gunningham Kill Banksy?

I would argue the opposite.  To me, Banksy is still Banksy.  His next subway piece won’t be by “Robin Gunningham.”  Besides, who is Robin Gunningham?  To me, and to most admirers of Banksy’s work, it’s just a name (and maybe a face, with new photos emerging).  His art will retain its anonymity because of the nature of the art, and where and how it is perceived by the viewing public.  Stencil artists generally post their art as part of some sort of social movement or statement – the pseudonym that signs off on it has always been, at least for me, secondary.  And as long as Banksy continues to throw up his pieces in hard-to-reach places, avoiding the authorities at all costs, and pushing the limits – he’ll always be Banksy.

And then there’s the issue of the commodification of Banksy’s art.  The value of Banksy’s art has skyrocketed in the past few years.  The likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have ponied up millions of dollars for Banksy’s art at recent auctions.  Some say that Banksy’s reputation as an artist, and consequently the value of his work, will fade now that his identity has been revealed.  That may be true, but the very fact that Banksy’s art has demanded such high prices is an irony in itself, given that Banksy’s art directly changes the status quo of the art world.  Take for example, the Mona Lisa with the yellow smiley face he snuck into the Louvre and the Tate, or Banksus militus vandalus, the spray can-equipped rat he snuck into the Natural History Museum.  

Even so, artists have to make a living too, and it’s nice to make a buck.  But somehow I don’t see Banksy really giving a shit.

On CONNECTEDNESS in the Big Apple

I woke up at the Hilton in Midtown Manhattan around 12 noon with only a slight headache.  My friend Donny and his dad were still asleep, and when I started rumbling around in an attempt to get my day started (and hinting that maybe they should get their day started too), Donny was roused from his sleep with a headache, admittedly much rougher than mine, which I was already able to ignore.

Central Park

Central Park

Since Donny would be asleep for the next half hour or so, I decided we could meet up later, so I threw on some clothes and headed out the door.  Apparently we were in Room 3204, which either meant we were on the 3rd floor or the 32nd floor.  I hadn’t taken much notice last night. 

The long elevator ride down confirmed that our room was on the 32nd floor.  The lobby supported whole droves of people running in different directions, some leaving, some arriving, others prepping their daughters for some sort of teen beauty contest, others unfolding their bikes for a city triathlon, and all of them sandwiching the smattering of people lost and confused, looking at maps, awaiting instructions.  I managed to steer a course through the lobby circus toward the automatic rotating door, which presented only minor difficulties – not from the triathlete and his bike, but from catching a glance at the 13-year-old beauty queen with the clown makeup – and then I had my next challenge, figuring out where the hell I was in this giant city.

Turns out I have Google Maps, which means I don’t have to know too much.  I was only five blocks from Central Park.  Easy.

Central Park is much more beautiful than I thought it would be.  It’s also a safe place.  Los Angeles had convinced me that all city parks are dirty, unsafe areas.  You might be able to play a little soccer in an L.A. park, but you’ll probably twist an ankle in a gopher hole.  You could also eat lunch under a tree there, but you’ll be sitting a pile of cigarettes, or you’ll be sitting next to the uncollected, overflowing city garbage can, or in a caked-over mixture of dirt and piss.  I love LA!!! [Randy Newman voice]

Instead, Central Park consists of rolling hills sprinkled with young people tanning, trees, couples with baby carriages, ponds, musicians making an extra buck and having a good time, and people like me, who couldn’t care less that they just spent $3 more than they should have for a little bottle of Gatorade.  It was hot, humid and sticky, but I didn’t mind walking the thirty blocks to the Met (it feels like a lot less).

I sauntered in and around the park for a couple of hours.  I was alone, but I was not lonely.  People seem to be keenly aware that there are massive amounts of people walking around, but everyone respects and retains a certain anonymity.  I found a great spot, sitting next to what Google Maps was telling me was Conservatory Pond, listening to two guys playing Spanish guitar.  One guy provided a basic strum, while the other wrapped his freestyle picking around the strum to provide a nice little tune.  I was completely zoned out – partly because of the drinking I did last night and because I hadn’t had any caffeine – when a woman sitting next to me asked if I could take her picture in front of the lake.  When I took the photo, I realized it such a great photo op that I asked her to do the same for me, and nothing seemed more perfect for me at that moment.  A moment of friendliness, for utilitarian purposes, and nothing more, but I appreciated it, being by myself.

On Sunday I was waiting in line for the Fung Wah bus to head back to Boston.  It took me two hours to get on the bus, so despite my fear of cell phones, I called Mike.  He told me about his weekend, and I described a little bit of mine, which had more to do with my time with Donny and his dad than my walk in Central Park.  Then Mike said something very random, yet perfectly appropriate for the circumstances: Isn’t it crazy that we’re 3000 miles away from each other, yet we can hold these little machines to our ears, and talk to each other whenever we want?

Yes, it is crazy.  And even though I can be an uninspired bore on the phone, I am completely dependent on it.  On Saturday my Blackberry was unable to send and receive text messages.  (I can’t send any texts!…Shit, it erased the entire memory of emails and texts!…What the hell is going on with my phone?…Fuck!  What if someone is sending me an important text right now!  When I don’t respond, they won’t believe me later when I tell them that my texting function wasn’t working!  That’s such a bullshit excuse!) 

Nonetheless, the phone call brought me back to my day in Central Park: I can become connected to people by obvious (yet not insignificant) means, like a phone call, or in subtle ways, like an anonymous stroll through a crowded park.  

More on New York, including photos, to follow.  Unfortunately I can’t transfer photos from my digital camera to my computer because I left the cord in LA.  Good lordy, I feel butt-nekkit without it!

Idealism vs. Pragmatism

I got a chance to watch The Firm for the first time since before I started law school, and I have to say, I loved it even more than before (which was a lot).  The pedigree of talent that went into movie is unmatched.  Gene Hackman, Tom Cruise and Ed Harris are at the top of their game, and no one built suspense like Sydney Pollack.

Tom Cruise, running as usual.

Tom Cruise, running as usual.

And nobody tops Gary Busey, the P.I. that Tom Cruise hires to investigate why young lawyers are dying in disproportionate numbers at his firm.  When the firm’s henchmen ask Busey who’s asking questions about dead lawyers, Busey gives them the only logical answer before firing away: “His name was…JULIO IGLESIAS!”

"It was...Julio Inglesias!"

"His name was...Julio Iglesias!"

But The Firm had so much more meaning to me as I near the third and final year of law school.

Many of us law students went into our first year hoping to change the world in a positive way.  We were the real-life Mitchell McDeeres (Tom Cruise) – idealists.  We may have had an idea about what we wanted out of law school and, eventually, a legal career.  But law school has convinced us that the big firm jobs – the ones paying $160k – are the jobs we want.

The idea of “selling out” is more complex than it seems.  The question is whether law school tends to drain the idealism out of young students, or whether it infuses students with some much-needed pragmatism.  A lot of kids go to law school straight from college because there’s nothing else to do.  Others found their limited experience in the working world to be less-than spectacular and, as a result, applied to law school without any contemplation of what a legal career might entail.  With law school they can be at once practical and indecisive.  It’s a delay tactic.  That’s not to say there aren’t others who always knew they wanted to go to law school, who knew what they were getting into, and have succeeded in going down the path they had envisioned for themselves.  Unfortunately, there aren’t as many of those people as there should be.

For a lot of these kids (I consider myself to be one of them, at least in part), a little pragmatism is welcome.  You have to pay your bills.  But is a 90-hour work week really what they want?  I’m not sure that’s why they came to law school.

In The Firm, Gene Hackman’s character is a shell of his former self, a lawyer who came to the firm with good intentions but allowed the culture of the firm to control him.  He was Mitchell McDeere in his previous life (which is why we find Maggie McDeere to be sympathetic toward him in the end, perhaps a little too much).  But not only did he succumb to the will of the firm, he became a key component of the firm’s improprieties.

Mitchell McDeere wins in the end – the film explains that he managed to do so without breaking the law.  The crux of the film, however, is based on the principle that Mitchell wins his life back.  He doesn’t belong to the firm and he doesn’t belong to the government.  He becomes a virtuous man again.  And guess what?  He’s off to work for a small firm in Boston.  Unlike big firms that pay a lot, small firms are not EVIL.

How ideal is it to be practical?  How practical is it to be ideal?  Where is the balance to be struck?  As I enter a year filled with on-campus interviewing (big firms), informational interviewing (small and medium-sized firms), and an all-purpose scrounge for employment (anybody, please!), my goal is to remember what I want out of a profession.  And for that, I turn to Father Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles, who said, “It’s not about success.  It’s about having faith in what you’re doing.”