The Rise (and Explosion) of Street Art

Shrouded under the cover of darkness are ordinary individuals with remarkable creativity. To some people, street art is vandalism; to others, it’s a genuine art and the creation of a masterpiece.

Street art exists in most urban cities, on walls, buildings, billboards and signs. Using the tools of spray paint, stencils, stickers and posters, street artists spend their days creating signature pieces and their nights leaving them around the city. Where graffiti is seen as territorial markers of gangs, street art has become a form of art coveted by the rich and famous and the upper-class art collectors.

But when and where did street art emerge, and how did it rise to become one of the most profitable forms of art in the current century?

This is the question that many people, including street artists themselves, have pondered, and a question that the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” seeks to answer.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a glimpse into the street art scene through the eyes of Thierry Guetta, a French videographer turned street artist. Guetta began filming street artists after being introduced to the world through his cousin (known as the street artist Invader). As he met more street artists, including Shepard Fairey (best known for creating the iconic Obama “HOPE” poster), he developed an idea for a street art documentary, despite never having made any sort of film before in his life.

“Life is a game of chess,” says Guetta as the camera pans around a cluttered room filled with boxes and boxes of unwatched footage. “I don’t know how to play chess.”

Guetta traveled with various street artists, from Los Angeles to New York to London. As he sought to capture the world of street art, he became entranced by Banksy, a British street artist who gained notoriety for his detailed stencils and enigmatic status. Banksy’s art contains a recurring anti-establishment theme that is evident through images of rats, policemen, soldiers and children. In 2005, Banksy made headlines when he tagged Israel’s West Bank concrete barrier. His exhibitions have drawn thousands of eager spectators, from art collectors to celebrities to average passers-by.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop,” however, is not Guetta’s documentary; it was directed and compiled by Banksy, who turned the camera around on Guetta. After Guetta’s failed attempt to create a film, Banksy decided to go through Guetta’s footage himself and instructed Guetta instead to go and “make some art” – an instruction that Guetta took very seriously, turning himself into a street artist by the name of Mr. Brainwash.

Guetta took his new identity and ran quickly with it, bypassing the years of hard work that most other street artists endure in order to establish themselves. In 2008, just six months after Banksy gave his commandment, Guetta opened his first show, “Life is Beautiful.” On its opening night, Guetta sold  over a million dollars worth of art.

Sitting in a darkened room with his voice distorted and face shrouded under a hoodie, Banksy says about the documentary, “It’s not ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but I’m sure there’s a moral in here somewhere.” The moral, Banksy discovers in the end, is that not everyone should be encouraged to make art.

“Mr. Brainwash didn’t play by the rules,” Banksy muses as the film draws to a conclusion, “but there aren’t supposed to be rules, right?”

But the real moral is one not explicitly stated in the film. As “Exit Through the Gift Shop” takes the audience through Mr. Brainwash’s quick rise to fame and fortune, Banksy is really showing how easily people let themselves be brainwashed: you can sell anything to anyone with the right amount of hype. In fact, Banksy has done just that: he made a documentary and sold it to the masses. Whether the film is an authentic documentary or a hoax, as some have speculated, Banksy makes his point. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” premiered to rave reviews at Sundance and is currently being screened in over forty major cities (and counting) across the United States.

“The film might come across  as a bit cynical, but it’s important not to forget these are revolutionary times in art,” said Banksy in an April interview with Wired magazine. “There’s a whole new audience out there, and it’s never been easier to sell it, particularly at the lower levels.”

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is currently playing at Edwards University Town Center.