By Matthew Bramlett
One of the most well-known and sought-after street artists may not even exist.
Mr. Brainwash, the eccentric filmmaker turned artist whose real name is Thierry Guetta, has seen his image and personal brand explode in recent years.
It began in 2008 with his debut art show “Life is Beautiful,” and continueswith his starring turn in graffiti artist Banksy’s documentary on the growing street art phenomenon, Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Since Banksy’s film opened last year, Mr. Brainwash (or, rather, the idea of Mr. Brainwash,) has been the subject of much speculation.
All across the Internet, there have been different sources claiming that not only does Mr. Brainwash not exist, but the entirety of Exit Through the Gift
Shop is nothing more than an elaborate prank concocted by Banksy.
Everyone involved with the project, including Mr. Brainwash himself, has stated that the stories in the film are factual.
But, with Oscar weekend right around the corner and Exit Through the Gift Shop nominated for best documentary feature, questions remain.
The film begins with Guetta, a French immigrant living in Los Angeles, documenting everything he sees in his life: his kids, his job at a vintage clothing store, even his grocery shopping. When he travels back to France to visit family, he discovers that his cousin is a prominent graffiti artist known as Space Invader.
Guetta, fascinated by the artistic enclave his cousin is a part of, becomes heavily involved in the exciting and illegal world of street art, turning into the de facto filmmaker for the underground scene.
Inspired by the artists he has been tailing across the globe, Guetta eventually creates his own art.
He invents the moniker “Mr. Brainwash” and quickly becomes an overnight sensation in a Los Angeles art scene that seems to absorb anything exciting or different, regardless of where it came from.
Guetta’s artwork includes stenciling that has been heavily inspired by Banksy’s work. His signature image of himself holding a camera has become a common sight in many Los Angeles neighborhoods.
He is mostly known for his manipulations of celebrity photos and famous paintings, which include Elvis Presley holding a toy machine gun and Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup can turned into a can of spray paint.
Much to the dismay of those who brought him to this point, including Banksy and Shepard Fairey, Guetta’s artwork is portrayed in the film as trite, nonsensical and rife with rip-offs.
Indeed, Guetta is currently being sued for copyright infringement by representatives of the rap group Run DMC for using an image of them without permission.
Many theories have been presented that seem to point out a few inconsistencies with the film’s story. Throughout the film, Mr. Brainwash is rarely seen working on his own creations, and instead has a team of hired hands doing most of the work for him.
Furthermore, while Banksy is shown in the film creating his own stencils, Mr. Brainwash admits to “scanning and photoshopping” his work. Even his signature image was created by someone else.
Despite the rumors of nonexistence, there is no denying that Mr. Brainwash has been wildly successful. He recently designed the cover art for Madonna’s greatest hits collection, and a piece featuring an image of Jim Morrison created by thousands of broken record pieces recently sold for $100,000.
This in itself plays into one of the theories about the entire idea of Exit Through the Gift Shop and Mr. Brainwash: that anyone, not just the superficial Los Angeles art scene, will buy into anything that is popular and has the right people involved.
In essence, they have been brainwashed.