HBO offers new take on Banksy in 'Banksy Does New York'

Wall art in Bethlehem by British graffiti artist Banksy shows a soldier questioning a donkey. The work, photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007, is part of "Santa's Ghetto," a Christmas-time project meant to draw attention to the impact of Israel's separation barrier on life for Palestinians in the West Bank. (Photo Courtesy of Dion Nissenbaum/TNS) Wall art in Bethlehem by British graffiti artist Banksy shows a soldier questioning a donkey. The work, photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007, is part of "Santa's Ghetto," a Christmas-time project meant to draw attention to the impact of Israel's separation barrier on life for Palestinians in the West Bank. (Photo Courtesy of Dion Nissenbaum/TNS)

What an amazing world this must be if an anonymous street artist can parlay glorified graffiti slapped all over the world into a reputation as one of the world's most prominent artists. The artist known as Banksy, most famous for popularizing the evolution of street art from a sign of urban decay to one of the last powerful creative mediums, has united absurd high-brow art connoisseurs and the voiceless masses, who have embraced him as a cult hero. Meanwhile, major metropolitan governments talk a big game about bringing a criminal vandal to justice.

Those with a vested interest in street art will be quick to point out that Banksy did not invent the medium and is not the sole proprietor of a robust global movement. Banksy is notable because of the incorporation of his own brand into the equation. The marriage of a sophisticated ground game, a puppet master's control of social media and a seemingly endless supply of artistic wit and subversive posturing have allowed the artist to be everything and nothing.

He can sell a piece for millions of dollars in a world-famous gallery and be as far outside the mainstream as one can be. He can destroy (or augment, rather) other people's property and retain moral integrity. He can even be a trolling prankster and still manage to be the world's most influential social critic.

A case can be made for all these arguments, and people much more informed to make those arguments do just that in HBO's "Banksy Does New York," a crowd-sourced documentary about his residency in New York City in October 2013. It is important to note this because the "other" Banksy documentary, the Academy Award-nominated "Exit Through the Gift Shop," was a piece by the artist himself, laced with so many deceptions that it is impossible to know what parts are real and which are elaborate constructions.

"Banksy Does New York" was made without the involvement of the artist, but his work is the star of the show — depending on whom you ask, that is. Made up entirely of expert interviews and footage from "Banksy hunters" who attempted to identify the artist as they followed an intricate scavenger hunt given through his website, the documentary forges a narrative from chaos.

The film's central thesis, supported heartily by what is presented, is that Banksy's body of work in New York is meant to implicate everyone who chooses to pay attention to what the artist says about the city and the world. Each installation, some obscenely intricate and others appearing to be blatantly simplistic, appears to be strategically presented in such a way that it provokes a singular reaction. To use a tired cliché, Banksy becomes a secondary player to the city of New York itself, whose reaction to transgressive art brings to light powerful messages about gentrification, inequality and, in one explosive example, "the banality of the banality of evil."

By taking New Yorkers on a journey through their city, Banksy achieved a spectacular, ambitious feat with his multimedia exploration. In bringing the world on this journey, documentarian Chris Moukarbel has translated the experience beautifully, leaving viewers stunned and pondering for days whether Banksy is just that brilliant in his calculations or if he has allowed a fascinating city to speak for itself through his cheeky persona. This may be the second-best documentary about Banksy, but that is not to say it is not a remarkable achievement.

On a related note, do you know what Banksy's name would be if he were a dog? His name would be Barksy.

"Banksy Does New York" is available for streaming through HBO GO.

Reach the reporter at zheltzel@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachheltzel.

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