In the days when Banksy was able to paint on city walls in broad daylight, there were apparently a number of scams that could be deployed to evade detection.
“It’s amazing what you can do with a high vis jacket and some cones,” says Steve Lazarides, the man entrusted with helping to keep secret the identity of the most famous unknown in the world.
“Obviously, he couldn’t do it now. But then, I never saw him paint at night. Never.”
One of their tricks involved a fake film and a burner phone.
“I had the phone. And Banksy would have a piece of paper, purportedly from me as a producer, telling him where to go and paint and that he had permission to paint there for this fictitious film. If I got a phone call, I’d just ask what side of the street they were painting on. And then I’d say, ‘hang on, it’s on the north side? F****** painter, they’re supposed to be on the south side. I’m really sorry. I’ll get them to come and paint it out, right away’.
“We got away with it several times. And the thing is, a high visibility jacket in the middle of the day… I have seen police officers, I’ve seen everybody, walk past if people are wearing a high vis jacket and have some cones out.”
Lazarides worked with Banksy for 11 years, from 1997 to early 2009, at first photographing the artist at work and then going on to become his agent and right-hand man as well.
He is the only person, he says, who has pictures of the artist in action.
It sounds hard to believe given people have been trying to solve the mystery for years, and now Banky’s work can sell for millions of pounds, but Lazarides says it only occurred to him recently that his archive – a collection of negatives apparently documenting years and years of art history which had been languishing in his loft – might be of interest to others.
He has now sifted through around 12,000 photographs to create a book, Banksy Captured; a behind-the-scenes look into the moments that started the anonymous artist on his path to global fame, coupled with Lazarides’ anecdotes of their many escapades. Of course, the portraits supposedly of Banksy are taken from behind, or with his face covered, but still provide an intimate glimpse into the art world’s biggest enigma.
Over the years, art experts, academics, journalists and fans have fallen over themselves coming up with theories: Banksy is a team of artists. Banksy is a woman, despite people potentially in the know referring to a “he”. Banksy is Bristol artist Robin Gunningham. Banksy is Massive Attack founder Robert “3D” Del Naja.
Lazarides says he will never tell – “I would genuinely be a villain, not just a pantomime villain” – and refers to the artist as a “he” throughout.
Despite the fact they parted ways 10 years ago, Banksy has no need to be worried, he says.
“He still trusts that I’m not going to show his face, which I’m not. There’s no benefit to it. If he wants to reveal himself then that’s up to him.
“But the general public don’t want it. If I revealed his face, it’s like telling a five-year-old that Santa Claus isn’t real. Why would I do that? And I think, you know, the general public have constructed a folk hero, and I’m not going to take that away from them.”
Lazarides describes his time with the artist as “like being in f*****g Goodfellas”.
“There’s a line in Goodfellas I love, which is like, they live like kings, but they had none of the responsibility,” he says. “And that’s what this time was like. It was pure anarchy.
“He’d come up and go, right. I’ve got this plan. We’re going to do this. Here we go again…”
Lazarides takes me through the pages of the book on his computer screen at his office in central London. “It’s funny,” he says, pointing to a photograph showing several Banksy images on a wall. “That’s probably a £20 million wall there. It’s mad. These were all, like, £500.”
A photograph that looks familiar pops up.
“There’s things that no one’s ever seen,” he says. “I guess this is the original Girl With Balloon. It’s only recently that I’ve actually thought about it. This is a sex doll filled with helium and he taped the legs up. He did this at the Tate.”
And a portrait. “That’s the first portrait I ever took of him. I remember because we went out on the piss and I came back the next day and someone had nicked my car. Admittedly it was a Mk2 Ford Escort, worth about a hundred quid.”
Also from Banksy’s reputed hometown of Bristol, Lazarides met the artist in the mid-’90s, when he was working as a photographer and photo editor for culture magazine Sleaze Nation. Editor Steve Beale “caught wind of this guy called Banksy, so we went down and I managed to negotiate a meet with him, photographed him. It went from there. I was his documenter for the first couple of years and then I went on to kind of manage him, sell his paintings – and the rest is history”.
He had been interested in graffiti since he was a teenager – “it was art for us, art for kids who didn’t understand art, who didn’t go to museums, who didn’t go to private schools” – so he was a fan of Banksy’s work and the ethos from the start.
The anonymity, he says, was never a stunt.
“People think it was this construct to make himself more interesting, or some great marketing ploy, but it wasn’t. It was self-preservation rather than self-promotion. You know, Bristol had a pretty hardcore policy towards graffiti.
“It’s only in the last five or six years that graffiti has become almost impossible to get arrested for. You know, before that, these guys were really risking their liberty. So his anonymity was born from that.”
The art world hated Banksy back then, he says.
“They absolutely hated us because they’d come and say, ‘you can’t do this’. Well, that’s funny, because we just did it. ‘You can’t charge that amount of money for canvases.’ Well, we did and we keep going.
“I had never even studied art, let alone knew what was going on, did a history of art degree, or worked in a gallery or a museum. We just put a rule of sort of logic towards it, towards the way we structured things, til we were getting huge clients coming by. Damien Hirst, I put the phone down on five times in a row because I thought it was a crank call.
“The art world hated us. It’s like, we were getting clients that they could only dream of… fawn over and everything else. And we were getting them by just being ourselves, which is like, you know, basically being stoned, drunk, taking the piss, basically.”
Stencilling walls across the country, craning statues into central London, spray-painting cows – “we had the time of our lives”, says Lazarides.
“There was no rules, he didn’t give a f***. We didn’t care what anyone thought of us, and not in an arrogant way. It was just like, we don’t care what you think, or what rules you’ve constructed.
“Historically, graffiti’s always been where the dispossessed and disenfranchised go to get a message across and that goes back to the slaves in the Colosseum. Banksy had a political message he was trying to put out.
“One of the reasons everyone became so famous and so powerful was the internet. Suddenly everything changed. The rules were different. Tell me one gallery in the world that can get a f****** million hits in, like, 10 minutes. No way. There’s no museum, there’s no gallery, there’s nothing.
“Suddenly, they didn’t need galleries, they didn’t need museums. This was the museum, the public was the audience.”
At the time, Lazarides says he was unaware he was documenting history.
“It never really hit,” he says. “I think it’s only now looking back with hindsight that I can see that. It didn’t even after we split up, I couldn’t see it. From the very beginning I knew his work was amazing and that’s why I worked with him.
“It really resonated with the times and it was interesting – and so much art is f****** boring. The reason people liked it is because they could get it. He didn’t make people feel stupid. He resonated with people.
“It isn’t just the art world that likes his work. This is the general public, you know. The general public are art lovers, it’s just the museums and galleries seem to think that’s a bad thing. You know, populism is a bad thing. It’s like no, f*** you. Like, sometimes things are popular because people like it, not because it’s crass or it’s appealing to the lowest common denominator. It’s just that it resonates with the public across the world.”
Lazarides says there was no animosity when they parted ways. He had to take a break; managing Banksy as his fame grew became “all-consuming”.
They no longer speak, but not because of any fall-out, he says. “He’s always been like that. He’s totally, singly on his path, which is fine. We worked intensely for years, it was like hand in glove. Would I want it back?” He laughs. “No. It’s a young person’s game. I’m too tired now. But I had the time of my life with him, and without him none of this would be possible.”
Lazarides has run his own gallery and launched the careers of numerous artists including Invader, JR, Vhils and The Miaz Brothers. He has sold art to A-list stars, and photographed them, too – it’s true, he says, when I spot a picture of Dave Grohl on the wall; he really is “the nicest guy”.
Despite his success, he accepted long ago he would always be connected to Banksy.
“It doesn’t really bother me…. I tried for a while and it’s just pointless. I’m sure as hell not embarrassed about it. It was a wild, wild time.”
He says he is proud to be connected with the world’s most famous artist, “not just in this era, but any era”.
“It’s hard to work out the yardstick, right, for who wins in the art world. The art world’s version of who wins is who sells their paintings for the most amount of money. I think my version is who wins is the artist who’s most recognised and has their work in the most places.
“That is Banksy by a country mile. You know, there’s cab drivers in Karachi who know who he is. There’s fridge magnets, there’s posters, there’s stickers.
“He’s probably the most famous artist of all time.”
In the past 12 months or so, Banksy has never been far from the headlines. In October 2018, his Girl With Balloon painting – arguably his most famous work – partially shredded itself moments after being sold for more than £1m at auction at Sotheby’s.
Lazarides thought it was “probably one of the finest bits of performance art I’ve ever seen – and definitely the most interesting thing that’s ever happened in an auction room”.
In December, a two-sided mural of a child apparently playing in snow appeared on the wall of a garage in Port Talbot, South Wales. On the second wall, it was revealed the snow was actually falling ash – thought to be a comment on pollution from the industrial town’s steel works.
After huge crowds flocked to see it, Hollywood star Michael Sheen, who grew up nearby, contributed towards security costs, but it wasn’t long before the wall was cut out and the artwork taken to a gallery.
“This has been done time and time again,” says Lazarides. “You get people saying that they’re preserving it, and it’s like, no you’re not, you’re taking it to sell it and make hundreds of thousands of pounds. So stop bull*****ing everyone.”
Needless to say, he is “vehemently against” the removal of street art.
“One, they never painted with the idea of someone hanging it on the wall and looking at it full time. But more than that, it’s a gift to the city and if it’s taken away, it just makes the city a poorer place.
“A lot of these guys stop painting on the street because what’s the point? You know, if you paint something and it lasts under 30 minutes before someone comes and rips it off the wall, then why would you continue painting on the street? It’s pointless. So, yeah. To take it off the wall and deny the general public their fix of these artists for the gain of one person I think is wrong.”
Someone as big as Banksy surely is aware of what is likely to happen to his work? “I guess he’s living in the hope that it’ll stay there for as long as possible.”
In June, Glastonbury headliner Stormzy wore a Banksy-designed Union Jack stab vest on stage. The latest headlines have been on the record sale just a few weeks ago of Devolved Parliament, a 2009 painting showing MPs depicted as chimpanzees in the House of Commons.
Again sold at Sotheby’s, after 13 minutes of bidding the hammer went down on a price of £8.5m – £9.8m with fees on top.
“Record price for a Banksy painting set at auction tonight,” the artist posted on his Instagram page. “Shame I didn’t still own it.”
Banksy knows about the book, is fine with it, says Lazarides. The news came out on Thursday, but the artist is yet to comment.
“I genuinely have a deep-seated love of his work. I think he’s a genius.”
The book will be the first of two, purely because there was too much to fit in to one, he says. And there could have been a third – Lazarides says he has lost many of his digital pictures from the later years that they worked together.
“I’ve done a forensic search of computers, hard drives, everything. I couldn’t find it. It’s been driving me mad but I just need to accept that I don’t have them.”
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How much is he talking about?
“A lot.” He laughs. “Probably four or five years’ worth of sh** that’s missing. But again… I can’t… I’ve just got to block it out my mind. To be fair, he became less and less prolific over that point in time… he would have to think a lot more about the things he was doing.”
So the book documents the period from 1997 to around 2004. Lazarides is also selling some of the images, along with other photographs from his collection, as limited edition prints.
“It’s not just about – and this isn’t me blowing my trumpet – but this isn’t just about the artwork itself,” he says. “It’s about him putting the artwork up. It was about trying to find things I thought would be of interest. It’s a different view.”
Is this the closest the world will ever get to seeing Banksy? Who knows. Maybe he will reveal himself, one day?
Lazarides laughs. “I don’t think anyone would believe him.”
Banksy: Captured, by Steve Lazarides, is out in December. His limited edition prints are out now