The man who brought Banksy's subversive work to Auckland talks to Dionne Christian.
Steve Lazarides, the former photographer who discovered Banksy, is getting his kids ready for school. As we speak — Lazarides in the UK on a winter's morning; me in Auckland on a balmy summer's evening — he occasionally issues instructions about shoes and school bags.
It's the type of ordinary domestic scene one wouldn't associate with the world's most famous graffiti artist; then again, it has been nearly 21 years since Banksy's first known and recognised mural appeared at 80 Stokes Croft, Bristol.
The Mild Mild West depicted a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police, supposedly Bansky's response to what he saw as heavy-handed police tactics in breaking up raves and parties in disused buildings.
Back then, Lazarides was a photographer commissioned to shoot the then little-known graffiti artist. The two hit it off and Lazarides became his manager, dealer, gallerist and spokesman while Banksy became the biggest — and most enigmatic — guerrilla artist in the world. To this day, his exact identity is the subject of public speculation.
They parted ways more than a decade ago but Lazarides, 46,having helped legitimise graffiti art, continues to promote and sell Banksy works.
The Art of Banksy features 80 original works, all owned by private collectors who bought from Lazarides, and has travelled to Melbourne, Amsterdam, Istanbul and Tel Aviv. He says collectors were "surprisingly willing" to lend their art for an 18-month series of exhibitions and going international brings Banksy's subversive and satirical art to fans who wouldn't ordinarily get the chance to see it.
"I think it's part of being human to want to see something up close — to see it, smell it, touch it — bring that extra sensory input to it," Lazarides says. "Looking at something online or from a distant isn't the same thing as being in the presence of the object itself.
"And, you know, people are interested in art in general. Just look at the queues at 9am outside Christie's in New York when they were selling Leonardo da Vinci's painting Salvator Mundi; the queue went around a block on a cold New York morning and these people weren't there to look at buying it; they were just regular Joes but they still wanted to see that painting."
Salvator Mundi sold for $US450.3 million, setting a record for the most expensive painting ever sold and starting 1000 conversations about its authenticity. Even Lazarides can't resist making a joke about it being an example of contemporary art.
But he says the desire to make or view art is primal and, for Banksy, that urge married with his politics. War, imperialism, consumerism and corporate greed, fascism and even animal rights, there isn't much on which Banksy won't comment.
His art has been described as "cheerfully aggressive" and given that it's skyrocketed in value, repeatedly reaching six figures at auctions around the world, is he now just part of the establishment?
Banksy told the New Yorker, by email, that he loves the way "capitalism finds a place — even for its enemies. It's definitely boom time in the discontent industry . . . " Lazarides, perhaps not surprisingly given that he still deals in Banksy's work, simply says as that you get older it's a fact you often become part of the mainstream.
Banksy's reputation has been fed by the mystery surrounding his identity. His various works, which, aside from paintings, also include sculptures and special displays, have been displayed on city walls, bridges and streets throughout the world.
Then there have been audacious "stunts" such as secretly hanging his works inside museums around the world — the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Britain museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the American Museum of Natural History among them — and sneaking into enclosures at London and Bristol zoos. In the penguin enclosure at London Zoo, he wrote, in letters more than 2m high, "We're bored of fish".
He opened The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem and made an Academy-Award nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. Yet the world at large still isn't sure exactly who he is. Some say it's Robin Gunningham; others attribute his work to Robert Del Naia, frontman of the band Massive Attack and there's another theory that Banksy is actually a team of seven artists.
Lazarides is adamant the decision to keep Banksy's identity under wraps had nothing to do with marketing and was all about self-preservation and keeping him out of the hands of the law. Banksy started as a freehand graffiti artist in Bristol in the early 1990s when graffiti art — no matter what its merits or messages — was the scourge of neighbourhoods everywhere; it was, as Lazarides points out, a different world.
"It would make his life so much better if he just outed himself; it might even be freeing because people would just look at the pictures and not be distracted by all that speculation but, you know, after so long everyone is expecting some sort of chiselled Nordic god riding in on a white charger . . . they probably still wouldn't believe him."
And, to quote Banksy himself, "there are crimes that become innocent and even glorious through their splendour, number and excess".
What: The Art of Banksy
Where & when: Aotea Centre until February 6.