By Brianna Smyk
On a recent partly rainy Saturday, an artist friend of mine gathered a group of people together, took us to get drive-thru daiquiris, and guided us through the maze of Banksy street art pieces across New Orleans. It was such an authentic New Orleans way to experience some of the city’s most progressive art, I thought I would share with you a recipe for the perfect New Orleans Street Art Tour.
First, get yourself a drive-thru daiquiri. Because drinking in the car is not technically legal, you may have to take a trek outside of Orleans Parish (to a place such as the Daiquiri Bay Café at 1001 Veterans Memorial Boulevard) to actually get the drive-thru daiquiris, but this being New Orleans, I think you might be able to rack your brains to think of how you could avoid that little detour.
But I’ll move on to the core of the tour with a little Banksy background. Banksy is a British street artist, whose identity has remained elusive throughout his career. Since the early 1990s, he has been creating controversial street art that presents a grim commentary on the socio/political situation of the world. He uses stencil cutouts to spray paint his iconography (which includes rats, apes, policemen, and children usually involved in some subversive or unusual activity) onto buildings. The controversial iconography of Banksy’s graffiti-esque pieces coupled with his performative pieces (which include, for example, putting a bound dummy in the middle of Disneyland or hanging vandalized works of art on the walls of major museums) enabled him to become an internationally recognized leader of the street art movement. His works provoke controversy and commentary and push the limits of the already alternative movement.
In 2007 Banksy focused his social commentary on New Orleans when he painted a series of street art pieces around the city. These pieces marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and attempted to bring awareness back to New Orleans. Now, four years later, some of the pieces have been painted over while plexiglass coverings protect others. These plexiglass coverings broach a discussion about the ephemeral nature of street art. Street art is originally created to be temporary, but in the wake of its increasing popularity (due to its high selling prices in auction houses and galleries as well as its inclusion in recent museum exhibitions) people are finding better ways to preserve street art. But that is a conversation for you to have during your own tour.
Now that you have equipped yourself with some Banksy knowledge (and hopefully some dive thru daiquiris), you are ready to take the tour yourself. There is a map of the complete set of Banksy pieces, but we chose to visit only the pieces that had not been painted over.
Stop 1: Jackson Ave. between St. Thomas St. and Rousseau St.
In this piece, Banksy comments on the Gray Ghost, a New Orleans based street artist who paints signature brushstrokes of thick, gray paint over graffiti – and occasionally commissioned street art pieces – in the city. However, here, Banksy has mimicked the Gray Ghost’s brushstrokes himself.
Here the viewer can see the Gray Ghost’s handiwork, as he painted over the flower Banksy included in the original piece.
Stop 3: North Villerie Street at the corner of St. Ann St.
Mice are at the core of Banksy’s iconography, and this is one of Banksy’s few signature mice in the city. It is different from his usual mice because its outline was formed by crumbled bricks rather than by a stencil and spray paint.
Stop 4: North Robert St. at St. Bernard Ave.
This piece makes an allusion to Bart Simpson’s famous scene of misconduct played in the opening of “The Simpsons.” In 2010, Banksy did a dark introduction to the television show, which again transfers Banksy’s art from sub-culture into mainstream pop culture.
Stop 5: North Johnson St. at France St.
We questioned whether this piece is an authentic Banksy or not because none of Banksy’s signature shading is included. Either way, it is worth seeing as the trumpet boy, who appears to be blowing off of the run-down house on which he is painted, evokes the sense of loss of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Stop 6: Piety St. between St. Claude St. and Rampart St.
This is a bonus stop for those of you who get to this tour in the near future. It is a piece done by the street artist Swoon, in concurrence with her current installation at NOMA and as a promotion for the permanent artist space/musical house she is building in the Bywater (Dithyrambalinais set to open on July 28). Swoon uses paper drawings and wheat pastes to create her works, but because of this, her works are even more temporary than other street artists.
Stop 7: Kerlerec St. at North Rampart St.
This piece, which alludes to the Milton Salt girl, is complemented by a neighboring Candy Chang “I Wish This Was” piece. For this project, Chang placed I Wish This Was stickers around the city, allowing people to fill in the blank with something they think is needed in a particular area of the city.
Stop 7: Elysian Fields Ave. at Decatur St.
This piece has unfortunately been painted over, but is still worth seeing. It garnered much controversy as it was originally composed of a fabricated window, which allowed viewers to peer into a warehouse being looted by guards.
The New Orleans Street Art tour is definitely one worth doing (especially because no one can predict how long the pieces will last). It includes New Orleans in part of an art movement that is becoming more legitimized and recalls steps that need to be taken to further rebuild and preserve the city. Though on one hand Banksy’s art is subversive, it shines a light on the corrupt undercurrent of our society and encourages the passive bystander to become an active part of the solution.
Brianna Smyk has an M.A in Art History from San Diego State University. She lives and works in New Orleans and writes about arts and culture for NOLAVie. Read more of Brianna’s articles at www.beingbreezie.tumblr.com.