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Rising to prominence due to a heavily hyped exhibition and a Banksy-directed documentary entitled, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the French artist Mr. Brainwash was once a clothing store owner named Thierry Guetta. He came to the United States with his family years before he would become one of contemporary art’s largest and most confusing personalities.
In his early years, Guetta was a successful businessman who recognized the power of promotion.
“When the sewing [on a shirt] was different, I’d call it ‘designer’ and charge $400,” said Guetta in “Exit Through the Giftshop.”
Guetta was haunted by the death of his mother since he was a young child, and as a way of preserving family and friends, he picked up a video camera. During his life in the United States, Guetta filmed absolutely everything. He had several cameras set up inside his house to document his family’s life and always carried his personal camcorder with him, logging thousands of hours of eventless footage that he kept in large plastic tubs.
On a visit to France, Guetta filmed his cousin, the street artist Space Invader. The experience changed Guetta’s life. He was drawn to the immediacy, impermanence and the danger of street art, and as he watched Invader install video game mosaics in Paris, he became fascinated with the role of street art in modern culture.
“[The artists] really believed it, really loved it,”
Guetta said later. “I started to really see a gallery outside.”
After returning to the United States, Thierry spent 10 months following Shepard Fairey, the legendary creator of the Andre the Giant OBEY street piece.
Fairey showed Guetta how to choose walls and how to avoid police detection, skills that Guetta would put to good use over the next several years. Guetta soon realized that he could create a street art documentary from his hundreds of hours of footage.
He had a new purpose and life. Thierry stepped up his filming, meeting one street artist after another and logging a tremendous amount of footage, most of which sat in unmarked boxes in his Los Angeles home. He documented the creation of pieces by Buffmonsters, Borf, Swoon, Dotmasters, and eventually, Banksy.
Thierry Guetta and Banksy
The secretive Banksy was gaining recognition and infamy as an “art terrorist,” and Guetta was intrigued. However, despite his numerous connections in the international street art community, Guetta had no way to contact the legendary Englishman.
As it turns out, is was Banksy who needed Guetta. During a visit to Los Angeles, Banksy’s area contact was detained by federal immigration enforcers. Banksy contacted Guetta through Shepard Fairey for help.
The chance meeting became the genesis of Guetta’s career. Banksy took Guetta under his wing, allowing him to film everything he did and involving Guetta in many of his works. Guetta helped Banksy pull off a stunt at Disneyland that recalled Guantanamo Bay, and he was there filming Banksy’s famous painted elephant at a Los Angeles art show, asking viewers about the piece. Thierry had become one of Banksy’s closest friends and confidants.
However, when Guetta showed Banksy the summary of his video work, a video called “Life Remote Control,” Banksy realized that Guetta’s talents were not in film making.
“It was an hour and a half of unwatchable nightmare trailers,” Banksy said later.
Banksy encouraged Thierry to make his own art, a journey that was documented in the Banksy-directed “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which used many of Thierry’s thousands of hours of footage.
“OBEY is about brainwashing,” Guetta said, explaining the nickname he assumed in his first forays into street art. “Banksy is about brainwashing. So I used M.B.W.–I am Mr. Brainwash.”
After finally accomplishing his goal of finding out “Who is Banksy“, he moved into the art world.
The Birth of Mr. Brainwash
After dabbling in street art, Mr. Brainwash started planning a show, pouring his life savings into the venture. He hired local artists and contractors to create elaborate pieces under his direction. His first show, “Life is Beautiful,” received positive reviews, although Guetta’s team ended up making key gallery decisions while Guetta played the role of the hype man by calling in favors from Fairey, Banksy and other artists.
Guetta’s restlessness translated into an enormous art show with hundreds of pieces, created by a team of graphic designers under Guetta’s guidance. His work is a cavalcade of styles, themes and subjects, many of them borrowed from other artists.
“Don’t Be Cruel,” a portrait of Elvis with a Fisher Price gun instead of a guitar, shows two of MBW’s major themes: consumerism and celebrity.
“There’s no one quite like Thierry, really,” Banksy said, “Even if his art does look quite like everyone else’s.”
The show instantly made Guetta a pop art superstar. He sold nearly $1 million in art in the week after “Life is Beautiful,” which set the stage for mainstream acceptance of Mr. Brainwash’s unique style.
Many art fans doubted Thierry Guetta’s existence in light of the movie’s success. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” seemed too good to be true, as its savage portrayal of mainstream culture’s sudden acceptance of street art made Mr. Brainwash look like a parody. When the film was released, some contemporary art critics quickly noticed similarities in Guetta and Banksy’s respective styles. Banksy, they said, had invented Guetta out of thin air, created all of Guetta’s artwork himself, and played an elaborate trick on the film’s viewers.
Banksy is known for his subversive sense of humor and his careful control of his audience’s perception–both of which could inspire the artist to create a hoax of epic proportions. However, a lawsuit in 2011 seemed to prove Mr. Brainwash’s legitimacy.
Photographer Glen Friedman successfully sued Guetta for the image above for using Friedman’s copyrighted photo of rap group Run DMC. A federal judge ruled for Friedman, noting that Mr. Brainwash did not have the right to use another artist’s work without permission.
Still, Mr. Brainwash continued to gain recognition in the world of art. His portrait of Jim Morrison, made from pieces of broken records, sold for over $100,000 after his “ICONS” show in New York City.
Mr. Brainwash has also created commissioned pieces, including a notable work for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Chili Peppers initially denied any involvement with the work, which promoted their new single.
Even Madonna seems impressed by Mr. Brainwash’s artistic approach. She reportedly commissioned the artist to design the cover of her greatest hits album, “Celebration.” A press release announcing the album cover referenced Brainwash’s tendency to “throw cultural icons into a blender.”
It is difficult to decide whether Guetta is a serious artist or a clear example of the mainstream art world’s reliance of hype and style over substance. He copies nearly everyone–his early work’s similarity to Banksy’s inspired many of the hoax accusations–and his reliance on a large team of professional designers complicates the task of separating the artistic mind of Mr. Brainwash from that of his collaborators.
In a sense, he embodies the spirit of street art. His personality is as much a part of his allure as his paintings and sculptures. For Banksy and other Fairey, Guetta is something of an inside joke that got out of hand, but the joke has long since faded away. Mr. Brainwash is aptly named. He is as much of an enigma as the professional graffiti artists that refuse to show their faces, and deciding whether or not he’s actually serious about his work is all part of the fun.