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Published on 4th October 2016

"Still fucking here motherfuckers!": Steve Lazarides on his tense two decades with Banksy


The outspoken art dealer behind The Art Of Banksy exhibition doesn't mince his words. He tells Maxim Boon about his years working with the guerrilla art superstar.

Most artists would consider a major showcase of their work a great honour. Then again, most artists aren't Banksy, the British street art megastar who, despite the fact his true identity remains a mystery, could very well claim the title of the world's biggest art celebrity.

"He would never do an exhibition like this," says Steve Lazarides, street art champion, successful gallerist and curator of The Art Of Banksy show, coming to Melbourne later this month. "He'd fucking hate that anyone, not just me, would even consider doing a retrospective, and ironically, so do a lot of his fans. I have been totally eviscerated by haters in Australia since we announced this exhibition, and that's because he's owned by the general public. In the public mind, he's theirs. He's their boy done good. In their eyes, he can do no wrong."

When they arrive in Melbourne, the collection of Banksy's currently winging their way to a pop-up gallery space at The Paddock behind Federation Square will be the largest assembly of the street artist's work ever exhibited in Australia. In total, 80 privately owned Banksys, worth many millions of dollars collectively, will be on show alongside pieces by a carefully cherry-picked selection of local street art talent. The prestige of exhibiting such a substantial crop of Banksys - including some of the artist's most iconic designs such as Girl With Balloon - is undeniably gold-plated, but transplanting these guerrilla artworks from the street to a gallery is considered sacrilege by some.

Lazarides is, however, uniquely qualified to mount this landmark retrospective. The British art dealer and agent may now be counted among the world's most influential authorities on street art, but two decades ago he sold Banksy's early efforts from the boot of his car. Did he know in those early days that his artist mate would become famous on a scale comparable to Hollywood A-listers? "I had no fucking idea what so ever," Lazarides candidly reveals.

"As things escalated it just became increasingly surreal. We went from selling things for 50 quid to selling things for £50,000, over the course of about three years. The only way I could ever deal with it at the beginning was by not saying the whole price, because if I had to say 'That'll be 50 grand,' I would have burst out laughing. I just had to say 'That's 50, mate,' with a bit of a cheeky smile on my face. But I'd be thinking, 'Fuck me, that's 50 grand for a bit of canvas with some spray paint on.' When you're in the eye of that hurricane it's very difficult to get any perspective on anything."

Lazarides became Banksy's first agent, but the pair parted ways eight years ago after more than 12 years working together. They no longer speak. "Our partnership ran its course. We worked together, hand in glove, for so many years, but we kind of fell out. Not in a bad way, but not in a good way either," he says. "We were just a couple of daft kids from Bristol, we didn't have a fucking clue what we were doing. We went from nowhere to him being this global superstar and me running this ridiculous gallery. But eventually, we just found it difficult to be around each other. It was like, 'Do you know what, the colour of your trainers is pissing me off today,' or, 'The way you laughed on the phone just then was fucking irritating.' We had to go be our own people. I didn't want my whole career to be a footnote in his history."

Banksy wasn't the first artist to spray stencils, nor was he the first to traffic in a politically charged message. And yet, his brand of caustic, irreverent satire has connected with more people than any street artist before him. The secret of this success, Lazarides believes, is the direct simplicity of Banksy's work. "When we got started it was a highly political time - it was the late '90s, the UK was in the middle of a recession, there was the war in Iraq. Banksy's girlfriend always described his politics as being like a bloody sixth-former's [year 12 student's]. She was spot on. He managed to put a very simplistic message on what were very complex situations and this really resonated with the public."

Street art as social commentary has proven such a successful (and straightforward) strategy, Lazarides, who now represents an impressive portfolio of celebrated street artists, is exasperated by graffiti without a message. "I don't understand why more of these fucking idiots out there, spraying bubbly, shitty, colourful letters on the street, cannot see that by actually trying to say something people might take more notice. There's a lot of stuff happening in the world today. They shouldn't be short of inspiration."

Banksy's anti-establishment politics might be his most explicit contribution to the art world, but Lazarides also credits him with transforming the public perception of urban artists. In typically outspoken fashion, he believes today's street art community are overly complacent about the freedoms they now enjoy. "These kids don't realise that he earned them the right to make art on the street. Even as recently as 15 years ago people were getting busted, people were getting beaten up. Nowadays, graffiti isn't anti-establishmen. Street artists are the vanguard for gentrification."

In fact, it's the spectre of graffiti's illegality that led to one of the most intriguing elements of Banksy's global stardom: his secret identity. Lazarides is one of the few people who know the truth of this hotly debated alias. "Who doesn't love a mystery eh? But the anonymity thing was never a clever marketing ploy. It was self-preservation, not self-promotion," he says. "To be honest, I think as his celebrity has increased the anonymity thing has hampered him as much as it's helped him."

Over the years, various speculations, often peddled by the mainstream media, have alleged the true identity of the artist. Most recently, Massive Attack frontman Robert Del Naja, aka 3D, was suggested. Lazarides calls bullshit. "I've known D for a long time. He has this massively successful career as a pop star, so when the fuck is he managing to go around the world doing all this street art. If you think about it, it's a bloody stupid guess."

Banksy fever may have captured the public imagination, but Lazarides' decision to stage the Art Of Banksy exhibition isn't merely about capitalising on the artist's popularity. "He has been largely ignored by the art establishment," he claims. "He is the most recognised artist living in the world today. Period. And the lack of museum recognition he's had borders on shocking. They don't like him because he's popular and that blatant lack of respect from the upper echelons of the art world is unbelievable. They've said over and over, time and again, 'It's not going to last.' Well, it's 20 years later and we're still fucking here motherfuckers."

First published 4 Oct 2016, for The Music.



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