I first met Thierry Guetta, otherwise known as Mr. Brainwash, in 2006 at the opening of the elusive British street artist Banksy’s Los Angeles show “Barely Legal.” It was impossible not to notice the eccentric, camera-wielding Frenchman as he buzzed around the crowded warehouse, enthusiastically capturing footage for what he said was his long-time passion project—a documentary about the mysterious world of street art. I didn’t think much of the encounter until several years later, by which time Guetta (fully assuming the Mr. Brainwash moniker) had emerged as a wildly successful (and controversial) street artist in his own right. With a portfolio of work that has quickly gained renown, Guetta routinely sells out solo shows in New York and Los Angeles (where it’s not uncommon for his limited-edition pieces to come with six-figure price tags). And now the camera he once wielded has been turned on himself: He appears as the mischievous main “character” in Banksy’s directorial debut, the docu-spoof Exit Through the Gift Shop, which opened in theaters over the weekend. I recently sat down with Mr. Brainwash in his Los Angeles studio to find out what everyone else apparently wants to know: What makes him click?
GOOD: What first attracted you to the world of street art?
MR. BRAINWASH: I’ve always loved art and have always surrounded myself with it. I began creating [pop] art in 1989 and decided to stop in 1993; a few years later I started filming [artists] because the human element was really appealing to me. I was attracted to all kinds of people who were creating art, but after filming artists for over a decade, I began filming some street artists. I started documenting one person and then another person and then [began focusing on] filming people creating art outside. I liked that it was kind of dangerous and interesting and surprising. Plus, most street art is put up during the night and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t sleep so it was ideal for me to follow people that do things at night. Street art is something that you live with, even if you don’t want to. It’s something that is part of you. It kind of brainwashes you subliminally.
G: What were some of your early inspirations and influences?
MB: I lost my mother when I was really young, when I was 11 years old, and I got attached to memories. I became very sentimental and was obsessed with capturing memories because I knew that life is not forever so you should enjoy it as much as possible and try to see that things are beautiful and incredible and that everything has meaning.
G: What does one need to create art? Is art school necessary?
MB: I never went to [art] school. I learned that the only thing you can do in life is to believe in something and make it happen. You can have a lot of talent but if you don’t work, you’ll never make things happen; and you can have no talent at all but if you want to work hard, you’ll make it happen. It’s all about follow-through and the belief in yourself. Sometimes people try to teach these “rules” but I think in the world of art there are no rules.
G: How did Exit Through the Gift Shop come about?
MB: It’s a movie that I was making about Banksy and he decided to turn the camera on me because he thought that I was more interesting as a character to create a story about. It’s a great movie and there is a lot of truth and life to it.
G: Were you happy with the finished product?
MB: I think it’s a great project and I feel honored to have had one of the greatest street artists make a movie about me. It’s something I [am] humble about it—there are millions of people out there and someone chose me to be this character so I’m really happy about it. There has been a good response. People like feeling like they are on the “inside.”
G: What’s the dynamic among street artists? I’ve heard stories about people who are territorial and extremely competitive and kind of make a game out of it. Is there a competition between those who are better known and those who aren’t?
MB: Like with everything else, there’s competition within the industry but I tend to keep my head down. I don’t look at what other people are doing and I don’t care what they’re saying about me. I just try to do things without hurting anybody—I have my own vision and don’t pay attention to what other artists are going to do. Life is too short to worry about other people. My objective is to make things that will make people happy and try to do things in life to try to help other people. Even if it’s to make money that I can use to help other people.
G: Do you support any causes or donate to any charity organizations?
MB: I donate money to schools and I’ve donated money to the Haiti Relief efforts. I’m donating a piece to Christie’s “Green Auction” [at New York’s Rockefeller Center on Earth Day to raise awareness around environmental issues]. I think it’s very important to give back—I mean, how much can you have? Also kids are very important to me—when I create art, I make sure that it’s acceptable to all ages. There are no graphic or explicit images. If it’s too hard or harsh, I won’t do it. I keep my work very positive—I like to promote the beauty of life.
G: How do you decide where and when you put up your art?
MB: If I see a great blank wall, I might think it looks like a good place to put something up and then I think about what could go there and then I come back and do it. But mostly when you feel like putting stuff up you take some prints and drive around and stop randomly when you feel like it.
G: What’s the most powerful thing about using the street as a canvas?
MB: The street is the street. It belongs to nobody—it’s for everybody. The street is not mine, so when I put [art] out there, it belongs to the street. The street is alive and street art is not meant to live forever—it [can have] a very short life or a very long life depending on what happens. You can do a beautiful piece one day and the next morning it can be gone because someone didn’t like it. The beauty of it is to accept that the street is the street. The street is an open gallery that people are going to visit even if they don’t want to.
G: Tell me about “Icon,” your current show in New York.
MB: It’s about iconic people. It’s only part one, there will be a part two—and maybe a part three, because I couldn’t do everyone in one show. I wanted to show different faces of people—just normal people—who ended up with extraordinary things because they believed in what they wanted to do. It’s delivering a message that I want to communicate [to the audience] that anything is possible.
G: Who are some of your personal heroes?
MB: I respect all of them—it’s like cooking. I take a little bit from all of these icons and together they totally inspire me. I see good everywhere—even in the bad things. I like Charlie Chaplin because he came from nothing but proved that you can do many different things—he was a director, he was a writer, he was a musician, he was a composer, he was a performer, and he a filmmaker. He was so many different things.
G: What advice would you give to a young artistic person who feels held back, or is afraid of what people might think?
MB: There is nothing holding you back except yourself. Art is freedom. So go for it. Don’t think too much. Follow your heart and you’ll make it happen. I believe that anybody—even the worst artist in the world right now—can create good work. If you want to make it happen, you can do it. Everybody has a diamond inside—just believe [in it] and polish it and you will shine.