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The Month Ahead: Books

British street artist Banksy is so secretive, even his biographer hasn’t met him

WRITING A BOOK ABOUT BANSKY is a bit like writing a book about the Easter Bunny—if only because, in both instances, you’re almost certainly not going to be able to speak to your subject. In fact, so impenetrable is the shroud of anonymity that surrounds history’s most celebrated street artist, there are people who believe he doesn’t exist.

British journalist Will Ellsworth-Jones, who spent more than two years writing Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, didn’t get so much as a glimpse of the artist, but he remains sure of at least one thing: “Banksy is absolutely not fake.” All efforts to communicate with the man, however, were rebuffed by a phalanx of handlers. It was, Ellsworth-Jones says, “an unusual book to write.”

A former chief reporter for The Sunday Times, Ellsworth-Jones has more experience covering war than art, and the initial idea was to use his boots-on-the-ground reportorial skills to reveal the artist’s identity—an ambition he quickly abandoned. “I started to think that 90,000 words on who Banksy is would get boring,” he says. “Also, I don’t think people want to know. They enjoy the mystery.”

All of which raises a question: What does the book reveal about its subject? “I learned quite a lot about his progress through life, how he came from nowhere and ended up sitting on top of this important art movement,” Ellsworth-Jones says. “Banksy made quite a few enemies, but a lot of street artists admit that without him, they wouldn’t be out there selling their pieces.”

The more compelling passages in The Man Behind the Wall concern Banksy’s history of engaging in battle with his contemporaries. “I got to meet King Robbo,” Ellsworth-Jones says, referring to the tough street artist with whom Banksy fought most bitterly, and who suffered a near-fatal accident in 2011. Ellsworth-Jones recalls a benefit auction in which Robbo’s peers sought to raise money for his treatment. So did Banksy set aside the acrimony and do his bit to help?

“No,” the author says. “There were no Banksys there.” FEB. 12

Will Ellsworth-Jones On …

Trying to contact Banksy: “He’s very controlling. He wanted to control this book and I wouldn’t let him. [His representatives] were most unhelpful all the way along.”
Banksy’s anonymity: “I think initially it was to avoid arrest. Now it’s become a useful marketing tool.”
Vandalism: “It’s difficult for Banksy nowadays. There are people who want to steal his work and there are rivals who want to deface it.”
The establishment: “At the moment they seem to be ignoring [Banksy]. In time, he will be seen as an important figure in contemporary art.”

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Even a fleeting synopsis of the new thriller Black Irish— Det. Absalom Kearney hunts a serial killer amid historical IRA intrigue in Buffalo, N.Y.— raises a question or two. So we decided to call up the author, noted journalist (and Hemispheres contributor) Stephan Talty in his fiction debut, for some enlightenment. FEB. 26

The heroine: “I wanted her name to mark her as an outsider in this very insular Irish-American neighborhood of South Buffalo, even though it’s where she grew up. No good Irish Catholic would ever think of calling a kid Absalom. In Buffalo, that name would be a whole hour of conversation.”

The intrigue: “I was growing up in South Buffalo around the time that IRA guys were being smuggled into the city, right over the Peace Bridge from Canada. People think South Boston when they think Irish, but there was a lot of what you’d call republican sentiment in my neighborhood.”

The setting: “Buffalo was one of the first Rust Belt towns that peaked and then fell. That darkness, that decline, really works for a detective story. When it comes to decaying cities, Detroit gets all the attention; when it comes to Irish enclaves, it’s always Boston. I demand attention for Buffalo!”

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