Is Banksy's Creation Mr Brainwash For Real? We Tried To Find Out

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 75 months ago

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Last Updated 30 April 2018

Is Banksy's Creation Mr Brainwash For Real? We Tried To Find Out
Mr Brainwash, sporting his trademark open mouth. Photo Darren Gerrish.

Like most people, we found out about Mr Brainwash through the Banksy-directed documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop. It tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French man obsessed with street art, who made the segue into producing art himself under the pseudonym Mr Brainwash.

At the time we were as confused as everyone else — is Mr Brainwash real, or a Banksy creation? Eight years later, Mr. Brainwash's career is in full flow, and we're interviewing him before the opening of his new exhibition — still unsure as to who, and what, the artist is.

"I make it into a game"

When we mention that people are still undecided on whether Mr Brainwash is a façade, he seems to be OK with it.

"Four people watch the movie and come up with four directions to take it. I make it into a game and just let them play with it. The less you talk about it, the more people will speculate. Someone stopped me in the street yesterday and mentioned he'd seen it just now. People come up to me and say thank you as they've changed their lives and are now doing what they love".

This is confirmed after the interview, when we find out that London's own New Artist Fair was inspired by the film.

With one of his works in the new show. Photo Darren Gerrish.

A 'big surprise'

"I met someone who said that every employee in their company has to watch the movie Exit Through The Gift Shop," claims the artist.

We wonder whether this could be true — would an HR department allow such a policy? With his expressive gestures as he talks and his oodles of enthusiasm and charisma, we want to suspend our disbelief.

He mentions that "Banksy was the genius behind it, and soon a big surprise is coming". Obviously we press him on this big surprise, but he refuses to say any more. Given he's just told us that he enjoys people speculating about the film, is this just another ruse?

There's a glint in his eye when Mr Brainwash is talking; he must enjoy toying with every journalist he meets. Is he still in touch with Banksy? we ask. We're met with a shrug, a smile and a "maybe". He's really not giving much away.

The few times we've crossed paths before, Mr Brainwash has been wearing paint-splattered clothes, sunglasses and a hat. Today, the paint splatters are gone, although the hat's still there.

"Normally I can't keep my clothes clean because I just don't care. I wear exactly the same thing every day".

From what we can tell he always dresses in black, and he jokes about holding an exhibition of his paint-covered clothes in the future. Well, weirder things have happened...

Posing with the him post-interview in front of his works.

"I make my own rules"

And what about the inspiration for this new exhibition?

"I love to mix the past and the future. It could be Banksy, Picasso, Jeff Koons or Basquiat".

He jokes that he couldn't afford a Basquiat so he made his own. Pop culture appears in the exhibition too, including Thomas the Tank Engine and the DeLorean from Back to the Future.

"There is no limit to my style, but I always try to incorporate oil paintings in my work. Art shouldn't have rules, I don't do rules, so I make my own rules.

"I've called the show Keep Smiling, because you come in, you look at the work and you smile. After you leave, you think about the work and you smile"

"I'm happy not to be happy"

His work is often kitschy in how positive it is, but would he ever let his art lead him down a darker path?

"It's not my life. I'm about positivity and I'll be positive. I'm not always happy, but I'm happy not to be happy — I turn everything into positivity. I choose my life to be about doing good and helping as many people as I can. That's my life. I like to help organisations by donating my works and they sell them. I get letters from schools and hospitals thanking me. Whatever cause comes up to me, I never say no. If a guy comes to me and says his son is sick and really loves my work, I don't worry he'll take it and sell it".

It's a very admirable claim and a quick Google search confirms that there are plenty of charitable causes to which he has donated his work.

In front of his mural as it was completed. Photo Darren Gerrish.

"I'm a pretty simple guy"

Surely giving his work away so generously means he's taking quite the financial hit?

"I don't need anything, I'm a pretty simply guy. I don't like jewellery, I don't like cars, I just like life — life is beautiful, I never get bored of saying it. If you have the energy to keep smiling to the world, the world will smile at you. If you start loving, people will love you. You can throw any bad thing at me and I'll turn it into good".

With that ringing in our ears, we throw down the gauntlet of asking how he reacts to people telling him his work is terrible.

"I love them. We need the haters, it's part of the world. If I could do something and two hundred people say it's cheap and they don't like it, but one kid says I love it, goes home and starts to follow his dreams, then I've won".

"The street is the biggest gallery"

These days the artist is mostly producing art for galleries rather than on the street, a mural down the road from his exhibition being the exception. How does he feel about that?

"The street is open to everyone, it's the biggest gallery we can get, with very few rules. A couple of years ago, I got stopped by the police, and the district attorney saw me as a leader in the world of graffiti. They were trying to restrict me from being close to paint.

"In the end they agreed I couldn't be near paint after 5pm. I had to sign that if I got caught I'd do a year in jail".

The finished mural on Ledbury Road.

Even as we're leaving, he never breaks from the positive character; sending us on our way saying "have a great life, you deserve it". As cynical Londoners we want to sneer, but you can't spend time in his company and not be won over by him.

Whether what he's saying is true or not, he's so likeable that we end up rolling with it.

Mr Brainwash: Keep Smiling is on at Maddox Gallery's three locations across London, one in Notting Hill and two in Mayfair, until 14 May 2018. All three galleries are free to visit. Mr Brainwash has also created a mural near the Notting Hill gallery on Ledbury Road.