Film

An Interview With Mr. Brainwash (The Guy From That Banksy Documentary)

We still can't tell if this guy is an elaborate con or a legitimate artist. Either way, he's heading to Australia.

Controversial  LA-based, French-born pop artist Thierry Guetta – aka Mr Brainwash – is an enigmatic force. Rising to fame through his appearance as the slightly-crazy-but-lovable amateur filmmaker turned unlikely successful artist in Banksy’s documentary, Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010), the 48-year-old has made a discernible splash in the street-art scene.

And now he’s making his way to Australia. First up, he’ll appear as a speaker at Sydney’s Semi-Permanent, which runs from May 22-24, before working alongside the City of Sydney and letting his spray can run rampant to create a show that will “run for at least three to four months in Australia”.

On Riding Banksy’s Coat-Tails:

It’s hard to imagine Mr Brainwash could have obtained his level of success had he not come into contact with Banksy. To a point, the reason we care so much about Mr Brainwash is because Banksy told us we should.

Banksy’s film Exit Through The Gift Shop had its roots in Guetta’s attempt to make a documentary using the thousands of hours of footage he had filmed of the street-art scene. Once Banksy decided Guetta wasn’t up to the job, he convinced Guetta to start another artistic project while he went through the footage to create a film himself – one that would ultimately frame Guetta as the focal point.

Flanked by endorsements from Banksy and fellow renowned street-artist Shepard Fairey – who also features extensively in Exit Through The Gift Shop – Guetta turned his hand to holding his own art exhibition. Thanks to the hype and press generated from the association of these revered artists, the show was a massive success, with hordes of people attempting to gain entry, and pieces reaching prices of thousands of dollars each. Banksy’s team captured it all on film and the footage appears in the documentary’s final cut. From there, the snowball effect continued.  The insane profits from Mr Brainwash artwork, the Oscar nomination for the film, and his ensuing work with A-listers such as Madonna and Michael Jackson all added to the hype and increased the capital of the Mr Brainwash name.

At times during Exit Through The Gift Shop, Banksy and Shepard Fairey appear sceptical — if not outright critical — of Guetta and his artistic ability.  He doesn’t seem to mind though. So unconcerned by his portrayal on screen, Guetta reveals there are even plans in place for a sequel.

“I thought it was a great film. Just wait until you see the part two that’s coming out. You’re going to see the following of the first one,” he says. “For sure [there’ll be a follow-up]. This one’s still running. Like I say: life is a game. A chess game and [it’s about] how well you play it. You can play with people’s minds – you can play with whatever. In the end, it’s just a game.”

Fraud, Or Legitimate Artist? 

Guetta has copped harsh criticism for his pursuits as Mr Brainwash, with many citing his lack of talent, originality and artistic merit as well his unconventional, fast-tracked route to commercial success as their main grievances with him.

Granted, in Exit Through The Gift Shop he is rarely seen undertaking  the intensive, hands-on work needed to create his pieces, often palming it off to people he has hired. Still, he reaps the rewards. His first big foray into the commercial art world – his ‘Life Is Beautiful’ exhibition in Los Angeles in 2008 – netted him an estimated six-figure sum. He must be doing something right.

Even Banksy admitted Guetta didn’t conform to the accepted street art rules or method of moving up the ranks, before pointing out, “but there aren’t supposed to be any rules”.

So why didn’t Guetta want to follow the traditional route laid down by famous street artists before him, and instead opted for a shortcut to success?

“I didn’t know that there were rules in art. Who makes the rules? What is the rules? What is the rules in life? Tell me, maybe I can use it, but I thought there were no rules in life. You can do whatever you want,” he says. “Art is a freedom of expression. You can express yourself, you can do whatever you want […] Art is art. Who can explain that? Who says this is more artistic than that?  Street art doesn’t mean you have to be on the street. Who says that? Who says that a portrait has to be inside and street art has to be outside?”

Are We Being Brainwashed By Mr Brainwash? 

Banksy has built a reputation for pushing the envelope and making bold statements with his art. So it’s no surprise many punters presumed that Banksy’s  documentary debut was  really just the artist finding another canvas on which to display his message. With Banksy being the type of character he is, it wasn’t long after the release of Exit Through The Gift Shop that questions were raised and conspiracy theories abounded. Was Mr Brainwash a front for Banksy himself? (Probably not, a consensus later declared.) Was Exit Through The Gift Shop some sort of elaborate hoax or grand artistic statement – possibly pointing out how quick society is to believe the hype? (If so, well done Banksy – brilliant hustle.) Or is Mr Brainwash actually – as Banksy describes him in the film – “just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera”? (Jury’s still out.)

Asked directly whether his Mr Brainwash persona is an artificial construction concocted by Banksy and his team, Guetta is evasive in his answer – probably deliberately so.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Who is Banksy? What is this movie? What is everything? Who knows? ” he replies. “That’s [why] this movie is good – because there are different ways and different thinking that people have, different judgements that they have without knowing if it’s true or not true […] So in the end, who knows? I do know. And I said to you, time will tell. Time will tell.”

At the time of Exit Through The Gift Shop’s release in 2010, Guetta refused to attend any premiere or give interviews to the press, which added fuel to speculation that Mr Brainwash was a Banksy invention.

While Guetta shies away from blatantly admitting he didn’t attend these events or speak to the media during the peak period of interest so as to not give the game away, he does reveal he was uncomfortable knowing as much as he did. He wanted viewers of the documentary to draw their own conclusions after watching the film.

“I felt what it is to have all the answers of some questions,” he says, of his decision to stay out of the limelight. “Sometimes [you need to] let people think, let people try and be smart about it. Sometimes you think you’re smart, but you’re wrong.”

Or Is He Inspirational?

Aside from his undisputed artistic talent and pithy political messages, much of Banksy’s  allure arises from his aura of mystery. Who is this lone, masked figure bringing art to the people and commenting on undesirable aspects of our society? The appeal of Mr Brainwash travels through a similar vein.  Among other contributing factors, it’s the uncertainty that still lingers around him which has helped sustain his popularity. Who is he? Is he real? Is he fake? Is he crazy? Is he secretly a bona fide genius? Mr Brainwash is cloaked in a question mark, and that’s what makes him intriguing.

Guetta seems to agree: “That’s the big question mark about [Exit Through The Gift Shop]. If I would go in an interview and start talking about everything – the why, the what and [the] explanation – would you feel like it would be a better film? It won’t be a better film,” he says.

But do these answers even matter? Or is it the underlying messages of his art that are more important in the grand scheme of things? Throughout the interview, Guetta continually spits nuggets of inspiration including “everybody is a diamond, you just have to sometimes rub it up and down to make it shine” and “art cannot be criticised because every mistake is a new creation”. Some of these phrases even appear on the artwork he sells, and they beg the question: do we actually need to know whether or not he is a manufactured artist if the art bearing his name has played a positive role in inspiring others to follow their dreams?

“Some people come up to me in the street and they smile. And they come to me and they say, ‘You know what? I dropped everything that I had [because of you]. I stopped my work, I’m following my heart and I’m doing it,’” he says.

“There’s so many people, and some of them see this movie and really see something about it that gives them the chance to say, ‘You know what? It’s possible. We can make it happen.’ And that’s what I’m fighting and fighting for – to tell everyone that life is possible. To make it happen. And life is beautiful.”

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Mr Brainwash is appearing at Semi-Permanent, which is being held from May 22-24 at Carriageworks in Sydney, in collaboration with Vivid Sydney.

Erin is a sub-editor for TV WEEK. She has written for Cosmopolitan, Girlfriend, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @erin_e_doyle.