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He’s gone with a trace, and some finely-shaded stenciling: a rat sketching toxic, splattered red paint, a lone American Indian sitting on the sidewalk defiantly holding a NO TRESPASSING sign.

All of Banksy’s fly-by-night murals and markings in San Francisco seem to be accounted for, with local blogs left to quibble over the pieces. (See map below for locations and photos.)

Near Cafe Prague on Mission Street

Was he here? Were they done by his hand?  If they’re the handiwork of assistants but his vision, should they still be considered Banksy originals?

On Valencia near Amensia.

Then there are a few peripheral shreds of evidence and hearsay: did the underground artist truly shut down a boutique denim store on Valencia Street for a private shopping session, as an employee at Self Edge claims. Was it all a publicity stunt for his new film?

And who is Banksy, a Bristol street artist Time just announced on its list of 100 most influential people of 2010? Other artists included David Chang, the creator and owner of the restaurant Momofuko in Manhattan and Chetan Bhgat, a former investment banker turned writer.

Though he doesn’t sell original photos of his murals, and many of his pieces found at art auctions were removed and sold without his authorization, Banksy has released a number of books spilling with quotes, stories and pictures of his work. What does he think of life and competition?

“The human race is an unfair and stupid competition. A lot of the runners don’t even get decent sneakers or clean drinking water. Some people are born with a massive head start, every possible help along the way and still the referees seem to be on their side. It’s not surprising some people have given up competing altogether and gone to sit in the grandstand, eat junk food and shout abuse. What we need in this race is a lot more streakers.”
— Banksy (Cut It Out)

Fellow street artist Shepard Fairey, designer of the iconic Obama “Hope” poster, wrote on Time’s website, “Many people recoil at the thought of a guy in a hoodie with a spray-paint can and something to say. Others foam at the mouth when they see the same guy’s artwork auctioned off for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Banksy just laughs at all of it.”

Fairey continued, he has “an ability to make almost anyone very uncomfortable. He doesn’t ignore boundaries; he crosses them to prove their irrelevance.”

Banksy began to capture the art world’s attention around 2000. Since then, he’s built street sculptures murdering the nostalgic British phone booth, sent a string of whimsical images quipping along the West Bank barrier, painted a live elephant for a gallery show, and stealthily planted his own work in fine art museums, including a yellow-smiley-faced “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre. Around the globe, his sardonic spray-painted stencils slyly denounce the elite and what he believes to be abuses of authority.

“Is graffiti art or vandalism?” Banksy asks himself on his official website. “That word has a lot of negative connotations and it alienates people, so no, I don’t like to use the word ‘art’ at all.”

Banksy’s taste for stunts and subversion even subsume his new documentary film.

Exit Through The Gift Shop, which recently premiered in San Francisco, has been billed as “the world’s first street art disaster movie.”

The original filmmaker, Thierry Guetta, started filming various street artists years ago, managing to capture rare video footage of Banksy and others.

But it turned out Guetta had no idea how to make a film, so Banksy took over the footage and turned the camera on Guetta – who in reality became Mr. Brainwash, a “ridiculous poseur” street artist, says Fairey, who rose to stardom with his own big-shot show of Banksy-inspired pop art in Los Angeles in 2008.

The film turns into Banksy’s critique of the art world, said Fairey in a radio interview in New York. Not really an art prank, but “a very shrewd way of turning the table on a situation that was very inconvenient for Banksy and me … a way for him to comment on the very thing he’s participating in … illuminating the good and the bad.”

“The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little. ”

Fairey elaborated on his fellow street artist, “All these ideas validate being human.” He lists examples of Banksy’s work. On loss: “A painting of a girl with a heart-shaped balloon that’s been cut and is being taken away by the wind.”

“He takes something we’re familiar with and makes it as absurd as it should be again – the idea of war being something we totally accept.” Fairey mentions a satirical piece of President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier stunt in which Banksy has added the president holding an applause sign.

“These things are ridiculous and we should recognize them as ridiculous.”

The murals that have appeared over the past two weeks are not Banksy’s first work in San Francisco – an image of a man rappelling down a building lasted a few days at the corner of Haight and Fillmore streets before being painted over a few years ago.

The city spends $20 million removing graffiti each year. Whether these new pieces will remain is still up in the air. The Department of Public Works will be meeting with each building owner to make sure he or she approved the graffiti beforehand, ABC News reports. If he does not have permission, the city’s “graffiti czar” Mohammed Nuru said, “We’ll be right behind him, painting it out.”

“The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit…. The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff…. Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours, it belongs to you. It’s yours to take, rearrange and reuse. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head….”

But street artists like Fairey and Banksy accept their work may be short-lived.

“Some people want to make the world a better place. I just wanna make the world a better-looking place. If you don’t like it, you can paint over it!” Banksy has proclaimed in past interviews.

In Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, Banksy again defends graffiti:

Bus stops are far more interesting and useful places to have art than in museums. 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.”

Where to find Banksy’s six new murals in San Francisco

View Banksy in San Francisco in a larger map