The iconoclastic graffiti artist Banksy unveils his largest project to date this weekend, when the doors of Bristol’s City Museum & Art Gallery are flung open to reveal that he has “remixed” the entire building. Renowned for infiltrating museum collections without their knowledge, Banksy has this time sought co-operation from the museum’s director and used it to install marble statues of drunken ladettes and paedophile bishops amid the columns of the three-storey Edwardian baroque building. A burnt-out ice-cream van replaces the usual information counter as a policeman in riot gear rocks perpetually on a fairground horse. The sound of chicken nuggets singing fills the vast rear hall, and a live leopardskin coat sleeps on a branch. Among the museum’s collection of old masters, an oil painting of parliament is now entirely populated by monkeys.
Elsewhere, the museum’s permanent collection has been infiltrated in more subtle ways – the vitrine holding locally produced pottery now shares space with a used hash pipe (also locally produced) and the life-size Bristol biplane suspended from the ceiling provides refuge for a Guantanamo Bay escapee.
Organised under tight security, the event has been kept secret from the museum’s entire staff and trustees, allowing the artist to work inside the venue, creating what promises to be the most exciting graffiti show held in a regional southwest museum this summer.
The exhibition is open daily, 10am-5pm, until August 31; admission free
Hi, Banksy, it’s Waldemar here. Can I call you Robin?
Let’s go on first-name terms – call me Banksy.
You only seem to make yourself available to the press when you are up to something. What are you up to now?
I’ve stuck some of my own paintings up in a museum. Only this time they’re going to let them stay up for the whole summer. I won’t be making a habit of it. Museum shows are like Center Parcs: you can do it once to get it out of your system, but you don’t want to live there.
The museum is a public building, which means people who don’t normally go and look at art shows will come to mine, then not look at that, either.
Right now, the streets of Bristol are covered in more paint than just about anywhere else in the UK. The powers that be seem to have embraced graffiti. I think they’re quietly pleased I (allegedly) come from Bristol. But I think they’re even more pleased I left.
Aren’t you a bit old now to be a graffiti artist?
It seems a shame to quit just when you’re getting used to it. The police try to make out that expressing yourself on the streets is in some way juvenile, but I disagree. Otherwise, the look of your city is entirely at the mercy of hormonal teenagers or bureaucrats in city hall.
When I was in Rome recently, I saw a beautiful 15th-century chapel, and some idiot had sprayed his name right across the front of it. Do you ever look at a bit of graffiti and think, “I wish they hadn’t done that”?
I’ve never tried to justify other graffiti writers. The spray can is a tool that can be used for good or ill. Just because you’re an author, that doesn’t mean you have to justify the collected works of Jeffrey Archer.
Personally, I always try to leave a wall looking better than I found it. I want to be karma-neutral. And if I do cause criminal damage, I’m careful to only damage property owned by idiots.
What is the difference between graffiti and vandalism?
Graffiti is only vandalism when it’s done very, very well.
I particularly enjoy it when you smuggle your own art into famous museums such as the Louvre and hang it next to the old masters. Where were you proudest to hang your work?
Some of the fake historical relics I’ve inserted among Bristol’s permanent collection should be entertaining – you can’t tell what’s truth and what’s fiction. It’ll be like walking through a real-life Wikipedia.
Blek le Rat told me that all street artists like to hang around after they’ve painted something and watch people looking at it. Do you do that?
Not unless I’ve painted the wall of a pub.
Okay, here’s the big one: why do you do what you do?
It started off so I would have a story to tell; then I worked it so hard, I had nothing to say.
These days, you are one of the richest, most famous and most successful artists in Britain. Does that make you feel good or bad?
I’m under no illusions that my “success” in the art world says a lot more about other artists than it says about me. Most of the other stuff is crap. It’s pretentious, pointless and doesn’t make any sense. Whereas I’m only like that at weekends.
How is the recession affecting you? In recent auctions, your work has not been selling as well as it used to, has it?
After I did a show in Los Angeles, the attention weirded me out so much, I refused to sell anything new for two years. So most of the money was made by smart people who bought stuff ages ago and sold it on. I used to hate the perception that I was making tons of cash, until I realised how much it annoyed the graffiti purists and the Daily Mail. It’s the only way I can offend some people, so now I talk it up.
Westminster city council recently painted over one of your murals, saying that graffiti is graffiti, no matter who paints it. Given how much money a Banksy mural is worth, wasn’t its behaviour strangely admirable?
I can’t comment on any legal matters that might be ongoing.
Apparently, Christina Aguilera bought your picture of Queen Victoria as a lesbian. What else does she own?
What about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? What have they got?
Six kids, with probably another one on the way.
When was the last time you behaved like a true outlaw with a spray can and – for example – broke into a train depot at night?
That’s a job for the courts to decide.
Who do you support: Bristol City or Rovers?
I want the whole of Bristol to visit the show, so I’m not going to alienate anybody by saying what a pathetic footballing side Bristol Rovers are.
Is it true that your real name is Robin Gunningham, and that you are a public schoolboy from Bristol?
No lies, please.
My job occasionally requires a little light law-breaking, so I’ve never confirmed or denied my identity. If I keep my head down, I have a bright future in vandalism ahead of me.
Way in the future, Tate Modern puts on an exhibition called Banksy at 80. What do you hope will be in it?
The programme should read: “He established the world’s first global socialist utopia, but long before that he painted stencils of rats on things that didn’t belong to him – a look at the early life of our supreme leader.”