Book review – Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall

Back in May, a new book came out about Banksy that I anticipated would be a bit cheesy but perhaps good for someone who had only heard about Banksy through the occasional newspaper article. But I read the book anyway because A. I was a bit curious how to fill a 300-page book just about Banksy, and B. I had spoken a bit with the author while he was writing the book and wanted to see if Vandalog got any mentions in the final product. But I was surprised that the book was actually a lot more interesting than I had anticipated. Not to say that I am an expert on the topic, but it’s not common that I learn something new about Banksy, and I learned a lot reading this book. So what book and I writing about? It’s Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones.

Ellsworth-Jones is not a street art fanatic, but he’s clearly a good researcher and journalist, because he’s pieced together the most in-depth biography of Banksy to-date. If anything, his initial lack of knowledge about street art and graffiti helped him. He doesn’t have allegiances to anything but getting the story straight. Nonetheless, he does not outright reveal Banksy’s identity, so he certainly tells Banksy’s story as respectfully as one can do when attempting to write a biography of an anonymous person. People with little knowledge of street art have been responsible for some pretty bad books on the subject for the last few years, but Ellsworth-Jones took his topic seriously rather than just attempting to churn out something as quick as he could based on reading a few blog posts and newspaper articles.

Because Ellsworth-Jones has written this book for an audience with little or no knowledge of Banksy, there are of course a lot of bits that anyone reading Vandalog would do just fine to skip over and you’ll find some sections a bit cheesy, but he does a good job of introducing readers to the world Banksy and street art by explaining some of the ways in which he was introduced to it.

But what new information does Ellsworth-Jones have to offer those of us who already know the basic Banksy story and are already active participants in the fan culture surrounding street art? Ellsworth-Jones had compiled little-known stories of Banksy’s life and career from his childhood in Bristol all the way through Art in the Streets, as well as stories about some of the people who would have influenced him early on. And of course there are tantalizing facts and figures like information about the finances of Pictures on Walls and Lazarides that, although public information, are things that few of us besides Ellsworth-Jones might think to look into. Ellsworth-Jones also gives his thoughts on the street art fan community that has sprung up over the last decade, a community that few truly objective outsiders have taken as much time to understand. And of course there’s some of the most detailed investigations I’ve seen in a while into the market that has sprung up around Banksy. In between a lot of basic info about street art, there were some real gems of knowledge.

I highly recommend picking up this book if you’re curious about Banksy beyond what he’s ever going to say in an interview. Although it’s written for people who don’t know much about him, anyone who reads this book is probably going to know more about Banksy than someone obsessed with him who skips the book because it wasn’t mean for the obsessed fan. Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall is not the definitive biography of Banksy, but it’s the best thing we have to date or can hope to have for a while.

Photo by bhikku