Banksy’s Art Plays Role In HBO Documentary On Gentrification

November 17, 2014 | Bucky Turco

Tonight, HBO airs Banksy Does New York, a documentary directed by Chris Moukarbel that details the British prankster’s epic 31-day residency on the streets of the city. But don’t let the name fool you — the theme of this user-generated film (which ANIMAL contributed footage to) is not street art, it’s gentrification.

Throughout the documentary, Moukarbel touches on matters of economics, class, and development by magnifying the points Banksy’s site-specific works subtly address — like the city’s brazen attempt to invoke eminent domain over Willets Point or the controversial development of 5 Pointz. Among these issues are the tensions between genuine Banksy fans — like the zany couple who spent every day hunting for his work — and the New Yorkers who attempt to capitalize off the month-long spectacle, from broke locals in East New York to rich gallerists in Southampton.

This interplay includes New York City building owners, who were lucky enough to have their properties “vandalized” by the street artist. But many of them, the documentary reveals, were hard-working, blue-collar residents who broke the stereotype of the typical rich and out-of-touch NYC developer. In fact, many of the landlords were overwhelmed by the attention and looming threat of vandalism that each piece brought with it. On top of that, they were faced with the very real opportunity of turning the newly found aerosol into a windfall, a decision some of them struggled with. Moukarbel artfully brings out the nuances of each situation, which change from location to location.

It becomes easier, then, to separate the hustlers trying to charge Banksy fans $20 to take a photo of the beaver installation in East New York from the workers who took ownership of Banksy’s sphinx-like sculpture in Willets Point. Also known as the Iron Triangle, the industrial neighborhood is home to auto repair shops and scrapyards that the city is dying to tear down, redevelop, and transform parts of it into a mega-mall.Just when you want to scream at the workers for removing the stack of bricks and putting them into an idling box truck to put up for sale, you learn that these guys are being priced out of both where they work and live; they occupy a basement apartment and could really use the money. They had no idea who Banksy was, they just knew that the piece was worth money, so it’s hard to stay mad at them for long.

As much as the film humanizes some of the seemingly opportunistic players to illustrate their struggles in an rapidly changing city, it effortlessly villainizes Stephan Keszler, the notorious art dealer from Long Island who actively sought out the pieces Banksy did in the street and readied them for sale in his gallery. Keszler created and sustained a market for these unsanctioned works by facilitating their removal and making them sellable. He boasted of the time an iconic Banksy mural was chiseled out of the the Palestinian side of the separation wall and he put it up for sale. Several times, Keszler attempted to rationalize why it was okay for him to traffic in unauthenticated Banksy work, but seemed to come up short — or worse, stick his foot deeper into his mouth. As noted in the film, none of the pieces from the “Better Out Than In” residency have sold as of yet.

But what does Banksy think about the documentary? On the Q&A section of his website, he updated it to acknowledge the film. Originally he only had one answer to the question: “Is there a film about your New York residency?” It was: “I made a short one you can watch here.”

Then he added this:

But now (incredibly) HBO have made a feature length movie about it. I’ve had no involvement with it whatsoever – so who knows, maybe it’ll be ok.

Banksy Does New York premiers tonight at 9pm on HBO.

(Photo: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)