How did you get into graffiti art?
It goes back to the early eighties when I was twelve years old and saw this new rebellious art at a time when it was really capturing people’s imaginations. With Birmingham and London, Bristol was one of the epicentres, but I was an absolutely shit graffiti artist, so I picked up a camera and started recording the works.
While I was at college studying photography it was an amazingly creative time in Bristol – Mushroom from Massive Attack was on my course; 3D was putting stuff up all around town; Inkie, went onto become one of the most famous British graffiti artists.
In the late 1980s, the police and authorities were hardcore about cracking down on graffiti and arrested about 30 with dawn raids on these seventeen year olds, but they couldn’t manage to prosecute. Due to this draconian policy, Banksy adopted anonymity just to get away with the vandalism he had been doing for years.
How did your relationship with Banksy begin?
I went onto become a photographer and that’s really how Banksy and I actually met. In the mid nineties I was working for a magazine called Sleazenation and we were doing a supplement on Bristol and the fact I knew people such as Inkie meant we were introduced and it spiraled from there.
Suddenly I would get text messages saying “I’ve just done this piece, can you come and take some pictures?” We became friends and Banksy had an agent who had skipped off and, as I was doing Banksy’s photography and selling some works, in the end I landed up representing him. I think the turning point was when I was picking him up somewhere and he asked us to stop off to collect some screen prints. I think it was Rude Copper and he had a stack of about 200. I asked, “What are you doing with them?” He said, “I’m going to sell them for a fiver at the book fair” and I replied “If you’re going to sell them for a fiver, I’m going to buy them and sell them for fifteen quid”!
With Banksy it was really the opposite of how most traditional artists start, where there is a trickle down from doing paintings to making prints for people who can’t afford the paintings. He started making prints and then everything got more expensive, so he started selling paintings. That started in Bristol and then I introduced him to a few people in London, who gave him a studio and we set up Pictures on Walls and everything really started to catch fire.
What was the first show you did together?
By the time we did our first show, Banksy had put so much stuff on the street that he had caught people’s attention and by 2001 had been covered in The Guardian, The Independent, The Face, Creative Review… so the pressure behind him was really starting to build up.
Then we did a show on Kingsland Road in a disused squat. It was only on for two days and we had no idea what would happen. It was pretty rough down there then, and we didn’t know what we would find when we opened the doors, and there were loads of people outside.
It was a show like nothing anyone had ever seen: two cow paintings, sheep and pigs. An animal rights protestor came and chained herself to the scaffolding around where the cows were. Unknown to her all we needed to do to release her was to lift the scaffolding bar and slip her cuffs off. We decided she was quite a good for the show, so we kept taking her sandwiches and bottles of water and left her there. She was quite happy and at the end of the day she unlocked herself and away she went – and generated a huge amount of publicity as she had called all the papers about her protest.
The cows were something that Banksy had been doing for two or three years. He’d called me and said “We’re going to Farnborough – I need to paint some cows and you can take pictures”. At about the third attempt, we turned up at a farm and Banksy asked the farmer if we could paint the cows. He agreed and we ended up running around the field with a stencil trying to put it on the cow. The farmer asked him what he thought he was doing, and Banksy says “I’ve come to paint the cows”. I said, “You idiot, he thought you were going to turn up with an easel and watercolours”. We had to find farmers who were sympathetic to the cause.
What was the next show you did together?
The next one was called Crude Oils, where Banksy customized existing oil paintings. We found someone, who later became a great client of ours, who let us use an empty shop in Westbourne Grove. Crude Oils also had 200 live rats running around the exhibition, which I still swear Banksy did this just to piss me off because I have a proper rodent phobia. The show truly stank and for years when I visited clients who had bought works I could still smell the rats in the paintings.
It took me six months to find a place willing to have over 200 live rats running around, and we had to put steel down and then plaster over the top to make it look like a normal gallery. The rats also had to get acclimatised so for a first few days – we had newspaper in the window, but to anyone passing it looked like there was a massive rat infestation. The show was open for eleven days and we had visits from about eight different authorities. The council health and safety officer asked how long we were open. I said nine days, and he served us notice to close in ten days, so he could tell everyone he had done his job.
Another twist was how people got into the show – we had a Perspex box enclosing the door and when you came in you had to sign an affidavit, which said if you got bitten and died it was your own stupid fault. People queued to go in, and we’d make them take their shoes off and then they’d walk around the exhibition with the rats. I had a stopwatch and timed them for three minutes, and then I threw them out – next!
How did the exhibition sell?
We sold the most expensive painting at the time to a lovely guy whom I met again recently. At the time he was a doctor and was just about to retire. He had some money and didn’t know what to do with it, and, on a whim, he walked past, saw this piece and decided to buy it. He had given us this cheque, but had no proper receipt or anything. Just as we were closing he came back and asked for a scribbled receipt, which I wrote saying: “Yeah you gave us forty grand – this is your receipt”. He still has it.
Which exhibition established Banksy’s international reputation?
The show that catapulted Banksy onto the global stage was one we held in Los Angeles called Barely Legal. We’d been looking for a venue for ages, and I eventually found this great spot. I phoned Banksy up and said, “We’ve got a great space I’m just worried no one will come… it’s in the middle of nowhere”. We flew out there two weeks before the show, but the artwork got stuck in customs and was still sitting there two days before the show opened. There must still be a room in the hotel with a groove in the carpet where I paced up and down it for twelve days, thinking, at what point do I tell him that we don’t have a show?
What did this show contain?
Barely Legal had painted elephants in it and I had gone to find some elephants at a weird elephant farm where they breed all the elephants for Hollywood. These were lovely docile Indian elephants, but Banksy ended up finding a male African bull elephant who was addicted to Red Bull. An animal control officer from LA said “I don’t mind you doing this but you can’t use that elephant, it’s already known to me and you can’t have it in that environment.”
The show itself was completely unbelievable. One of the high points for me was when I was standing outside and suddenly blue lights were flashing, and suddenly Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stepped out. We had no idea they were even coming. It was a very democratic show because we didn’t know anyone, so we had studio bosses and people like that queuing with everybody else. The only people I let in before anyone else were Sacha Baron Cohen and Dennis Hopper. It was just an amazing show just for the sheer number of people who turned up.
So things changed after that Los Angeles show?
The market really did go nuts. It was like being caught by a hurricane. I never set out to be a gallerist and Banksy never thought he would be considered an artist. It was the start of the phenomenon that it is now.
Most enjoyable was when everyone was telling us what we were doing was impossible, and we were like “I think we just did it and oh we did it again!” It was a pleasure upsetting the art world doing everything you’re not supposed to do and still getting the same clients that a lot of the big galleries were getting. I think at the time people thought it would be a fad, but that show was in 2006 and it’s probably stronger now then it has ever been.
What has happened to you since you and Banksy went your separate ways in 2008?
The gallery has gone from strength to strength. We started representing people like Jonathan Yeo, JR and Conor Harrington when they were pretty young and they have all gone on to have museum exhibitions and been added to major collections. The other thing I am proud of is the prints. It’s something we were conscious of at the beginning, when the difference in price between twenty-five quid for a print and two hundred for a painting was a massive difference for us. I truly love making art more democratic, as everybody could get a slice of these artists no matter what price point they’re at.
Are there any works in the Sotheby’s S2 show that have particular significance for you?
One of my favorites is still Avon and Somerset Constabulary, for me that sums up everything that Banksy is about. This is one of his early pieces and sums up the secrecy for which he is known now, which was driven to a degree by the constabulary in Bristol. I also like the Kate Moss screen print, just because it sums up the print market, which went wild and we could not get our heads around how much people were willing to pay.
The final one has to be the pest control rat. During the school holiday we smuggled it into the Natural History Museum and Banksy put this box up on the wall in the main hall, literally drilling into the wall. I stayed on for three or four hours to take photographs and at least four or five members of staff looked at it and then went away. Eventually it was taken down – then Bansky called me up asked me to get it back.
So I phoned the Museum and they said “It’s a serious matter and we have your rat on ice.” I thought it was just a euphemism, but I went down there and once I got through the grilling from security, I noticed all these signs warning about rodents everywhere. The piece was in one of their deep freezers, as they were worried about it infecting their historic specimens. After it had been in there for about three days to kill off all the germs they returned it – now it is in this exhibition.
What do you think the appeal of Banksy is?
I think what really made him popular was the sheer volume of stuff he put out on the street back in the day, particularly in London but around the world from Bristol to Palestine. People loved walking round the corner and seeing something that would make them smile and that is what Banksy is good at, seeing things in unexpected places that make people smile.
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