From pencil to stencil

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He’s ducking and diving his way to the top, but will success blunt Banksy’s edge? Jim Davies says design can help cult brands deal with growing pains

Banksy – you’ve got to love him. He’s the artful dodger of the art world, flirting with the wrong side of the law, but in a playful, and ultimately harmless way. Serving up welcome visual distraction to our blighted inner cities, getting up the noses of petty bureaucrats, lacing politics and irony with consummate dexterity.

In the unlikely event you don’t know who I’m talking about, Banksy is the shadowy Bristolian graffiti artist whose often beautiful, witty and gently subversive black-and-white stencils have become the talk of towns all over the UK. You know the kind of thing… little girls canoodling with missiles, police officers walking fluffy poodles, mischievous rats with drills, cheeky monkeys with weapons of mass destruction, a beefeater painting Anarchy on the walls. Often he will have cleverly incorporated an element of trompe l’oeil into his creations, a comment on the location or situation of his street art, adding yet another dimension to his impish brand of spray-cannery.

But recently, Banksy has been besmirched by respectability. Councils are now insisting that his work is protected, rather than whitewashed. Properties fortunate enough to have been picked as one of his early-hours canvases have rocketed in value. A compendium of his work called Wall and Piece topped the charts of graphics books for weeks. He’s been compared to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, darlings of the 1980s New York art scene, and Sotheby’s has been auctioning his efforts for tens of thousands of pounds. Brad and Angelina and Christina Aguilera are reported to be fans and proud owners. His style and attitude have become the inspiration for ad campaigns and clothing ranges.

This sudden elevation from underground status to mainstream acceptability must be truly galling for someone whose reputation was built on street cred. It dampens his mystique, and flies in the face of his image as a romantic, anti-authority figure plying his genius in a shady netherworld.

Actually, it’s a similar predicament faced by any cult brand. How do you move from edgy notoriety to widespread popularity? Just look at Levi’s 501 jeans – back in the days when you had to bribe a US exchange student to smuggle some back for you, they were achingly hip. Then, in the 1980s, Nick Kamen and advertising agency BBH put them on the map. By the 1990s, straining over the bellies of the Jeremy Clarkson brigade, they’d lost all credibility. It’s exactly the same story for many of the skate/surf clothing brands – if they’re too extreme they alienate buyers, but once they’re worn by everyone and their granddads, their niche is no more.

Which begs the question, can anything commercial still be cool? Once a brand has dipped a toe into the mainstream, can it retain an aura of being the alternative, rebellious choice of the cognoscenti? Well, to an extent. For every Microsoft there’s an Apple, for every Nike there’s a Puma, for every Carling there’s a Peroni. So there’s always a choice, and a different approach. And design is one of the most effective ways of differentiating a brand, not only in the products themselves, but in the way they are presented.

As for Banksy, he’ll have to get used to the fact that he’s public property. And just hope that no one comes at him with a spray can.

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