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Banksy was here -- we think

Banksy! Come out, come out, wherever you are!

No, wait — don’t. It’s more fun wondering where you are.

Banksy, the subversive and elusive British graffiti artist, has perfected the art of promoting himself without ever showing up. He has left his mark around the world — on the Israeli West Bank barrier (he painted a window), on a levee in New Orleans — without holding court at opening-night parties or posing for photographs. In fact, he almost never allows himself to be photographed. In Los Angeles in 2006, he notoriously decorated a warehouse as a living room and engaged an elephant, painted to match the room’s walls, to stand in the middle of it. (The elephant in the room.) The artist himself was never seen.

Now he’s up for an Academy Award for “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a documentary as much about him as it is about its subject, a quirky French immigrant street artist. And his unique, perverse style of promoting himself is on display in the ultimate PR arena: the Oscar campaign season.

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While other nominees have hit the talk show circuit, Banksy appears to have hit the back of an Urban Outfitters in Westwood with a stenciled image of a boy with a machine gun firing crayons in a field of bright flowers. Spotted on another building: Charlie Brown with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. And on a Sunset Boulevard billboard featuring a scantily clad woman, Banksy (apparently) painted a drunken Mickey Mouse wrapping one hand around a martini and the other around the woman’s chest.

Instead of the usual pre-Oscar interviews featuring long, earnest answers, with Banksy, there are mostly just questions: Is his movie truthful or a prank? Will he show up at the ceremony in disguise? Or at all?

Oscar campaigns are all about visibility — a carefully calibrated amount, of course — and self-promotion. But Banksy is managing to mock the rituals and the self-seriousness of the Academy Awards even as he promotes himself. As best we can tell, he doesn’t crave true invisibility, nor is he issuing any Garbo-esque demands to be left alone. He’s playing a coy “Where’s Banksy?” game, and so far, it’s been fun to watch.

If Academy officials are worried that Banksy might do something bizarre on Oscar night, our advice is not only to get over that but to invite him back next year as a presenter.


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