Now that we are officially between hurricanes and marking our third post-Katrina September, this seems as good a time as any to talk about Banksy. Yes, I know, most people have never heard of him " he's secretive by nature and primarily known to the art world cognoscenti " but he is actually quite famous, one of the most Googled of artists. Over the years since he emerged from the Bristol, England, underground art scene, he has become something of a cult figure, and in an age dominated by artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst who think like big-budget ad executives adept at manipulating mass media, Banksy inspires respect for his utter secrecy and avoidance of mainstream venues.
Something of a social critic, he uses his unusually polished graffiti art to critique the things he thinks are wrong with relatively affluent societies that cavalierly disregard the rights and well-being of the less fortunate. For related reasons, he clearly felt a visit to New Orleans in the run-up to the third anniversary of Katrina made sense.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, however, and he had no way of knowing that he was entering a pre-existing fray between local street artists such as Michael Dingler, aka NOLA Rising, and the self-appointed vigilante activist against unauthorized public art, Fred Radtke, aka the "Gray Ghost." In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Dingler, a 34-year-old ex-Marine and New Orleans native, wanted to do something about all the street signs that had blown away in his Lower Garden District neighborhood, so he painted his own. He soon expanded into the Lower Ninth Ward and other hard-hit areas. He branched out to include inspirational messages like "Keep the Music Playing" and "Love, Live, Laugh," and he painted in vibrant colors that infused a bit of buoyancy into storm-blasted desolation.
Radtke, 52, also an ex-Marine, has become controversial by taking it upon himself to cover graffiti with dull gray paint, a tactic his critics say makes him a de facto graffiti artist himself, albeit one with no color or design sense. But he does have support in the New Orleans Police Department, as Dingler found out when Radtke tracked him down at a local art market with a NOPD officer in tow who proceeded to write him up for 1,100 counts of unlawfully posting signs on telephone poles " more than $50,000 worth of charges.
This was the battlefield into which Banksy descended with his paints last month and began doing his thing with images that ranged from the whimsically poetic to cutting edge. For instance, a painting on the faade of an abandoned building features Abe Lincoln in a scruffy top hat pushing a shopping cart like a homeless person. Another, in a pointed flashback to Katrina, depicts two National Guardsmen spiriting a TV out the back window of an appliance store. Another more surreal or whimsical work features a kid flying a kite that on close inspection turns out to be a refrigerator. Some even seem to critique the Gray Ghost, a gesture that may have the unintended consequence of publicizing someone that many in the art community would prefer to forget. After all, it is because of Radtke that we prefer not to reveal the location of Banksy's local efforts. You'll have to find them on your own.
Still, it is interesting that there are such intensely competing visions among local and international activists, and comparing their merits and demerits beats the hell out of having to tally up our losses in the immediate wake of a hurricane.