Here's Why the Banksy Movie Is a Banksy Prank

mbw camera wall

In the summer of 2008, I saw an article in the LA Weekly about a massive street art show mounting in L.A. named Life is Beautiful. On the outset the show seemed ambitiously cool. The 125,000-square-foot show was being staged in CBS' abandoned Columbia Square Studios, a massive modern office complex where I Love Lucy was filmed. The artist, Mr. Brainwash or MBW, was an up-and-comer who had already plastered the city in his likeness, as a guy holding a video camera. And the timing for such a spectacle could not have been more perfect: Artists like Shepard Fairey had illegal works dotting same blocks as their gallery-installed shows, and we were all still talking about the dusty downtown warehouse vandalized by Brit street art phenomenon Bansky two years ago.

But something here seemed off. The clichés. The rip-offs. The triteness of a Campbell's Soup can crossed with a spray-paint can. All the Warhol references. The name "Mr. Brainwash." And most of all: Ringing endorsements for the show from the two most famous street artists in the world, Fairey and Banksy.

The whole thing, it's clear now, was an intricate prank being pulled on all of us by Banksy, who has never publicly revealed his identity, with Fairey as his accomplice.

The new "documentary" Exit Through the Gift Shop, "directed" by Banksy, and "co-directed" by Shepard Fairey, takes that prank one step further.

Ostensibly, Mr. Brainwash, whose real name is Thierry Guetta, was a French-born ex-pat living in L.A. who had been attempting to make a documentary about street art when he came in contact with Banksy. The outrageous plot of the film is that Banksy was so horrified by Guetta's would-be movie—there's even an over-edited, bad "first cut" of the movie shown—and so fascinated with Guetta, that he turned the cameras on him, only to be completely blindsided when Guetta ripped off his style. That's what the movie says. But what really happened is that when Banksy did encounter the filmmaker, he convinced Guetta to pose as a budding graffiti artist wannabe so he and Fairey could "direct" him in real life—manufacturing a brand new persona that both celebrates and criticizes the over-commercialization of street art.

Guetta

Guetta is the biggest give-away here. His klutzy, bumbling character (above) is blissfully over-the-top and clearly in on the ruse. His biography even has holes: Guetta is an orphan (when his mother died he was sent to a foster home, he says) with a family of at least four who lives in Los Angeles, yet he has no discernible income other than owning a vintage clothing store, which supposedly finances a decade's worth of trips to film street artists all over the world—as well as provides tens of thousands of dollars of capital for his own show. After Guetta decides he wants to become an artist, we follow him as he stumbles all over L.A., spilling paint, clumsily wheatpasting his own art, and—for good dramatic measure—he even puts his likeness right over an Obey image by Fairey. Touché. (Guetta himself has not made any press appearances connected with the film, but a recent Mr. Brainwash show Icons opened in New York in February, and new works feature pieces of—ready for it?—broken records.)

Which leads me to the other problem. Besides watching him operate a can of spray paint, we never see Guetta actually create any art. His signature image, the guy with a camera, he says was drawn by an illustrator—and it looks like Banksy trying not to look like Banksy. At one point one of the army of graphic designers he hired through Craigslist holds up The Art Book tagged with Post-its showing what famous artworks they were instructed to rip off. He admits he also used help from Banksy's and Fairey's own factory-like teams. The show itself was produced by Daniel Salin (who produced Banksy's Barely Legal show) and Roger Gastman, a co-founder of Fairey's magazine Swindle. (Some conspiracy theorists say that Guetta is Banksy, but that sounds ridiculous.)

Banksy

Then there's the film plot's central concept: Banksy and Fairey both say they were so grateful to Guetta for documenting their highly illegal, middle-of-the-night work as street artists that they bended over backwards to help with his art career. But neither artist has ever had a problem attracting would-be documentarians. Quite the contrary. New work by Banksy that was put up in L.A. this week attracted camera-happy fans within hours. And there's plenty of footage (even in the movie) of Banksy's own people documenting him working on walls in the West Bank, before he ever met Guetta.

Additionally, we're spoonfed bizarre, effusive comments in the film about how famous Mr. Brainwash is, how his career has totally eclipsed that of Banksy and Fairey. This was echoed by Banksy in a recent email interview with the LA Weekly, which can only be read with tongue-in-cheek: "I continue to find the rise of Mr. Brainwash absolutely fascinating. His art sells for roughly double what mine does these days." Banksy's Space Girl & Bird went for a little over $500,000. So Mr. Brainwash, an artist that most people have never heard of, makes work that goes for a million?

Banksy

As a straight documentary, this film is a snoozefest, an artist's love note to himself written in spray paint on a public wall. But Banksy isn't quite a straight-ahead kind of artist. He's a character based on surprise and coyness, someone whose work catches us where we least expect it, hours after he's fled the scene. And as another of his ruses, Exit Through the Gift Shop is as fun and well-conceived as the Banksy persona itself.

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88 Comments

  • Mr Brainwash is partying with" Miley Cyrus, Eva Longoria, Serena Williams ,Larsa Pippin in the VIP section, while Swizz Beatz mingled nearby with Russell Simmons, Sammy Sosa, and Shark Tank’s Daymond John." Are they in on the JOKE or is the joke on them?

  • Brooke Schell

    So weird he was busted today with counterfeit money. It HAS to be funny money with a sociopolitical satirical intent. I can't imagine Banksy printing a couple thousand dollars in actual counterfeit money.

  • Ruiz Manalo

    I must be missing something with the conceit that Banksy & Shepard were even mad at "Mr Brainwash" about his rise to fame over a fluke basically, when although those guys are unique and talented, themselves very obviously ripped off pop culture imagery and sometimes just posted stickers on walls (which passes for art these days?) -- And are considered geniuses when anyone could turn around and call them hacks as well. It is hopefully a commentary on how ANY nonsense can be considered art, depending on how it is hyped by the media or public persona of what is important. Can i spit on a sidewalk and call it art? I guess so.

  • This is actually a great perspective that I hadn't considered. I enjoyed the film until Guetta started becoming MBW then I started getting irritated that someone who isn't even making art is running around calling himself an artist and worse yet, someone with as much fame and following as Banksy was doing the same. The whole thing being another Banksy prank makes a lot more sense.

  • Glenna Gould Wheatley

    Banksy is a figment of his own imagination manifested in an obscure, but talentful art style. Mr. Brainwash may exist outside of Banksy, but can only be welcomed and embraced via the Banksy persona. Don't look too deeply into the MBW phenomenon. It will crystallize and shatter in its shallowness.

  • In my opinion Banksy is not a lonely artist but he's sustained by powerful people who allow him to access a lot of money(quite necessary to make some of his shows, like the lady diana money he showed in the documentary) and I alsohad the same ideas watching this movie! A big, quite evident, prank.

  • rurugby

    I think it's an unbelievably entertaining "documentary." Part of what makes it interesting is that you don't know what is really and what is fake about Thierry/Mr. Brainwash. But considering Warhol made the factory why not just have the artist make concepts and artists make the pictures. It's called industry made to art. **** movie.

  • Jrosef

    This article is from 2010. In 2011, Thierry (Mr. Brainwash) was successfully sued for ripping off someone else's art - in this case, a photographer. If this were all fake, why would he be getting sued?
    Here's the story: http://www.theguardian.com/fil...

  • BKLTD | LONDON

    I like #JohnShorney's comment below - far superior to the vacuous article by this Alice Walker character: it reads like a GCSE essay ... #zzz

  • fii6htclub

    Your article and underlying theories are just simply over thinking and over analyzing based on misinformation. In other words your conclusion is faulty and unsound because your underlying premises are unjustified and unverifiable.

  • not4youNSAfgts

    Art is a joke... that's the joke. It really wasn't difficult to pick up.

    Also, George Bush does not care about black people.

  • Bones

    nice work! ive always admired banksy's ability to mess with ones head even in his absence. but you make a good point, i thought that art show in 'exit though the giftshop' was odd to say the least. i mean hears two of the most well known street artist of our day publicly indorsing a nobody thereby making him somebody... seems to me shep & bankston are trying some of the Bush administration's political tactics.... even if he's not 'the guy' just get a couple of people the public respects to publicly say he is 'the guy', then all eyes on 'him', but really he only exists as a strategic tool. we only see him when/how they want us to see him. all in all though i have to say that flick is a great diversionary tactic, from one street artist to a couple of others good job boys! we're still on about it a year later... that's marketing @ it's best.   

  • felix saladbar

    I can finally see clearly now! It is all a big mock towards the commercial aspect of art, something which Banksy has always been clear to distance himself from. Very interesting and extremely accurate point of view. Does not come short of valid. The movie was a whole intentional cliché itself in the attempt of emphasizing and placing the spotlight on Banksy's opposite mentality.

  • Matt Cowart

    You missed the metaphor completely if you think it's just a love note to himself, Banksy was no less than criticizing people out there who attempt to commercialize everything that's meant for the public eye, and make fun of art lovers for trying to acquire everything under the sun and giving ridiculuous value to things not deserving, and finally to poke fun at copycats of his pioneering style and the system as a whole for elevating any average idiot into the spotlight for nothing other than his own self-promotion, weaseling his way up by leeching on to the otherwise hidden greats. At least it seemed obvious to me.

    Like someone who'd pay $500k for stencil art and shove it between their Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Street art for sale.

    The whole movie is a farce. MBW is not real either, he's just a character to represent the epitome of a "copycat" as you can obviously see in his post ups of a man who looks like a dope, a clumsy and bumbling buffoon holding a camera. The camera is the focal point of MBW's cartoon of himself, not MBW himself, which being twice as big as him and poking out it's obviously saying to all street artists "Hey I'm watching you with my camera, and I'm going to copy your style and sell it" 

    The dead giveaway is "exit through the gift shop" as a phrase. It has has a pretty strong message and it perfectly apt to be the title. The title alone implies "surprise ending" It's like anywhere you go no matter the cultural or historic significance, the ONLY way out usually is through a gift shop. They funnel you through a means for you to give them money for this historical/cultural significance through crap like shot glasses, tshirts, and the likes they wish to sell you. To me for someone to force you to exit through a gift shop, is to accept the fact that these last two hours you just spent looking at all the wonderful and amazing things in the museum you were just in, ended up just being a two hour long sales pitch that is only revealed at the very end as you try to leave, for you to buy a bunch of useless junk.

    Which begs the question, was this movie just a two hour long sales pitch for Banksy's art by himself? I think the message that he fooled us into watching a documentary that starts out glorifying the history of the art, then beautifully transitions into glorifying the artist, and rounds off to end up being a sales pitch (as the title implies) is the overall message, the icing on the cake elevating up that perfect "exit through the gift shop" ethos, to make fun of all of us for believing one thing, and then being force-fed another as we were exiting through whatever our expectations were as we entered. That against our will, we've been shoved through a commercialized filter and coerced to hand over money for a bunch of crap that would otherwise be worthless, and we would otherwise not buy. But hey, I have that shot glass I acquired way back when, that's now shoved back in my cupboard that I never use that says "I've been to the Lone Star State!"

    To me, the documentary was one of Banksy's best works of art. It's humorous and makes fun of all the right people. And he even laughs at us for giving him money, but he gladly spends it because who doesn't like money. I'd spend it too.

    But then again as a Banksy fan, I watched the movie expecting it to be a work of art itself, with a pun or clever message embedded just like in most all of his other works of art. Some sort of tongue in cheek parody. And from the very start, from the title alone I expected it to be a farce, so I didn't see a single minute of it at face value. You may have watched just a movie, but I felt like I watched a two hour long living Banksy painting chocked full of puns, and to me it was cool as hell.

  • lmonier.art

    I know it's a year after this post, but I just saw the movie. I thought it was cool as hell. I did not take any of it for face value cause it kind of clues you in not to right from the start. I think about Theirry Guetta's wife and kids and I think he'd be a cool husband or dad. Any judgement of him as crazy or not creative via copying could be said of Warhol, many pop artists and Banksy or Shepard. I'm an artist and my son's an artist and he proposes that all art is copying in some form because we all concoct our creative vision in response to what we have experienced in life. I loved the clips of Guetta's movie Banksy said was shit and it matched the title and the same with taking the name Mr. Brainwash was, again, a request to ask oneself, "when are we not being brainwashed?" So funny, for a rule-breaking artist to point the finger at another artist for breaking rules and not paying dues. Warhol totally fits and art that makes you think, is truly art.

  • Bones

     i dont think farce is quite the right word but i do enjoy hearing others in the art community (people who went to art school and call themselves fine artists) actually praising banksy overlooking shep, and commending mbw, believing it to be a genuine documentery. when it is in fact- i believe- a statement on how ficle the art world is. now that graffiti is getting some respect from the general public we can call it art not just crime in a colorful and stylish package. the point is graffiti artists are being hired to create 'urban' backdrops for films, stylish graphics for car commercials, shoes and more, yet we still get arrested and fined for practising our art and building our skills. They don't teach graffiti in college... so i didnt go, fuck it!  
                   Banksy's unknown identity is as much a part of his work as any other element, therefore conceivably it would be quite difficult to have a large scale show- like the one featured in the film- when youre responsible for $100s of $1000s in property damage and or vandalism. so banksy & fairey team up and create mbw as a public persona and a way to generate income. of course mbw jumped on board, he probably really is a wannabe so he wasn't acting, just saying and doing what he was asked to, an Oswald if you will. as for the price of the art it's all arbitrary, right now on the right side of my screen ther's a pop-up window w/ artwork done by chimps and it looks just like the bullshit modern art i've seen in to many galleries often priced at over $30,000.... and these people are nobodies, I mean we're all somebody, but a retired man 2 months out of art school asking $40,000 FOR A PRINT? now that's arbitrary. i've also seen amazing works done by middle school kids that far surpass that of some of these 'gallery' artists but the kid won't sell it because "It's not that good" or "... na, i was just messing around..." (which is what the retired dude shoulda said). So the only external force that can add value to a piece of art or an artist is demand.
    peace bro.     

  • Holly C

    you have some great ideas about the whole copycat thing, but to be honest banksy is just a copy of blek le rat. banksy has copied a tone of blek's work as well and just put his own name on it, thinking no one would know

  • Cloudface Von Ruckus

    Great comment...I kinda hope Banksy was also poking fun at Fairey since his work is predominantly derivative & over 9000 morons wear Obey