The Art of (Mr.) Brainwash

Outside of the context, it’s odd for me to say I was hunting for rats. It was 2012 and I was traveling solo in Berlin but had befriended a lovely Kiwi girl. We had decided to go on the “Alternative Walking Tour” offered by our hostel. Our guide was an enthusiastic ex-pat from Maine, and his normal tour quickly turned into a treasure hunt of street art. The most famous artist on display was Banksy – one of his signature designs is a rat. I found myself drawn to the idea of this counter-culture art scene, and took in everything I could from our guide, but let it fade as I continued my travels.

I’d heard of the Banksy documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” The kiwi girl in Berlin mentioned it, and another friend had a copy of the DVD in her car. When I finally watched it, I was surprised, intrigued and by the end challenged. The very first scene goes like this: Banksy enters in a baggy sweatshirt with his face blacked out and his voice obscured. He responds to a question from an interviewer offscreen. This isn’t really a documentary about him, he explains, but is rather about a man named Thierry Guetta. And the story begins.

Thierry Guetta is a French-born, vintage clothing store owner in Los Angeles, the narrator explains in a level British accent. The most standout thing about Guetta is that he never goes anywhere without a camera. He is absolutely obsessed with filming everything. There are shots of him filming in his store, filming his family, even chasing down celebrities that obviously do not want to be on camera. On a trip home to Paris his cousin introduces him to “Invader,” a street artist who glues tiled mosaics of the Space Invader video game around the city. From there he meets other artists and begins filming their work and helping with the execution of the art.

When invader visited Los Angeles, he introduced Guetta to Shepard Fairey. And if you don’t know Shepard Fairey’s name, you certainly know his most famous work: the Obama “Hope” design. Connections were made, bonds were formed and Guetta filmed every minute along the way. At a certain point Fairey asked him, essentially, what on earth he was doing with all the footage. Guetta then decided, he explains to the camera, that he was going to make a street art documentary. Eventually this leads him to Banksy.

It was becoming more and more clear that I was watching a documentary within a

documentary. It isn’t Guetta’s footage – except in small excerpts – but footage of Thierry himself compiled and edited by a small team under Banksy’s direction. The idea of Guetta’s documentary quickly falls away when the final product (“Life Remote Control”) proved to be unwatchable. After a short example of the mishmash of Guetta’s tapes, “Exit…” cuts to Banksy, “Ummmm,” he pauses, “it was at this point I realized that maybe Thierry wasn’t actually a filmmaker, that he was maybe someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.”

But this is where it gets interesting, and essentially where the idea for the real documentary begins. Guetta’s perseverance and timing gave him access to some of the most prolific street artists (Seizer, Neckface, Cyclops, Ron English, Swoon, Borf, and Buffmasters, to name a few) and Banksy knew the value of that footage. Street art has a short life-span. It’s often removed or covered not long after it’s created. So Banksy took over the footage and encouraged Guetta to find another project, work on his own art. Maybe have a small show in LA.

You might also say, this is where things start to go terribly wrong. Guetta had been witness to Banksy’s warehouse art show, “Barely Legal,” that catapulted him into headlines and gave him a big name in the art world. Guetta had seen and been involved in the work of dozens of other street artists. He took this knowledge and those experiences and decided to become a famous street artist.

He recreated the tactics of Fairey by duplicating, printing, and pasting one image all over the city. He gave himself a name: Mr. Brainwash.

Guetta then hired a team of artists to design and produce his ideas on a commercial scale. He borrowed images, he borrowed styles, and then regurgitated them as his own work. There’s a scene where one of his studio assistants shows the camera an art book that Guetta had marked with 4 different colors of sticky notes. All of his ideas were based off of, or flat out used, existing work. It was printable, mass market pop art. He rented an even bigger warehouse space and held his enormous show “Life is Beautiful.” It all seemed more like a business venture than anything to do with art. But it made him famous.

So it raised the question for me, did I even think that Guetta’s work was art? Was “Mr. Brainwash” an original artist, or simply plagiarizing creatively? A difficult question to wrestle with. My instincts said, no, that it was imitation, that it was capitalizing on recreated concepts. Another scene stands out specifically where Thierry is creating the free original prints he’s promised to the first 200 people at his show. He wheels down a line of identical prints (he’s in a wheelchair due to a broken foot) and sprays paint on them at random. Thus they are “originals.” It bothered me.

I watched him schmooze for the camera, hype up the show, and avoid choosing work to display – showing none of the dedication I feel comes naturally with being an artist. He didn’t want to deal with the show, he wanted to deal with becoming famous. And due to skillful marketing tactics he was able to immediately begin selling his prints for tens of thousands of dollars.

There are rumors that the whole thing is a hoax. An elaborate prank by Banksy who’s known for his political and social antics. Banksy insists otherwise. As does Shepard Fairey. But honestly, that would almost make more sense. That it was all orchestrated as a “jokes on you” to the opulence of the modern art world. It could even be interpreted as Banksy poking fun at himself – the mysterious counter-culture artist whose work is now sought after by every major art collector.

As the documentary winds down, there are follow-up interviews after the “Life is Beautiful” show. Guetta says: “I feel good as an artist to have a reputation now. You know. An artist is not a guy that you see in one show and you can decide who it is or if he copies Banksy or if he copies Shepard Fairey...It’s about time. You’ll see in the time who I will be. Because with time you will see my creativity, you will see if I’m a real artist or not.”

Shepard Fairey says: “I do think that the whole phenomenon of Thierry’s obsession with street art, becoming a street artist, a lot of suckers buying into his show, and him selling a lot of expensive art very quickly. It’s anthropologically, sociologically, it’s a fascinating thing to observe, and maybe there’s some things to be learned from it.”