I fully admit that this may seem strange to many readers of this blog, but one of my favorite things to do after reading a historical novel is to read up about the facts of the history the novelist used. Similarly, if a novel I’m reading revolves around some particular subject–anthropology, math, whatever–I tend to look for a book (or at least a wikipedia page) on the topic to find out whatever I can about it. So it is a particular pleasure for me to be able to introduce these two matching books about graffiti culture. Adam Mansbach’s Rage is Back delves deeply into the world of hip hop and graffiti, starting in the late 80s and then flashing forward to the present. Meanwhile, Will Ellsworth-Jones’s Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, ostensibly a biography of one of the most famous graffiti artists of all time, in fact offers a nonfictional guide to the exact same time period and culture, though it spans a much wider geographic range since Banksy himself grew up in Britain. In any case, if Mansbach’s book piques your interest in street art, Ellsworth-Jones’s should be the next one you pick up.
MANSBACH, Adam. Rage Is Back. 304p. Viking. Jan. 2013. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780670026128.
Adult/High School–In 1987, at the height of hip-hop and graffiti culture’s popularity in New York City, Billy Rage and his Immortal Five graffiti crew go out and tag the town in celebration of the birth of his son Dondi. The crew gets caught and one member is killed by Anastacio Bracken, the toughest man on the NYPD Vandal Squad. In revenge, Rage goes on a tagging spree, leaving his message on buildings, subway cars, and zoo animals. He then goes underground, resurfacing after having spent 18 years in the jungle apprenticed to local shamans. During this time Bracken has worked his way up the political ladder and is now running for mayor. He hears of Rage’s return and is still determined to destroy him and what remains of the crew. Dondi convinces Rage to fight back using the tools he knows best. This book is a wild ride, immersing readers in old-school hip-hop mentality while providing education on graffiti styles and culture, flavored with copious drug use and a little magical realism. The story is told from Dondi’s point of view, making it accessible to teens. They will also be drawn in by observing Dondi’s tumultuous relationship with his parents and the other adults in his life, framed by the colorful exploration of the roots of graffiti and hip-hop culture.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA
ELLSWORTH-JONES, Will. Bansky: The Man Behind the Wall . 336p. St. Martin’s. Feb. 2013. Tr $27.99. ISBN 9781250025739.
Adult/High School–For many, graffiti is urban blight: something to be eradicated quickly. For some, it’s art. For others, it’s a way of expressing themselves. For Banksy, it’s a living. Who is Banksy? He’s possibly one of the most famous “street artists” out there, but also one of that world’s biggest ciphers. In this completely unauthorized biography, Ellsworth-Jones focuses on the rise of street art in the world in general, in Bristol, England specifically, and Banksy’s role in that rise. Is his art really graffiti? His use of stencils suggests not, and several other graffiti icons have feuded with him over his work and style. He’s famously private, yet was nominated for an Oscar for the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, and did the artwork for a Blur album. The biggest question about his art is how he’s making money from it–how do you sell a building wall? What really is a “Banksy,” since authenticating that wall’s art could lead to legal problems? Given the ephemeral nature of street art, should Banksy’s work be preserved? If yes, what about that of other street artists? Or is it all vandalism of public property and should be destroyed? This book raises those questions and more as the Ellsworth-Jones explores her subject’s life and world. Casual readers will learn more about graffiti as an art form–perhaps appreciating what they see when they see it–while Banksy fans and artists in all genres will learn more about this enigmatic figure and his work. A comprehensive bibliography includes links to many websites about street art.–Laura Pearle, the Center for Fiction, New York City