I've been meaning to write about the recurring use of rats in Banksy's work – the fly-by-night instances of art-for-art's sake (and subversive social critiques) that mysteriously appear on exterior surfaces all over England, to the joy of many and the consternation of a few (of the more humorless and uptight variety).
I can't help considering how many characteristics these nocturnal residents of the underworld share with another night prowler – the graffiti artist. Both rats and graf writers are tough, clever, unloved and impossible-to-eliminate denizens of the abandoned, trash-littered no-man's-lands between our everyday reality and the mechanisms that make its clean, well-lit surfaces possible.
The first street artist who painted rats was probably Blek le Rat, a Parisian who witnessed the beginnings of the graffiti movement on a visit to NYC in 1971 and brought it home. By 1981, he was hitting the streets of Paris with some of the first stencil graffiti. "I began to spray some small rats in the streets of Paris because rats are the only wild animals living in cities, and only rats will survive when the human race disappears and dies out," he said. "I wanted to do a rat invasion. I put thousands all over Paris." Two decades later, following in Blek le Rat's footsteps, Banksy would revive the symbol of the rat with a new element of playful humor and social commentary.
On the off chance that you haven't heard of Banksy before, he is a mysterious British "guerilla artist" who (among other pursuits) stencils subversive social and political messages on the façades of buildings all over England (and, increasingly, the world). "The art to it is not getting picked up for it, and that's the biggest buzz at the end of the day," according to Banksy.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his anonymity, Banksy's popularity among art collectors has grown to the point where a painting he stenciled on the side of a building on Portobello Road recently sold for £208,100 on eBay. (Banksy once claimed that it takes him an average of 35 seconds to paint one of his pieces.) Of course, none of that money goes to Banksy – the owner of the wall lays claim to whatever is painted on it, as well. As a result, Banksy gives away most of his art, and many consider the appearance of one of his pieces in a neighborhood as an act of public service. Others consider it vandalism. In Banksy's view, "Writing graffiti is about the most honest way you can be an artist. It takes no money to do it, you don't need an education to understand it, and there's no admission fee."
Let us consider Banky's favorite subject, the rat. Robert Sullivan, rat expert and author of Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, had this to say about the battle between homo sapiens and rattus norvegicus: "Rat-control programs are like diets, in that cities are always trying a new one. In the city, rats and men live in conflict, one side scurrying from the other or destroying the other's habitat – an unending and brutish war. Rat stories are war stories, and they are told in conversation and on the news, in dispatches from the front that is all around us – though mostly underneath." Sounds a bit like the never-ending struggle between graf writers and city governments, doesn't it?
Far from being worthless, the much-maligned rat is in fact a prodigy among animals. Its combination of intelligence, tenacity and survival instinct is arguably unparalleled in nature. A city rat, given enough time, can chew through a concrete wall to get where it needs to go – and in many cities contractors have started adding crushed glass to poured concrete to stop their inevitable tunneling. In the same sense, those who aspire to greatness in the graffiti world must have superhuman drive, cleverness, stubbornness and skill to create art in the face of the dangers and challenges involved in working in a forbidden medium. Throwing up barriers to painting seems only to encourage some graf writers. As Banksy himself noted, "If you are going to damage someone's property, it's good to show some dedication."
City governments have long ignored the fact that poisoning rat populations actually makes them stronger. The surviving rats have more food, so they get bigger, and at the same time their litter sizes increase dramatically, so that the next generation more than replaces the lost members of the previous generation, and within a few months, the population explodes. Experts say the best way to control rats is to eliminate their food source, as rat populations naturally regulate themselves according to the amount of food available.
Similarly, urban law enforcement finds itself in a no-win situation when it cracks down on tagging. Though graffiti may decline for a period, writers will find a way to get their writing on the wall, as it's impossible to control every surface of a city. Though NYC has, on occasion, managed to slow down graffiti, it always came back stronger and more determined for the hiatus, with those who withstood the heat elevated to heroic status.
Better to attack the problem at the source, by giving urban youth other outlets and options, rather than considering them worthless and unredeemable. As Banksy suggested, "A lot of people never use their initiative because nobody told them to." Yet even that unlikely-to-be-implemented solution wouldn't eliminate the problem entirely, because graffiti culture has transcended its roots, and even rich white boys crave respect.
As The Village Voice put it, "The war on graffiti raises the same issues as the war on drugs does. It's not about helping people manage their compulsions, it's about controlling a large population of young men. And as long as politicians are rewarded for their diligence at this unacknowledged task, graffiti will never play the part it can in beautifying schoolyards, abandoned buildings, and other markers of "the pale landscape of the poor." There's a wellspring of talent in these aerosol warriors, but the city is sending them to Rikers to learn about thug life."
In Banksy's philosophy, "If you feel dirty, insignificant or unloved, then rats are a good role model. They exist without permission, they have no respect for the hierarchy of society, and they have sex 50 times a day."
Rat enthusiast Robert Sullivan noted that naturalists treat wild rats as anathema, refusing to believe that they deserve any consideration. "It is the very ostracism of the rat, its exclusion from the pantheon of natural wonders, that makes it appealing to me, because it begs the question: who are we to decide what is natural and what is not?"
And who are we to decide what is art and what is not?
Rat lovers might tell you that the rat is us, and we are the rat. We live side by side – rats throng to areas where humans live, and avoid the same areas we avoid. Rats giggle when they're tickled (albeit ultrasonically), they are curious and playful, they love to be touched, they dream much as we do, can be subject to the same addictions (alchohol, nicotine, cocaine), have personality disorders linked to their upbringing, and cooperate with others when they think it will benefit them. A study recently suggested that rats may be the only species outside the primate world that is capable of metacognition, or "thinking about thinking." Perhaps their most relevant similarity to us is that they consume every resource in their environment unto famine, at which point they are forced to fight, wander or die. Rat expert Robert Sullivan writes, "I think of rats as our mirror species, reversed but similar, thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same."
Of course, it's entirely possible that Banksy never intended the rat to symbolize graffiti artists in particular. After all, he once admitted, "I'd been painting rats for three years before someone said, 'That's clever, it's an anagram of art,' and I had to pretend I'd known that all along." Perhaps Banksy's choice of the rat as metaphor wasn't entirely conscious – but rather a more a visceral, instinctual association.
Like many graffiti artists, Banksy prefers the life of the shadows, the ratlike scuttle along dark, cluttered alleys, over rooftops and through abandoned lots. "I have no interest in ever coming out," he once said. "I figure there are enough self-opinionated assholes trying to get their ugly little faces in front of you as it is. You ask a lot of kids today what they want to be when they grow up, and they say, 'I want to be famous.' You ask them, 'For what reason?' and they don't know or care. I think Andy Warhol got it wrong – in the future, so many people are going to become famous that one day everybody will end up being anonymous for 15 minutes."
All of this talk of rats has brought to mind Gunter Grass' novel The Rat, which I haven't read in about 20 years. In The Rat, mankind has finally succeeded in destroying itself, and rats have inherited the devastation left behind. The rat narrator, acknowledging her kind's penchant for fleeing sinking ships, laments, "When Earth became the ship, there was no other planet to move to... Where man had been, in every place he left, garbage remained. Even in his pursuit of the ultimate truth and quest for his God, he produced garbage. By his garbage, which lay stratum upon stratum, he could always be known, for more long-lived than man is his refuse. Garbage alone lives after him."
Certainly this only becomes more obvious the longer we continue, ratlike, to consume our resources unchecked – the crap we leave behind us every day will outlast not only our civilization, but the human race itself. Archaeologists a billion years hence will know us by our garbage. With that scale in mind, what's a little extra paint on the wall?
Ever philosophical, Banksy had this to say about the commercial detritus of the modern world: "Twisted little people go out every day and deface this great city. Leaving their idiotic little scribblings, invading communities and making people feel dirty and used. They just take, take, take and they don't put anything back. They're mean and selfish and they make the world an ugly place to be. We call them advertising agencies and town planners."
Despite the stupendous prices his pieces are fetching in the art market, Banksy has a well-publicized disdain for the "indoor" art world – and even the term "art" itself. "Bus stops are far more interesting and useful places to have art than in museums," he said. "Graffiti has more chance of meaning something or changing stuff than anything indoors. Graffiti has been used to start revolutions, stop wars, and generally is the voice of people who aren't listened to. Graffiti is one of those few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don't come up with a picture to cure world poverty, you can make somebody smile while they're having a piss."
"Some people want to make the world a better place," Banksy says. "I just wanna make the world a better-looking place. If you don't like it, you can paint over it!"
We can all agree that not all graffiti is lovely or meaningful (and that a great deal of it is really quite sloppy and pointless), yet occasionally it can be worthy of attention and appreciation. I'll leave the last word on the subject to Banksy: "People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish... but that's only if it's done properly."