By Chad Ghiron
Photography by Chad Griffith
Although the notorious artist Mr. Brainwash has chosen not to keep his face in the shadows, his true street identity still remains somewhat a mystery while his artistic endeavors continue to pop up in all the right places.
Walking out the wide open warehouse doors of the two-story, 15,000-square-foot gallery space for “ICONS Remix,” Thierry Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash (“MBW”), hit the cobblestone street of West 13th in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District with a black plastic bag and a paint can half-full of brown varnish saying, “Let’s make art.” A group of four men followed in his wake carrying a ladder and other needed items as they made their way down the street to the corner in the bright, midday sun.
The 44-year-old L.A.-based French videographer-turned-street artist, and self-proclaimed “bearded manic,” dressed in dark aviators, a black fedora and paint-splattered clothes, began his day entering the gallery, turning on a French jazz album and gathering some art supplies. The mood, upon his arrival, did a 180 as he greeted people and signed posters. And as fast as he had arrived, Mr. Brainwash was back out the door again, this time with the group in tow.
A half block away, MBW came to an abrupt halt in front of a bright blue construction wall with a pink 20-foot tall Mr. Brainwash heart on the brick building behind it. “I put up a poster here before, but I think the owner took it for himself,” he said. Nearby, pieces cover walls around the neighborhood, staking the artist’s claim and marking his territory.
MBW unloaded the plastic bags, laying out posters, wheatpaste glue and paint along the sidewalk in front of him as Roman, his right-hand man, passed him a picture of an adaptation of the 1980’s Maxell ad, “Blown Away Guy,” where the speaker had been replaced with a spray paint can disguised as Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can. He took the image and taped it to the wall for reference as a watching cop car passed aimlessly by. “New York is easy,” MBW laughed in his energetic broken English. “They don’t care, and even if they do, they just ask me [for] my license and leave after. But if I get caught, I get caught; I’m just not scared. You have to take the risk.”
With everything laid out, MBW turned to one of the men and began speaking French while holding up a red can of spray paint. “I don’t know how this will work. I have only two cans of paint,” he said, shrugging it off as he grabbed the broom and started to prime the wall in preparation for his newest poster, the Campbell’s Tomato Spray Can. The poster went up easily enough, but soon, he’s tearing it into stripes and then laying it back down. “C215 taught me this,” he said of the famed street artist. “No one can take the whole piece this way.” He suddenly looked up at the building on the northwest corner and, pointing to the open window with a camera aimed directly at him, said, “You’re always being watched. I have been known as the guy with the camera for so long – I thought it would be fun to continue.”
Guetta, the subject and man behind the camera for the Banksy documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, had, for the last 12 years, been obsessively following and filming every important figure in the street art scene. He initially cut a hyper A.D.D. original version of the film called before turning the project over to Banksy for his direction. “I am happy with how the movie turned out,” he said.
The documentary shows the transformation of Guetta into Mr. Brainwash and his introduction into the street art scene as a complete coincidence. His cousin, who happens to be street artist Space Invader (known for making mosaics of old video games characters), allowed him to film him when he hit the streets. Guetta soon began filming, traveling and spending time with both Shepard Fairey and the enigmatic artist, Banksy, giving him a front row seat to the best kept secrets in an already exclusive scene. When the time came for Guetta to turn his footage into a film, it became clear he knew nothing about making a movie – which is when Banksy stepped in, took over the editing process and set the future Mr. Brainwash in motion.
“When Banksy came to me and said, ‘Thierry, make a show.’ It was like you couldn’t stop me. Even if you were 20 people holding me back, I would go on. I would make it happen,” he said. “[Banksy] pushed me on something to do, told me what I should do and [said] ‘This is the show you are going to do in June.’ But they never thought I would have done something as crazy and as large and as big as I did. Even me, I put everything I had [on sale] – even my car – to make it happen.”
Both renowned artists, Banksy and Fairey, played an intricate role in MBW’s quick rise to fame by attributing ambiguous yet intriguing quotes for his debut art show, “Life is Beautiful,” which opened to 7,000 people on June 18, 2008 and took with it street art’s first cover in . But his itch for creating art hadn’t come overnight, as many have assumed. “I was filming all these artists, but in the end, I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I wanted to go out [on my own] and people [were] saying they had this to do or this. So, I created portrait[s] and started to go out myself,” he said. “It turned into my drug.”
Since the success of his first show, MBW has created the cover art for Madonna’s third greatest hits album, , along with 12 other paintings, which included covers for the remix, record and DVD. “I got a phone call one day to try to do a Madonna cover,” he explained. “I dropped everything and for two months created different ideas for the cover, never getting a response. Each time, I [thought], I’m doing it wrong and sent another [with] a different angle. In the end, I wanted it so badly I made it happen.”
With his sudden notoriety, critics followed closely behind, ready to jump at the opportunity to name him a cheap rip-off of Banksy and Warhol. “I think everyone can see something similar in art if they want to,” he said of the criticism. “It’s freedom [to like] something or dislike it. Until I become good [to] them, that’s what will make me work more. You know, trying to [change] a hater to a lover. I want to spread positivity. You cannot judge an artist from his first show, or his second show.”
MBW soon takes it back to “ICONS Remix” gallery, packing up his third show – the follow-up to his NYC debut, “ICONS.” And as he readies himself to head back to his home country of France to do the window display at the famous Le Printemps mall in Paris, he is very clear on the direction of his work. “More I’m going, less I’m doing,” he explained. For what he has planned for the window, the comment seems like a contradiction. “I want to make something very unusual, something that moves. It’s an opportunity that you don’t have many times. They have the permits for me to do a sculpture 20 feet high in the front, in the street. I was thinking of doing a giant King Kong with the tires, holding a spray can. I don’t know we’ll see.” But it is true, you can already see from the progression of his first show to the pared down, edited version of the third with some addition of pink paint thrown on some of the recycled tire sculptures and larger print pieces – he appears to be focusing in on his artistic medium. “Beyonce and Alicia Keys are doing a [record] together and asked for me to do the cover, but we’ll see. In the end, things happen when you really want [to make them] happen,” he said.
Banksy and the movie was the topic on everyone’s tongue as the crowd grew around him taking pictures in the gallery. With a huge smile and red paint spotted across his face, MBW looked over his shoulder at Roman and addresses the rumors that he and Banksy are actually one and the same with a story about his eight-year-old son. “It was really cute, I was at my house and my little boy walked up to me and asked in his little voice, ‘Daddy, are you Banksy?’” he said, repeating it a few times for effect. “My son is even confused if I am Banksy.”
If Mr. Brainwash does happen to be what the bloggers say is “a hoax,” then who’s the joke on? Perhaps the joke is on Banksy himself, because his social experiment has taken on a life of its own and created a successful brand. Maybe the answer is, as MBW said, much more simple than you imagine – and it’s in front of you if you just look. “Like the movie is, it’s all a mystery. Tomorrow might tell, but now, we live in today,” he stated. “Even if I tell them the truth, they’ll believe the other way. When someone has something in their mind, it’s very hard to change it. People believe what they want.”
With the piece outside finished, MBW walked around the corner with a can of black spray paint and wrote in cursive, “Life is Wonderful.”