For cult artist Banksy, graffiti "better than sex"

LONDON Thu May 1, 2008 9:22am EDT

A piece of stencil graffiti by British artist Banksy is pictured at Exmouth Market in London, May 18, 2007. For cult artist Banksy, the buzz of creating graffiti murals is ''better than sex, better than drugs.'' But as pop singers and Hollywood stars clamour to buy his paintings at skyrocketing prices, the reclusive Banksy resolutely refuses to play the celebrity game and give up his anonymity. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

A piece of stencil graffiti by British artist Banksy is pictured at Exmouth Market in London, May 18, 2007. For cult artist Banksy, the buzz of creating graffiti murals is ''better than sex, better than drugs.'' But as pop singers and Hollywood stars clamour to buy his paintings at skyrocketing prices, the reclusive Banksy resolutely refuses to play the celebrity game and give up his anonymity.

Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

LONDON (Reuters) - For cult British artist Banksy, the buzz of creating graffiti murals is "better than sex, better than drugs."

But as pop singers and Hollywood stars clamor to buy his paintings at skyrocketing prices, the reclusive Banksy resolutely refuses to play the celebrity game and give up his anonymity.

"I have no interest in ever coming out. I figure there are enough self-opinionated assholes trying to get their ugly little faces in front of you as it is," he once said in an interview.

Quotes from Banksy are as rare as cut-price stencils of his street art -- and Steve Wright, arts editor of Venue Magazine, found the best way to get the artist's friends to open up for a new book on Banksy was to promise not to reveal his identity.

So "Banksy's Bristol: Home Sweet Home" offers a curious amalgam of tributes and critiques -- but the only real clues to Banksy's actual thinking come from quotes plucked from the very occasional interviews he has given on his rise to notoriety.

Anonymity rules. Wright is intrigued by the contradiction: "His mix of extremely prominent, attention-grabbing stunts and near-complete personal mystery is unique, an impressive kind of reverse exhibitionism."

His instantly memorable images -- from kissing policemen to teddy bears wielding Molotov cocktails -- now fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. Collectors range from Christina Aguilera to Angelina Jolie.

But he started out as teenage graffiti artist in his hometown of Bristol in western England, using a spray can on walls, curbs and railway bridges.

Eager to stay one step ahead of the police with his instant art, he grew speedier and more adept when switching to stencils to shape his trademark images.

"Van Gogh used short, stumpy brush strokes to convey his insanity -- I use short, thin ledges above mainline train tracks," he once said.

The anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-state artist revels in the spectacular stunt to get his point across.

He put a blow-up figure dressed in orange Guantanamo Bay prison overalls on a Disneyland rollercoaster ride.

He smuggled his own works into the Louvre in Paris, London's Tate and four of New York's top museums.

"My sister inspired me to do it," Banksy admitted in one of his infrequent interviews. "She was throwing away loads of my pictures one day and I asked her why. She said 'it's not like they're going to be hanging in the Louvre.'"

Taking up the challenge, Banksy said "I thought why wait until I am dead?"

Some critics scorn Banksy as a passing fad for lightweight art fashionistas. "This man is nothing but a clown .. he has absolutely nothing to do with art," British critic Brian Sewell has haughtily proclaimed.

But Wright's book, lavishly illustrated with more than 100 of Banksy's works, is an eloquent testimony to the visceral effect his humor-laden images can have on the viewer.

And Banksy keeps arguing the need for anonymity: "If you want to say something and have people listen, you have to wear a mask."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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