Who is Mr. Brainwash? Los Angeles-based and French born, the street artist—née Thierry Guetta—has been called a copycat, a hoax, a genius and a trustafarian. Some have accused him of being the notorious Banksy. Controversial, passionate and outspoken, the artist’s pieces—a melange of familiar pop culture images (like a portrait of Michael Jackson, below) fused with his own quirky touches (created with record pieces)—are a hot ticket in the art market, selling for as much as $300,000. Banksy found him so intriguing, that he followed the artist for his documentary that debuted at Sundance last month, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Last year, Madonna caught the Brainwash bug, commissioning him to create the cover for her album Celebration.
On February 14, Mr. Brainwash made his New York debut, filling a 15,000 square foot space at 415 W. 13th Street in the Meatpacking District for an exhibit entitled Icons: Part One. A few days before the opening, as a blizzard raged around the city, I sat down in the venue with the enigmatic artist—who spoke in a thick French accent—clad in a trilby hat, Ray Ban aviators, a leather Member’s Only jacket, his jeans and Yellow Nikes splattered in paint. I questioned him about his relationships with Shepard Fairey and Banksy, working with Madonna, his moniker and his art.
You were creating a documentary film on street artists before you became one. What made you put down the camera? The fame? The money? Were you inspired by the artists you followed? I was an artist before I was a filmmaker. I was making art just to make art, not to sell it. It was more like a decoration to myself. I did many different little businesses, and one time I decide that I wanted to stop what I was doing and start filming because I felt like filming was the strongest art that I could do. And what happened when I started filming everything, a few years later, I got to the path of street art. I started to follow street art, and I felt like it was really really interesting, really fun, it was dangerous.
What happened to your documentary? I know that the documentary was supposed to come out late 2005 or early 2006, and the documentary was supposed to come out, and the documentary was called Life Remote Control . You can still go online, on the dot com, and the trailer, it was going to come out, but it never did. It never did because when I met Banksy, he decided to ask me to wait about this film and that he would come up with something, with an idea or something. I said yes because I love the guy. I trust him. I decided to say, okay. So a year-and-a-half later, he came up with this idea to make a film about me, making a film about them.
What was it like with tables turned having the camera pointed at you? It’s just that when I make a film, you don’t hear me. I’m behind the camera, even when I talk I cut it’s off, but he turned the whole thing around, I become the one in the film, I become the kind of subject of the film. It comes to a point, this is me and Banksy, we meet, he was a very hard person to get, and I got the point to film him, trusting me, and you know, being friends, being good friends. He never trusts anybody to get images or film him, and he trusts me. He was not wrong about it because I’m still here and I’m still with him.
What made him trust you? A feeling. You don’t know if you got the connection, and I guess something happens.
What is your relationship like with Banksy now? How often do you see him? This I cannot reveal how much did I see him or things, but let’s say we are very very good friends.
And your relationship with Shepard Fairey? I’m close, you know we saw each other not long ago. Like two weeks ago, or ten days ago. But the feeling with Shepard Fairey is not the same thing with Banksy. Shepard Fairey is a friend, but Banksy, it’s like a brother. It’s not the same at all.
Why did you choose Mr. Brainwash for your moniker? I choose Mr. Brainwash like I would choose something else, but I thought that everything is about brainwashing in a way, you know—every images. I think life is about brainwashing, like when you go somewhere, you drink a chocolate in the morning, your mother brings you this yellow box and you get brainwashed from it. I got brainwashed from what I see. I thought it was a cool name and I don’t know, I just like the sound of it, and I guess it has a meaning with what I do. It started long, long time ago in the late ’80s that I create this name with one of my brothers and we were taking all logos and turning them around. Like I would take Nike—it would say “Just Do It,” and I would change it—”Just Did It.” When I decided to fall back in the art world, I didn’t want to use my name, Thierry Guetta, because it was like we were in the 2000s, people use always something, like a brand, like a name, so you had to find a name, a brand. A name that we present to you, but not your personal name. And I just took the name from the past, Mr. Brainwash. I had it, it was there, I knew that one day I would do something with it, and it came alive.
Are you trying to brainwash people with your art? It’s all about brainwashing. Even if I don’t try, that’s what it is. You know when you put something outside if you want or you don’t want, you’re going to have to see it because it’s outside, so you’ll get brainwashing. I think that any artist or anything that you see for very long time, you’ll get brainwashing whatever it is.
How did it feel to have Madonna commission you to create the album cover for Celebration? (below) I feel proud, because Madonna, I feel that she’s a legend—she’s been doing it for many many many years and she’s still here.
Have you met her in person? No, because when I started working for her, she was doing a tour, a world tour, so she was dealing with 50,000 people everyday. She didn’t have to say, “Oh, Mr. Brainwash, I have to meet him.” She has other things to do. But the at the beginning it i had to get approval, or something like this, but after, when she started to believe in me, it was like anything I wanted to do was approved right away. She always looked at it. I think she is the one who controls all the game, so she sees everything. It was great, and they let me sign my name on the front of the album, and everything that I do for her I sign my name on it, so it was pretty nice for them to accept that. I guess it’s not going to be long that we’re going to actually meet. But I feel like I know her already.
Shepard Fairey was quoted as saying about you, “the thing about him is, is that he is motivated, but he also has a lot of money and a lot of assistants and so a lot of that work doesn’t even have his own hand in it. And I have mixed feelings about all of that.” How do you feel about that? I’m not like I don’t have money, I mean I work for what I did. I lost my mother when I was 11. I lost my father when I was 18. There is nobody who gave me a dollar, I worked for what I have. And it’s not like my father or mother left me millions of dollars to live, they left me zero, and I work for what I have. I don’t think it makes a difference if somebody has money or somebody doesn’t. There are people who have millions of dollars but they don’t do anything with that. And to have some assistants, it’s for sure that when I do a show that is 15 or 20,000 square feet, I’m not going to do it alone. I don’t think, when he says something like this, I don’t think he works alone either. Today we are in the 2010. Technology, computers, machines, people, when I build an installation, I’m not going to come with a hammer, and start with nails. Even if I have 20 people and a bus, I’m still the driver, there is one driver and it’s me, so whatever comes in my head, it’s me who decides if it’s good or bad, or if it’s going to be made, or not made.
Why do you produce art that is derivative of artists like Banksy, Warhol and Fairey? People have called you a copycat as well, why not do something that is original instead? You know I follow what I feel in my heart. I’m not going to say the name because I don’t want to, but these people didn’t copy other people too? I follow my heart. And if they feel that I copy something, like I say, you cannot judge somebody from a first show, from a second show. You judge somebody from little bits, some years in his life. I have a lot of people who hate me at the beginning, when I started making the first show, and little by little after coming out with a print, and another print, little by little, they start buying the prints. And they said, “you know what, I like what he does.” Little by little you can feel that I’m not like Banksy and I’m not like Shepard Fairey—I’ve become myself.
What kind of statement are you trying to make with your art? I am trying to make a statement with art that there are no limits. You do art with your heart. It’s just you, you become the art, somewhere nobody can stop you. You continue, you evaluate, that’s why I said you cannot judge somebody from a first show. What do you know about me? Give time to people. Like Andy Warhol, when he started, people were making fun of him, “this is shit.” Now he’s in museums. Same thing with Pollack.
Your show is titled Icons: Part One. To you, what makes somebody an Icon? Somebody who creates something that we kind of live with them. When you see Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix is a simple guy that learned guitar by himself and somewhere he made the world today. There are millions of people that know who he is because he pushed on something that he loved. He really gave passion into what he loved to do and he made it iconic. The same thing with Elvis, with Louis Armstrong, the same thing with Blondie, David Bowie. It’s people who really believed with something in their heart and made it happen. They have dreams and they make it a reality.