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Review: ‘Banksy Does New York’ captures the chaos, good and bad (Includes first-hand account)

When graffiti artist and political activist Banksy announced a one-month residency in New York, it immediately piqued people’s interest. It wouldn’t be the first time he created works overseas, but it would undoubtedly be the most anticipated. By broadcasting his arrival, Banksy was guaranteed an audience for his social commentary that would prove to be some of his most provocative statements to date. The documentary Banksy Does New York is not an authorized account of his visit, but rather a chronicle of how it was experienced by the city’s residents.

In 2013 the world renowned London graffiti artist known only as Banksy declared he would spend the month of October in New York, unveiling a new piece of art every day via his website for a series titled, “Better Out Than In.” However by only publishing a picture of the new work and a hint to its exact location, he also prompted a city-wide scavenger hunt in which people gladly participated. Turning the five boroughs into his public gallery, Banksy motivated people to visit neighbourhoods they otherwise avoid, and to think about spaces and issues in a different light. Their posts on social media became a part of the show. Multimedia art ranging from pieces inspired by some of his signature works to moving installations — some of which had accompanying audio akin to a museum tour — Banksy left his mark on the birthplace of graffiti art.

Composed of interviews, newscasts, YouTube videos and other social media posts, filmmakers trace and reflect on the 31-day, city-wide exhibition. Speaking to journalists, art critics, gallery owners, graffiti artists, local business proprietors and “Banksy hunters,” a fairly wide perspective is cast on Banksy’s residency. Some view the incident as one of the most significant art events to come to the city, while others see him as an inept criminal defacing property; he’s an artist staying true to his traditional graffiti roots or a sellout drawing attention away from “real” artists; he’s a genius or ignorant to sensitive issues. All of these sentiments are expressed throughout the film by people from all walks of life.

Though it began as a race to find the city’s latest Banksy each day, it soon became a sprint to get there before the piece was defaced, removed or erased. Some were replaced by business owners who didn’t appreciate the attention, others were carried off or held for ransom by people hoping to profit off the artist’s work (further evidence that although Banksy’s work is sold, he doesn’t get the proceeds), and a few were preserved by fans or people who simply appreciated the effort. The one stunt to gain international attention wasn’t even revealed until after it was over: a man was hired to run a table in Central Park selling unsigned Banksy originals for $60 and managed to sell only a handful of canvases before closing up shop for the day. The other was a thrift store painting to which Banksy added a Nazi, allocating it to be sold in a charity auction for $615,000.

For those who wished they could have experienced “Better Out Than In” firsthand, this isn’t a bad substitute that not only records the month-long event but also raises some stimulating questions.

Director: Chris Moukarbel

Written By

Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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