Tricks on the Brain


For L.A.-based street artist Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash, art is “simple” and the key to curating an exhibition is “Bring, bring, bring.” The art world refuses to take him seriously, but the Frenchman tries not to let that get to him. It’s Tuesday afternoon, two days before the opening night of his second show, “Icons,” and he’s sitting, in aviators and paint-splattered jeans, in the rented Meatpacking space he’s already trucked more art into than he could ever dream of including in the show. One of his many assistants shouts, “Le camion arrive!” More trucks.

They’ve been dropping off heaps of Warhol-esque portraits-stencil headshots of supermodels, celebrities, and notably tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Piled up in the back of the room are seemingly endless variations on the Madonna image that MBW (as he’s often called) did for the cover of her latest album. Many of the three-dimensional works-an actual New York taxi cab, encased in a Plexiglas toy box; gargantuan “spray cans” bearing the labels of Pepto Bismol, Hershey’s chocolate, and Campbell’s soup—are Claes Oldenburg via, again, Warhol. LEFT: WARHOL MARILYN

“Like I say to Banksy: I’m a kid, and I do shows like a kid,” MBW explains.

That may be so, but recently his profile has had a growth spurt. At the opening of MBW’s debut show two years ago, which took place in an old CBS studio complex in Hollywood, the line to get in was around the block. Now even Banksy, the friend and mentor who helped turn MBW from a documenter of street art into a creator of it, isn’t quite sure what to think. “He didn’t know how deep I would get in the game,” MBW says.

Still, MBW complains that in Banksy’s new documentary about street artists, Exit Through the Gift Shop, he comes across as more of a player than he really is. (The film, which premiered at Sundance, relies heavily on the footage MBW shot over the past decade or so.) “There are some things I felt that it’s not exactly me,” MBW explains in his imperfect English. Embedded in Banksy’s film, he thinks, are the familiar criticisms: his work is too much about making money, and he has other people do it for him.

“I might have ten people in my bus, but I’m the driver,” MBW insists, adding that he “[doesn’t] fucking care” about money. “Shepard Fairey said somewhere that I wasn’t mature enough, as an art person, to come up with a massive show like this.” His answer to that one: “There’s no rules in art.”

At that opening of his L.A. show, “Life Is Beautiful,” MBW went around thanking fans and gave free prints, many of them Elvis prints, to the first 500 people to show up. He does his colorful, inoffensive tagging in broad daylight, and says his main hope is that people “enjoy” his art and maybe even get inspired to make their own.

“It’s not hard to make art,” he says. “You don’t have to learn about it±you just have to believe in yourself.” Of all the unshaven, cigarette-smoking French artists the world has seen, MBW might be the most adept at the very American language of “You Can Do It.” Of course, to skeptics—like the art writer I told in passing that I was about to interview Mr. Brainwash—that fluency is a red flag. “Total fraud,” was the writer’s immediate response.

Is MBW a less excitable version of Mark Kostabi, the East Village painter who made a profitable mockery of the go-go 80’s art market? He lacks (or appears to lack) Kostabi’s eagerness not just to be a celebrity, but to act like one; a high-school dropout, MBW also lacks Kostabi’s education. “I lost my father, I lost my mother, and I had to get into life and start to make my own world and try to make some money,” MBW explains.

These days, with some of his pieces commanding six figures, he says time is more crucial than money. “I’m ADD. I don’t go on vacation,” he says. You get the impression he wants to fill a thousand trucks with his work. The full name of the New York exhibition is “Icons: Part One,” he clarifies, “because I try all the time to add one more, one more, but I couldn’t represent everyone.” Through his portraits, he pays homage to Hirst, Magritte, Sinatra, Kate Moss, and seemingly thousands more.  It seems like the only thing that’s more difficult for him than taking a break is deciding what not to include in the show.

“I accept everything. I accept everyone,” he says. “I feel glad that on the Internet we see some of [my works] going for $2,500. Some artists don’t want guys to resell [their work] on eBay. Fuck that! Let them make money. This is what the world is about. If a kid comes and buys two posters and sells one for three times the price, I feel really happy for him. I hope he can sell it and buy a computer, if he needs a computer.”

After all, there’s more where that poster came from. “If you fuck up on a piece, it’s just one piece,” MBW says. “You put it on the side, and that’s it.”