Backstory: A London Scene Set by Guerilla Art ; All around the City, Street Artists Are Stopping People in Their Tracks ... and Thoughts

Article excerpt

Chalk Farm, a somewhat grimy north London suburb, is the last place you'd expect to see a hotel maid. Yet as you exit the Tube station, and the litter laps around your ankles in the winter wind, the first thing you see is Leita, a maid in a black dress with a white apron and hat, cutting a lonely figure as she seems to be trying to clean up this bit of the capital.

Leita is a painting by Banksy, Britain's mysterious and notorious street artist. She first appeared on this Chalk Farm wall - overnight and without prior warning, as with all Banksy paintings - in May. Based on a maid whom Banksy met while staying in L.A., the full title of this piece of guerrilla art is "Sweeping it Under the Carpet."

Leita seems to be lifting up the wall itself, brushing rubbish underneath it. She's meant to symbolize, say Banksy's people, "the West's reluctance to tackle issues such as AIDS in Africa."

That's news to Chalk Farm residents who have lived with Leita for the past six months. "AIDS? Really? I thought it was a quirky local government painting encouraging us to put our litter in bins!" says Margaret Jessop, laughing.

For Matt Kamen, a student with digs in nearby Camden Town: "The painting is nice, but it isn't particularly profound. It's graffiti, that's all."

Town councilors agree. One chastised Banksy for failing to ask permission to spray Leita all over the wall. However, the owner of the wall - the Camden Roundhouse performing arts center - believes this is art, not graffiti, and is happy to host it.

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If all the world's a stage, then all of London is an art gallery. It feels like the world capital of guerrilla art. Spray paintings with a message, hastily made paintings, and elaborate pieces of graffiti are popping up on the sides of buildings, bus-stops, and sidewalks across the city.

For some it is vandalism, glorified graffiti masquerading as art. For others it is more than that.

"A well-placed piece of street art can make you smile, laugh, or think about what it is to be human in our modern world," argues Alex MacNaughton, author of "London Street Art,".

Guerrilla art ranges from the simple to the sublime. Some street artists merely mess with official signs to change their meaning. One nameless spray painter (many artists do not reveal their identity, given the criminal nature of their work) has been spraying an "H" in the big white signs painted on busy roads that say "BUS STOP"; so that now, many say "BUSH STOP." (This may sound like standard protest graffiti, but photos of "BUSH STOP" have appeared in guerrilla art galleries, elevating them in some people's view to art.)

On the sublime side, Banksy makes stencils that he uses to spraypaint head-turning pictures of overgrown rats or gay policemen embracing on walls around the capital. Earlier this year, a striking stencilled painting believed to be his appeared on the side of a building in central London featuring an emaciated African child listening to an iPod next to the slogan "iNeed." It stops people in their tracks.

Banksy the most famous (or infamous) of London's guerrilla artists, rarely gives interviews. But news reports suggest he was born in Bristol in 1974, that his real name is Robert or Robin Banks, and that even his parents think he's a plain old painter and decorator. Recently he has daubed the slogan "We're bored of fish" on the penguin enclosure at the London Zoo, left an inflatable doll dressed in a Guantanamo-style jumpsuit at Disneyland in Paris, and painted a live elephant pink and gold for a show in Los Angeles (at which Hollywood stars reportedly spent hundreds of thousands for his works).

These guerrillas "democratize" art, smashing out of "stuffy galleries" and painting right on the streets where we walk, talk, and work, says a spokesman for "Pictures on Walls" - an art collective showing guerrilla artists, including Banksy. …