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Culture & Press news – Embassy 38

Going underground

Pierre de Villiers finds out how the world’s most secretive and sought-after graffiti artist wound up doing a paint job on the Swiss Ambassador’s garage.

His iconic graffiti stencils crop up everywhere, from the West Bank wall to LA and London and have spawned thousands of T-shirts. Celebrities from Angelina Jolie to Kate Moss and Cristina Aguilera fall over themselves to bag his originals. And his documentary taking a playful sideswipe at the commercialisation of his own artform was nominated for an Oscar. Yet before this reclusive urban guerrilla artist was famous, Banksy was invited to do a paint job on the Swiss Ambassador’s underground garage.

It is the stuff of urban legend: beneath the Residence’s impressive wall hanging by Le Corbusier (himself a pioneering rebel of modern art, architecture and urban living) is a seldom-seen subterranean gold-mine of graffiti, bearing the unmistakable Banksy tag.

In fact, it’s a toss up which art would sell for more. Not two weeks ago, a Banksy collection fetched more than £400,000 at a Bonhams auction and the Residence’s urban art gallery has been estimated at a cool £1 million.

To keep Banksy’s identity secret, he was smuggled into the Residence in the dead of night – to decorate the car park

The stencils bear all the Banksy hallmarks of subversion, anti-capitalism and irony. There’s a mural of 21 portraits of Vladimir Lenin sporting a Mohican with the slogan Vulture Capitalists. There is also a menagerie of animals that Banksy favours: a rodent (not his iconic sewer rat, but a flame-throwing Mickey Mouse), an ape and a French poodle apparently fantasising about a burly British bulldog-poodle.

One pillar features a Mona Lisa with a green rifle sight painted on her forehead; another has a menacing policeman juxtaposed with a small advisory note: “Laugh now but one day we’ll be in charge” – a message which echoes the original idea behind the urban art gallery.

So how did the land better known for bankers land Banksy? In late 2000, a pair of Swiss artists and three Brits – Banksy and his spray-mates Slug and Chu (whose contribution includes a 3D 'TurnTableTank' crashing through the wall, called Swiss on a roll) – were invited to the Embassy and given diplomatic immunity to spray with impunity.

To keep their identity secret, they were smuggled into the Residence in the dead of night to decorate the car park in preparation for a garage rave to launch the Embassy’s Next Generation cultural programme in 2001.

“We wanted to engage with the next generation of people and artists who will shape the future”
Wolfgang Amadeus Bruhart

It was originally intended as a temporary installation but the Ambassador at the time, Bruno Spinner, liked it so much he decided to make it a permanent feature. And unlike some less scrupulous landowners who have woken up to find a Banksy on their wall and chipped it off and flogged it, this display is here to stay.

It forms a great backdrop to youth-themed events at the Embassy, which have included the BBC YourGame project, a social inclusion project using sports to inspire marginalised youngsters.

“The graffiti art in the Embassy’s garage shows Switzerland’s urban and creative side through a dialogue with young British artists who emerged from underground art movements and street culture,” explains Swiss Ambassador Anton Thalmann. “This image will be showcased again at the House of Switzerland at Glaziers Hall during the Olympic Games in London this summer.”

“The Embassy’s garage shows Switzerland’s urban and creative side through dialogue with young artists”
Ambassador Anton Thalmann

The brainchild of the Swiss cultural attaché at the time, Wolfgang Amadeus Brühart, the Next Generation series was organised at the start of the new century "to engage with the next generation of people and artists who will largely shape and determine the future".

A decade later, the public voted Banksy as the Greatest Living British artist. And the Olympics, with its focus on young people, incorporates a stylised graffiti tag in the logo. Clearly the Swiss are way ahead of the game.

Swiss footballer Philippe Senderos checks out Chu’s 3D tank

Dark secret – Banksy gave the Embassy garage a makeover and left a message for those in charge...

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