Self-Erasure: Banksy Hunting in Utah

Rob Tennant


Exit Through the Gift Shop, the new film by mystery-shrouded UK street artist Banksy, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and was chock full o’ buzz. Oh, and art, too.

First there was the rumor circulating in the form of the question –– “Will Banksy finally reveal himself?” –– alluding to the artist’s legendary/notorious anonymity. More than that, the question underscored the film festival’s sense of self-importance in presuming that a man who has taken pains to remain hidden from the public eye through a decade of international activity would choose this of all venues for his grand reveal. He didn’t.

Of more interest to us flyover country yokels, however, was the appearance of Bansky-esque stencils and tags in and around Salt Lake City and Park City during the week leading up to the film festival. Local social media began rumbling with potential Bansky sightings on Wednesday, January 20. On Thursday local artist of canvas and wall, Trent Call, posted a pic of a stenciled kneeling, praying boy alongside the pink-scrawled statement “forgive our trespassing”. Call adds that the work was buffed over by the next day.

The word was that Park City’s Main Street area had been hit with multiple Banksy tags. Photos of a downtown Salt Lake billboard originally advertising the billboard company itself was left with its “I guess you could say I’m in outside sales” slogan intact, but now signed for attribution with a stylized Banksy signature. It is a testament to the artist’s stature that even the stodgy, Mormon church-owned daily paper The Deseret News was on the story. So, I grabbed my camera, conscripted an accomplice, and prepared to head to Park City to see what I could find.
Park City is approximately 40 minutes and a few tax brackets away from Salt Lake up a twisty canyon stretch of I-80. Not long ago, it was a quiet rundown former mining town, home mostly to ski bums going for extra points on their prolonged adolescence. The past twenty years or so though have seen massive condo sprawl, real estate price explosions, and general upscaling and cutesification to the point that nearly all of the town’s requisite service-sector workers commute from Salt Lake or small nearby communities that have not yet been enveloped. At least some of the elevation in the town’s esteem can be attributed to Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival, which has centered on Park City for it’s now thirty plus-year history, where Banksy’s film was set to premiere.
On foot to meet for pre-adventure drinks in downtown Salt Lake, I came across my first Banksy stencil. The same praying boy as had been spotted earlier in the week, this time slogan-free but adorned with afterthought-ish halo and wings in the same hot-pink paint of the previously attendant text.

Though Banksy is known for studio work and museum installations as well, it is his street art that has driven his fame. Though much of his work has been preserved in his hometown of Bristol, England, quick documentation and online distribution is necessary for most of his pieces to be seen for longer than the few days that it takes an average city to erase them. Pre-web, a street artist like himself would have been relegated to local fame, or at best, a certain underground renown perpetuated through photo-copied zines sent across the world –– nearly unbelievable now –– in postal trucks. Instead, with images of his work live-blogged all over the web, Banksy is an international phenomenon. His works consistently sell at auction for double their reserve, in the five and six figure range. A UK home adorned with a Banksy mural was listed on the art rather than real estate market as a “mural with house attached”.

And here I was, faced with a work adhered to a brick wall I have passed countless times. I was overcome with a moment of museum calm in the midst of the sounds of rush-hour traffic. The commotion of car-to-home-bound office workers was infinitesimally slowed in my perception as the sublime came in conflict with the mundane. It was disorienting. I’ve never been starstruck by a wall before.

The evening remained fruitful. My companion and I spotted three more possible Banksy works as we navigated Park City’s Main Street-adjacent alleyways, palpable pre-Sundance excitement, and a minor blizzard. I was not wearing the right shoes. I say possible works, because as soon as the Bansky word began to spread, it was closely followed by the specter of fraud. Banksy copycats and pretenders are prevalent. The artist himself has issued statements warning against unsanctioned sales of his works while casting doubt on the authenticity, without specifics, of some sold items. Whether interpreted as homage, larceny, or some intellectualized compromise between the two, the controversy of legitimacy understandably breeds skepticism.
One explanation for skepticism in this specific case requires insight into the Salt Lake scene psyche. As a town with a vibrant arts scene that is nonetheless consistently skipped by touring bands, there is a communal chip on the shoulders of the populace, as if we are all one giant collective unrecognized genius with the requisite twin neuroses of jaded arrogance and coast envy.

It’s a city with low self-esteem. It is so used to being ignored, underappreciated, and outright mocked that it is therefore considered almost unthinkable that this artistic visitation could be authentic. The presence of Sundance itself is an exception to this sense of neglect but at the same time entirely outside the argument. It is an annual parallel dimension, a relevant-hip Shangri-La in which we may revel but to which we may never truly belong.

Which brings us back to the buzz. It’s natural that an explosion of artworks and a film presented as being by a figure as prominent and intriguing as Banksy would draw attention from the blogosphere and the resident media. However, the excitement around the appearance of Banksy’s work, at least locally, wasn’t about the film or the festival. It stemmed from seeing something right in front of your face that you’re used to seeing mediated through your computer screen. It was about a renowned artist choosing to tag a chain-link-framed wall in a proto-gentrifying warehouse district unlikely to be seen by anyone but a like-minded artist on his way to work in the studio.

While the image of a camera operator painted in a prominent alley off the Main Street of one of the world’s premiere film festivals could be interpreted as pure promotion, a mere stunt –– potentially manufactured in a Warhol Factory mold, rather than sprayed on by the artist himself –– but the Salt Lake tags and their inclusion on Banksy’s official site lend it a kind of credibility.

All of this is part of why the official response has been so discouraging. It is the stated policy of the government of Park City that all graffiti be removed within 72 hours of its reporting. Pieces in Salt Lake City were removed with similar haste, if not competence. One image in particular, the same one I first saw downtown along a usual route on an unusual day, was lazily scrubbed, leaving a ghost image of the praying angel boy.

Furthering the insult, the building being protected against the vandalism in question has been sitting empty on a prime central city block for years. Formerly home to restaurants, a gallery, and a nationally respected music venue, the property has been decaying while its owner waits for its value to increase, waits for the city to become relevant, waits for a certain intangible cachet. To that person I say: Good luck with that.


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