If you've driven down Oakland Ave. in the last few days, you've probably noticed the new mural by famous street artist Ron English. The painter/illustrator returned to his Decatur hometown on Tuesday and put together the mural incredibly quickly - it was completely finished by 1 p.m. or so, and big crowds gathered to watch. English was quite congenial with all the strangers, staying to talk with just about anyone who was interested in discussing his anti-commercial and anti-advertising-themed posters. He even distributed dozens if not hundreds of free, signed poster prints of his art.
When I saw him doing that, I asked a question without really thinking: "How can you afford to give all of these away wherever you go?"
"Well," he said in reply. "I do make like $130,000 for some of my paintings."
Oh, right. That's how you pay for them. Check.
On Monday afternoon, when I interviewed English at the newspaper, he gave me an incredible amount of information-even some that would not fit in my story on the artist, which stretched to way too many inches. Among the interesting information he imparted, quite a bit was in relation to other famous street artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy, and how the hit, universally well-reviewed documentary "Exit at the Gift Shop" came to be last year.
As a quick bit of background: "Exit at the Gift Shop" is a documentary of questionable authenticity that is largely about Los Angeles resident Thierry Guetta, who is portrayed as a French immigrant who obsessively films his life and the things happening around him. He has a deep fascination with street artists like Shepard Fairey, and has more than a little bit of hero worship. He eventually works his way into the secret society of street artists and meets Banksy, and they all sort of come to trust him as this well-intentioned if possibly somewhat unbalanced individual. Eventually he creates his own street art persona as "Mr. Brainwash" and sells his own works for big bucks. The film has been praised for its vision but people have asked questions on whether it's all a joke, whether Banksy arranged its events, etc, etc. In talking to English, who appears briefly in the film, he offered a number of revelatory pieces of information.
Please keep in mind that I don't know whether this is all accurate-this is just what Ron English says is the case.
- Thierry Guetta is exactly like he is on camera in real life, and is no hoax, nor is he Banksy himself, as some have suspected.
English: He's quirky-crazy but he's not stupid, he's kind of like Columbo or something.
- Guetta is actually wealthy, and is not depicted this way in the film, having apparently come from a very well-off family in France. He became an associate of most of the artists simply because he owns a collection of buildings that were good for drawing on and didn't mind them using them for street art.
English: The only glaring detail that they leave out that helps you understand the story is that Thierry is like a billionaire, a very wealthy guy. He doesn't come off as wealthy. His family are some kind of merchants from France, and when he was 17 years old he met with his financial advisor and told him that he wanted to move to the United States. His financial advisor says "It's very hard to immigrate to the United States, but it's a lot less hard if you own a bunch of property in the United States." So the family bought a bunch of buildings up and down Melrose and some other really prime real estate in Los Angeles.
So then Thierry went out there to manage the properties, and it just so happens that his cousin who is out there is another well-known street artist, Space Invader. Thierry really loved the idea of celebrities and was always chasing them with his camera, but then Space Invader turned him onto the world of street art, so he started following us around, and we let him film us because he just seemed like a harmless fan. The artists all tolerated him because he hooked you up, when you went to LA, the first thing people told you is "You have to meet this guy Thierry because he's got all the main spaces, all the best walls, and you can do something without getting arrested." So first he hooked up with Shepard, who turned him onto Banksy. Suddenly he was in with all the street artists.
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- The artists seemed to consider Guetta as a larger-than-life part of the L.A. landscape.
English: You talked to other people and they were all kind of amused by him. I was in Palestine, on the other side of the world with Spoon (another street artist) and for some reason she starts asking me "Did you ever meet this French guy in LA? He's always in your face and he holds the camera way too close and sometimes he doesn't make any sense?" He's very tenacious and makes an impression. He's a great character. Of course now, he's really into being famous and almost always has two bottles of champagne in his hands.
- Guetta, English says, is just a completely compulsive filmer, with the camera always running.
English: He just films everything, absolutely everything. Later, when they finally went through all his footage, Banksy said that although he was always filming, he never seemed to be filming the right things. Banksy first thought that Thierry had a collection of the greatest street art footage ever filmed, that all these major moments had been captured, but when they looked at the footage they said ‘he had the camera pointed the wrong way almost every time.'
- The actual filming of "Exit Through the Gift Shop" sprang out of a disagreement and intended lawsuit between Fairey and Guetta, moderated by Banksy.
English: Here's what actually happened: When we first met Thierry, he was supposed to be making a movie about Shepard. He was filming Shepard all the time, wherever he went. They made a deal, 50/50, we'll make a movie. They shot for five years doing this, Shepard in his Spiderman prime, leaping off buildings and stuff. At the end of five years, Shepard says "Alright, let's put the movie together," and Thierry said "I'm not giving you the footage." He's actually quite smart and can be a little devious-he figured "I just took away five years of your fame," because in his heart, Thierry always wanted to be the artist. He figured he was messing up his competition, in a way, and holding onto valuable footage. Shepard didn't quite know what to do and filed a lawsuit against Thierry.
Then Banksy figured "I'm in the same situation, he has tons of footage for me." He had some of the only footage of Banksy where you could actually see who he was. So he calls up Thierry and said "I'm sending you a first-class ticket to London, get on the plane, I have to talk to you." That's when he told Thierry that he would make a movie about him instead, in exchange for the footage, which Thierry turned over to Banksy. That's when they realized that the footage wasn't nearly what they thought it might be, but it turns out they did get a different sort of treasure trove, because you've got a portrait of this weird guy, Thierry.
- Banksy is as smart as people think he is, and then some.
English: Banksy is incredibly intelligent and clever. He's very smart and very cynical. Of all of these guys, Banksy is probably the smartest. Shepard might be the second smartest.
That does it for the lost tapes of my Ron English interview. As I said before, I have no idea how much of the above is true, but I certainly thought it was an interesting story.
What do you think, sirs?