Backstory: A London scene set by guerilla art

All around the city, street artists are stopping people in their tracks ... and thoughts.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Chalk Farm, a somewhat grimy north London suburb, is the last place you'd expect to see a hotel maid. Yet as you exit the Tube station, and the litter laps around your ankles in the winter wind, the first thing you see is Leita, a maid in a black dress with a white apron and hat, cutting a lonely figure as she seems to be trying to clean up this bit of the capital.

Leita is a painting by Banksy, Britain's mysterious and notorious street artist. She first appeared on this Chalk Farm wall – overnight and without prior warning, as with all Banksy paintings – in May. Based on a maid whom Banksy met while staying in L.A., the full title of this piece of guerrilla art is "Sweeping it Under the Carpet."

Leita seems to be lifting up the wall itself, brushing rubbish underneath it. She's meant to symbolize, say Banksy's people, "the West's reluctance to tackle issues such as AIDS in Africa."

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That's news to Chalk Farm residents who have lived with Leita for the past six months. "AIDS? Really? I thought it was a quirky local government painting encouraging us to put our litter in bins!" says Margaret Jessop, laughing.

For Matt Kamen, a student with digs in nearby Camden Town: "The painting is nice, but it isn't particularly profound. It's graffiti, that's all."

Town councilors agree. One chastised Banksy for failing to ask permission to spray Leita all over the wall. However, the owner of the wall – the Camden Roundhouse performing arts center – believes this is art, not graffiti, and is happy to host it.

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If all the world's a stage, then all of London is an art gallery. It feels like the world capital of guerrilla art. Spray paintings with a message, hastily made paintings, and elaborate pieces of graffiti are popping up on the sides of buildings, bus-stops, and sidewalks across the city.

For some it is vandalism, glorified graffiti masquerading as art. For others it is more than that.

"A well-placed piece of street art can make you smile, laugh, or think about what it is to be human in our modern world," argues Alex MacNaughton, author of "London Street Art,".

Guerrilla art ranges from the simple to the sublime. Some street artists merely mess with official signs to change their meaning. One nameless spray painter (many artists do not reveal their identity, given the criminal nature of their work) has been spraying an "H" in the big white signs painted on busy roads that say "BUS STOP"; so that now, many say "BUSH STOP." (This may sound like standard protest graffiti, but photos of "BUSH STOP" have appeared in guerrilla art galleries, elevating them in some people's view to art.)

On the sublime side, Banksy makes stencils that he uses to spraypaint head-turning pictures of overgrown rats or gay policemen embracing on walls around the capital. Earlier this year, a striking stencilled painting believed to be his appeared on the side of a building in central London featuring an emaciated African child listening to an iPod next to the slogan "iNeed." It stops people in their tracks.

Banksy the most famous (or infamous) of London's guerrilla artists, rarely gives interviews. But news reports suggest he was born in Bristol in 1974, that his real name is Robert or Robin Banks, and that even his parents think he's a plain old painter and decorator. Recently he has daubed the slogan "We're bored of fish" on the penguin enclosure at the London Zoo, left an inflatable doll dressed in a Guantánamo-style jumpsuit at Disneyland in Paris, and painted a live elephant pink and gold for a show in Los Angeles (at which Hollywood stars reportedly spent hundreds of thousands for his works).

These guerrillas "democratize" art, smashing out of "stuffy galleries" and painting right on the streets where we walk, talk, and work, says a spokesman for "Pictures on Walls" – an art collective showing guerrilla artists, including Banksy. The spokesman, reluctant to give his name (again, with the secrecy), argues that this art is about "breaking down the boundary between gallery and street, and taking art to the people. It gives ownership of art to everyone."

In fact, guerrilla art seems to be going increasingly mainstream – crossing from street to gallery, and is making big bucks. So some ask: How democratic is this "democratic art"?

***

During the holidays, a shop window on Oxford Street, the long road of clothes stores, bookshops, and fast-food outlets that snakes through central London, featured Santa gone crazy. Wild tufts of wispy white hair stuck out of the sides of his hat as he glared at bemused passersby with bulging eyes. He wore workmen's boots (laces undone), rubber gloves, and a belt buckle featuring the unfortunate misspelling, "SATAN." He waved a sign that said "It's cancelled!" mocking passing crowds with stuffed shopping bags.

The mechanical-dummy Santa danced at the entrance to Santa's Ghetto, a "guerrilla art gallery" that temporarily set up shop in what was once a respectable shoe shop. Run by "Pictures on Walls," the anti-Santa, consumerist-bashing ghetto has been a fixture in the capital every winter for the past five years.

It's a gallery, but there were no attendants tell visitors to hush. It's loud and rowdy, with two burly bouncers in long black coats at the front door providing a nightclub vibe. It contained the work of 20 underground artists, ranging from well-executed paintings to surreal "art installations." (A box on the wall said "Break In Case of Emergency." There was a handgun inside.) Some of the art in this annual gallery is knowingly provocative: a painting by Banksy showed Michael Jackson as the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel, and has caused a stink here. Some of it made you think: "Christopher," by Emma Heron, featured a mannequin of a young African boy with one leg, looking longingly into a vending machine that sells prosthetic limbs.

This season, a gang sprayed an antiglobalization slogan – "Work. Consume. Die." – on the windows. Ghetto owners appealed for the gang to come forward – so it can be credited in the list of artists.

"I like it. The art is out of the ordinary and it has an underlying message," said Thomas Deery, a high school student. For Cara Hamilton, who visited during a lunch break from work, "This kind of art is more powerful than the old stuffy stuff."

But the ghetto was also full of contradictions. This was a people's art gallery, yet it mocked the people on this famous shopping street. It was anticonsumerist, but the art prices ranged from $3,000 to $20,000. And as well as showing here in a trendy den of underground art, Banksy was also on display in the posh Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. Just how rad are these guerrillas?

Munira Mirza, author of "Culture Vultures: Is UK Arts Policy Damaging the Arts?" thinks guerrilla art can be seen as a new kind of "public art" – though that doesn't necessarily make it democratic. "Guerrilla art is partly a reaction to the blanket of bland, consensual public art we have had recently. It can be witty and get through to people in a way that public art often fails to," she observes. "But at the same time, it is just as imposed on the public as public art. Audiences have no choice. They're not asked whether they want a giant rat painted in their park or a housemaid on their street."

Indeed, this art can be "antipublic," argues Ms. Mirza. "The worst aspect of guerrilla art is that it often displays contempt for people who are seen as stupid consumers. The message of Banksy's omnipresent rats, for example, seems to be: 'How can you go to work every day, like rats?' "

***

Back in Chalk Farm, Leita looks as lonely as ever. It's not clear whether she has redefined public space, raised awareness about AIDS in Africa, or done any of the other things claimed by guerrilla artists. But she certainly has spiced up what was a bland wall, getting people to turn their heads. And that's not a bad thing.

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