Laugh all the way to the Banksy

How the reclusive art star impacted T.O.’s street art revolution

When sensationalism causes a sensation, an art star is born. No living artist adheres to that dictum better than Banksy, perhaps the most notorious — most famous, least known — street artist of all-time.

The recluse is becoming the rage of the Canadian summer, with the Saving Banksy exhibit that just wrapped up at Yorkville Village and the upcoming exhibition The Art of Banksy curated by Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s British former agent. Street art in T.O. has reached a fever pitch and Banksy’s impact on Toronto’s blooming art scene is being recognized both by posh galleries and on the sides of buildings from Bay Street to Richmond Hill.

“When Toronto sees Banksy’s work in the flesh, they’ll be in awe,” says Lazarides, who worked with the artist for 11 years and, despite our pleading, would not reveal his identity. (The reclusive artist is not part of the travelling show).

“There’s a reason people still queue to see The Mona Lisa. The work of Banksy was meant to be seen in the flesh,” he says.

Featuring more than 80 original works — and valued at more than $35 million — the Banksy exhibit represents the largest single showing of the secretive artist’s work ever to be assembled at once. Arriving June 12, the show is perhaps the apex of graffiti art and political messaging that has always had a home in Toronto, and has been percolating in the city since the 1980s.

Karin Eaton, artistic director of Mural Routes, an arts service organization that has been helping artists, especially street artists, since 1990, says that Banksy’s popularity has created a global trend. He’s the Basquiat for the Instagram age. Part P. T. Barnum, part Bernie Sanders, with a shot of Damien Hirst.

“I think we’re going to be lining up around the block to get into the exhibit,” says Eaton, who believes Banksy may very well be the most popular artist (if not the best) of his time.

“The world of street art is growing and there’s been an acceptance — it used to be the police would go after anyone with a spray can. Now those same artists are being paid to make big, beautiful pieces.”

The Banksy pieces in the show run the gamut from stencils to graffiti to paintings, and include famous Banksy calling cards such as “Turf Wars,” “Barely Legal,” and “Laugh Now,” featuring a monkey with the anti-establishment message — “Laugh now, one day we’ll be in charge” — hanging from his neck. The artworks, on loan from private collectors as part of a travelling tour that’s been to Israel and New Zealand, are big, bold and unforgettable.

Daniel Mazzone is a 38-year-old painter and street artist from Toronto who exhibits here and in New York. He works across every medium and feels an increasing demand for his Banksy-inspired street art.

“It was the doc on Banksy that inspired me to pick up my art tools again,” says Mazzone, of the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which was nominated for a 2010 Oscar.

The launch of that film brought the reclusive Banksy to Toronto, and his work began popping up on buildings around town in May of 2010.

“He’s inspiring to me because he doesn’t care what people think, and I love the messages — it’s a little bit of a wake-up call for what’s happening now in the world,” says Mazzone.

For Lazarides, who called the 11 years he spent by the artist’s side among the most exciting of his long career, the exhibition is essential documentation of the work, love it or hate it, of the loudest artist of our time.

“You don’t need a degree in art history to understand Banksy — the work belongs to the people. That’s what makes it enduring,” Lazarides says. “There’s not many artists in the world who the public has an affinity to — they have an affinity for him, he’s one of their own.”

The Art of Banksy opens on June 13 at 213 Sterling Rd. 

Article exclusive to Streets Of Toronto