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"The art world is a big game." And Mr Brainwash is winning

His street art sells before it dries. He creates album covers for Madonna. He’s painted with everyone from Pelé to the Pope. But he’s definitely not Banksy. Or is he? This is French street artist Thierry Guetta, better known as Mr Brainwash

Mr Brainwash

Thierry Guetta is Banksy. Possibly. Maybe not. “When you say ‘you are’ they say ‘no you’re not’. And when you say ‘I’m not’ they say ‘yeah, sure you are’. So, you know what, fuck it,” he laughs. “They can find out when all is revealed. If life everything comes out in the end. Now is not the right time, but time will tell. And it will be a big surprise.”

In the meantime, it’s an idea that has circulated around the backroom gossip of the art world ever since Guetta – better known as the French, LA-based street-cum-pop artist.

Mr Brainwash – became the unwitting subject of Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop back in 2010. If Guetta isn’t Banksy, then, it’s been said, he must be a creation of Banksy – an art piece in himself. Just look at the moustache, the trademark fedora and dark shades. Listen to that cod French accent and the childlike enthusiasm. Think of the subtext of his nom de spray-can.

Guetta isn’t bothered by the notion that, were it not that the former vintage clothes shop-owner, photographer and videographer crossed paths with Banksy, who encouraged him to pursue street art, his art career might not have taken off.

“I think that whatever you were supposed to be or supposed to do will come to you. I don’t think there are any ifs in life,” says the affable Guetta. “Whatever happens is supposed to happen, so my life has turned out the way it is not because something has happened but because it’s a continuation of whatever my life is. And I feel I’m only at the very beginning of what I want to do in my life.”

Mr Brainwash

Indeed, Mr Brainwash might be laughing all the way to the bank, as he rides the art world’s newfound appreciation for street art.

He’s reputed to have made some $20m through sales of his upbeat, referential, pop pieces, built up a sizeable property empire on the back of it, has collaborated on charity projects with Michelle Obama and the Pope, worked with brand giants likes of Nike and Mercedes, designed Coca-Cola’s centenary billboard on New York’s Times Square, decked out Oscar parties and on the side designed album covers for Madonna, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Michael Jackson.

Later this year – assuming post-Covid plans go smoothly – he will finally open not just a gallery but a museum dedicated to his work, and new work to come, in the Richard Meier-designed, one-time Museum of Television & Radio on LA’s Beverly Drive. Recently he was selected to create a huge projected artwork for the side of Battersea Power Station.

“I wanted to do that project, you know why, because when I was kid I remember it from the cover of that Pink Floyd album [Animals],” he laughs. “So it was legendary in my eyes already and I knew I had to be part of it – to try to do something not just artistic but to show the people of London their history too, to remind them just how important the city is in terms of creativity and invention.”

This kind of positivity – along with being self-consciously enigmatic – is Guetta’s modus operandi. He’s big on philosophical statements the likes of “you just have to accept everything, to be happy, to be thankful. You have to just be” and his mantra that “life is beautiful”. He speaks of the money not having changed him because “I feel rich on the inside and I know you can’t buy that. The value is in being thankful for who you are, in what you can give to those around you, even if that’s just a kind word. That’s the true money.”

Mr Brainwash

Even his artistic moniker is an expression of his cheery optimism. When he started doing street art in the 1990s, he borrowed the Mr Brainwash name from an earlier project he’d been involved in. “Really a name makes no sense when you have it, though little by little I do find that as I go on with my life it seems to make more and more sense of what I am,” he says.

“But I’m someone who wants to brainwash in a good way, to bring you something that makes you feel good. And really we’re all brainwashed right, every one of us – the shoes you wear, the food you eat, the television you watch… We’re in a world of brainwashing.”

The thing is, for all that Guetta can be elusive and vague, it all seems entirely genuine. He happily bats away the accusation that his work, with its nods to artists from Warhol to Van Gogh, is merely riding on the shoulders of giants.

“When I take influence from other artists’ work for me it’s [not copying but] more like an hommage. It’s something good. For sure these are artists that I admire and love. And it’s not as though you don’t know it’s my work,” says Guetta.

“Besides, pop art [especially] has no limits as to where it can go – maybe it’s a hotel interior, or a whole building, or an album cover. The pop artist has to be engaged with what’s going on [in culture].”

And he’s disarmingly frank about the machinations of the art world that have propelled him from what sceptics saw as the butt of a joke to art A-lister in a decade. That includes, for example, precisely the runaway price inflation that has worked so well to his benefit – a product, he says, less of artistic insight so much as the huge cash piles that have been created by the fact that “people become billionaires overnight now because they’ve designed an app.

“It used to be that only people who came from money really had money. So how art is valued suddenly has no rules. The art world is a big game and anyone who plays thinks they know it but really they don’t. But then everything’s a game – art, work, love, business, our whole lives.”

After all, street art has been there forever. It is, Guetta contends, the original art form, the root of all art, and the greatest means to freedom of expression precisely because anyone – not just an ‘artist’ – can write their name, write a sentence, on a wall.

And yet only in recent years is it slowly being accepted by the art establishment, going through much the same process, he contends, as pop art did in the 1970s, tweaking the interest of influential collectors – such as he’s tweaked the interest of the likes of Johnny Depp and Kim Kardashian, and auction houses including Christie’s and Phillips de Pury.

But then, he adds, the art world has a terrible track record in spotting talent anyway. “Look at the history of the art world and it’s been wrong so many times [in its judgement of what constitutes art]. ‘This guy isn’t an artist. You’ll never see a Basquiat in a museum. It’s disgusting’. And in the end it’s a $100m painting that is hanging in a museum,” he laughs. “Duchamp, Picasso – it was the same for them, too.”

Mr Brainwash and Michelle Obama

Certainly, in speaking with Guetta, you’re left with the sense that he really wouldn’t have minded if he never sold a painting in his lifetime either – because the art he produces is the art he produces and it can’t be any other way. “It speaks to some people and doesn’t speak to other people,” he concedes.

“Really we rarely know what impact the art being produced at any time will have anyway – look at the Impressionists, the revolutionaries that nobody wanted, that became the most important art movement of the 19th century. In the end, you just have to make the art that you are, that’s a product of your life. Van Gogh was the artist he was because only he was Van Gogh and only he had his life.”

And, indeed, Thierry’s Guetta’s life has changed too, not least because of the money and the fame, even if some people really do still think he’s Banksy. “I’m 55 and I’ve been very patient,” he chuckles – so now he’s all set to reveal a much darker Mr Brainwash, or, at least, “darker with a hint of light in it, that shows you what life could be,” he says, it not being in his nature of course to embrace the fully apocalyptic.

“Let’s say that I’ve worked for 15 years showing work that was happy, that was colourful, that I hoped made people happy, and the more I did that the more people wanted it. But I haven’t yet shown any of the kind of work that I wanted to, so much as the work I felt people wanted to see,” he explains.

“On the side of that work I was doing something that expressed another part of me, artistically, and which I felt I couldn’t show [because that would have hindered the building of my career at the time]. And that other side of myself is an aesthetic that’s very different to what I’m known for.”

He won’t go into any details. This next phase of his career is set to be another surprise, he promises. It perhaps only adds fuel to the fire of the idea that the big reveal will actually involve the unveiling of a better known artist from Bristol. Maybe. Or not.

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