Street art goes from the back alley to the box office

Banksy paints a muddled portrait of Mr. Brainwash

By Jordan Larson

“I don’t know who the joke is on, or if there’s even a joke.” This line aptly summarizes Exit Through the Gift Shop, the “Banksy movie” currently making its tour across the country. The film has been marketed as the story of Theirry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, a former French shopkeeper who infiltrated the world of street art and befriended the infamous British graffiti artist Banksy. But Banksy, who’s also the film’s director, had something different in mind.

Guetta entered the world of street art via his cousin, the French street artist Space Invader. Guetta eventually befriends some of the largest figures in the scene, meanwhile taping thousands of hours of footage of the artists. After several years of aimless filming and becoming more and more entrenched in the street art scene, Guetta is finally introduced to Banksy by their mutual friend, street artist and designer Shepard Fairey (famous for his Obama “Hope” poster). Banksy and Guetta then become a nearly inseparable pair; Guetta gains Banksy’s trust and is even allowed to film the intensely mysterious artist.

It is here that the film’s mood dramatically shifts. After the immense popularity of Banksy’s 2006 Los Angeles exhibition, Barely Legal, Guetta decides to put his hours of footage to use. However, after gentle encouragement by Banksy, Guetta abandons his ridiculous film and instead begins making even more ridiculous art. After mortgaging his business to pay for a studio and staff, Guetta suddenly fancies himself to be a pop artist. He begins calling himself Mr. Brainwash and churns out candy colored, satirical prints, essentially becoming some exaggerated combination of Warhol and Banksy.

The insincerity and outlandishness of Guetta’s “art” is clear from the beginning; the speed with which he suddenly becomes an artist, the blatant unoriginality of his work, and the total selfishness with which he conducts himself all make it clear that Guetta—and the film itself—is not what we originally thought he was. The film culminates in Guetta’s 2008 Los Angeles exhibition Life is Beautiful, which is the result of some reluctant (and probably later regretted) help from Fairey and Banksy. Fueled by an influential LA Weekly article, naive fans and celebrities pour into the show on opening day, single-handedly making Mr. Brainwash a success. Though an egotistical and artistic fraud, Guetta’s art makes him into a millionaire nearly overnight.

The previously nonexistent tension between Guetta and the other street artists becomes palpable and almost uncomfortable. Banksy even says, “I used to encourage everyone I met to make art. I don’t do that so much anymore.” The disapproval of Banksy, Fairey, and other street artists completely changes the theme and tone of the film. Though it took the majority of the film’s running time to arrive here, this seems to be its main point. To this end, the film is sloppy and confusing in how it gives the audience its message. It’s unclear what Banksy’s intentions were in making the movie: Is it a cautionary tale, an apology, or a trick on the audience?

While firmly criticizing Guetta, the film never even considers turning the same critical eye to street art itself. What does the ease with which Guetta imitates and fakes his way to fame say about the nature of the art he’s copying? If street art has now been brought into the mainstream and commoditized, is it still really street art? Exit Through the Gift Shop brings up many more questions than it answers, leaving us to wonder what the point of this film really is.