The legend of Mr. Brainwash, also known as Thierry Guetta and occasionally just MBW, is one of the most extraordinary in modern art. As a compulsive documentarian of his ever waking moment (30,000 hours of footage in 12 years), the French Los Angelean achieved overnight fame as the filmmaker-cum-unbelievably successful street artist in Banksy's 2010 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. But from the start, critics have been suspicious of Guetta's meteoric rise to success, lambasting his technical skill, his derivative style, and cliched subject matter. Some speculate that the Mr. Brainwash phenomenon is an elaborate prank, spearheaded by Banksy and meant to illustrate just how brainwashed the commercial art market really is.
Guetta's latest project manifested as a commemorative 9/11 mural painted on a Century 21 wall across from the Freedom Tower, which appeared on September 11th and will remain for three weeks. In classic Brainwash style, its distinctive features -- an enormous American flag, a heart-shaped stream of water, and the words "We love New York" -- are blatantly sentimental. While media coverage of the mural has stuck to the usual condescending tone and recycled conspiracy theories, Guetta quietly transcends this noise. Besides his collaborations with the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson (who was buying his art even before Exit came out), Rick Ross, Coca-Cola, Nike, and Mercedes-Benz, Guetta insists that his work is always inspired by love, positivity, and beauty, and often for the benefit of numerous charities. So while it's possible that Mr. Brainwash is nothing more than an extremely well-kept joke, who really cares? As his friend Isaac Gindi, co-owner of Century 21, says, "He's going to be the Mozart of our century...he's hot!"
Over a leisurely brunch in Soho, we asked Guetta about the mural, his response to criticism and how he came up with the name 'Mr. Brainwash.'
Why did you choose to make the mural for 9/11 this year?
I came to New York three or four weeks ago to do a project -- I don't even remember what it was. I was getting approached left and right in New York City, and I felt like I needed to stay longer. So I changed my flight for two days later, and then I changed it again. I ended up changing it seven times in a row. I was touched by New York City. I said, "I'm 48 years old now, I need to live here." I've lived in Los Angeles for 33 years, and at this moment in my life, where I'm going artistically, I want to stay in New York. Then I went to the 9/11 Memorial Museum because it was close to the anniversary.
Was this your first time seeing the 9/11 museum?
Completely. Just before I left, I said, "I have to do something." I didn't know what, but I had already met Isaac, who [co-]owns Century 21. I looked, and Century 21 was the closest building in front of the Freedom Tower. So I called him and said, "I want to cover your building." He was like, "Let's do it!"
How much time did you spend on the mural?
About two and a half weeks, 24 hours a day. I was working and working and putting my other deadlines to the side. Everything was getting harder to go through with -- people were saying it was too big, there wasn't enough time -- but I didn't want to give up. In the end I said, "You know what, we're going to do this the old way, like we do in street art. We're going to paste." If I wasn't strong, I would've dropped. People said, "Forget it. Just let it go. Do it next year." I said, "I don't even know if I'm going to be alive next year."
How did you come up with this particular design?
When I started, I only knew I was going to include the American flag, but I didn't know how. The heart is love, so the fireman who holds the hose loves New York City, and the city loves him. The heart is dark blue -- I usually do heart things in pink, but I wanted to stay with the color of the American flag. I had to come up with a sentence, too, so I wrote, "We love New York." I wanted to say these words for everyone in New York City.
Have you read any reviews of the mural?
They haven't been very complimentary -- for example, people say that the lettering is sloppy and the subject matter is cliched. Do you think they're missing the point?
They're just trying to be intelligent, and they don't know anything. They don't come and talk to me, they just assume things. "What's with the lettering?" I'm giving you the answer. It's done with a roller -- it's supposed to be a fireman painting those letters with a roller. If I give you a roller and tell you to write something, that's how it's really going to look. It's not like I designed it with a computer.
Do you think art critics are prejudiced against your work because of your role in Exit Through The Gift Shop?
How many critiques are bad? You may count five bad reviews out of five hundred thousand that are good, but people only look for the five. People never understand the right things at the right time. They never understand about art. Pollock was a master artist, and critics at the time were like, "It's not art! It's throwing paint on the floor." The same with Marcel Duchamp, and today he is the biggest artist in modern art. Time will tell, you know. They will never take away the energy and the passion I have.
Why did you choose to call yourself Mr. Brainwash?
Mr. Brainwash was invented around the early '90s. When you watch TV, when you buy clothes, when you come to a bar or a club, when you do anything, how do you get there? Everything's brainwashing, and I used to take any kind of brand and twist it. I would take Nike, and I'd make the logo exactly the same, but with an arrow, and I'd write under it, "Just did it." Instead of Kids 'R' Us, I'd put Boys Are Nuts. I couldn't use my name when I started doing street art, so I remembered Mr. Brainwash and decided to use it. At first, I didn't sign anything, but little by little I started signing MBW. A lot of the early people don't call me Mr. Brainwash, they only know MBW.
I think people are suspicious when they see that the artist of this patriotic mural is named Mr. Brainwash. But you're saying your name doesn't necessarily represent the attitude of your work anymore?
My heart just wanted to do this mural for 9/11. It's not for Nike, it's for the people. It's about thinking of something and executing it, and that's it. I'm done. I'm happy.
Do you feel that you bring something to street art that is unique, or had been previously lacking?
I don't bring anything. I'm just following my heart. I even sign my name with a little heart.
I'm not here to judge myself, or to judge anybody. What I want to do is to give love, and bring positive messages. My messages in art are that life is beautiful, love is the answer, and never ever give up.