Finding a Banksy first is magic – here's how I fluffed my chance at glory

His latest piece in London is grabbing headlines almost a decade after I unknowingly discovered one with the artist roaming nearby

Banksy painted Apple founder Steve Jobs at the entrance of the Calais migrant camp in December 2015. AP
Powered by automated translation

There is magic to finding a Banksy – even though I missed a trick when I joined the exclusive club almost a decade ago.

Though you won’t find my name next to it in the history books, I can stake a claim to being (one of) the first to see his mural in the “Calais Jungle”.

Sadly, I’d missed the elusive street artist by a couple of hours at most and I only realised 24 hours later when it was international news.

As the world was discussing the Steve Jobs artwork and its biting take on the benefits of migrants (the Apple founder was the son of a Syrian migrant), I was enviously muttering to myself about how I saw it first. As if that automatically meant it was mine. As if news app notifications pinging phones like a pneumatic drill should have read: “Bold, handsome adventurer makes historic discovery.”

New Banksy, cue hysteria

The Bristol artist’s latest piece in London hit headlines on Monday. It appeared in typical Banksy style. Pick a location, don a disguise and visit in the depths of the night, apply stencil and paint, run before being spotted, post photo on Instagram to confirm authenticity later. And try not to paint it on something easily taken.

And the rest, as they say, is hysteria.

As the obligatory herd of phone camera-waving fans stampeded down the Piccadilly Tube line to capture it, it sparked memories of what could have been in north-west France for me.

It was December 2015, I was a tabloid hack dispatched by the desk to cover a story at the migrant camp in Calais. It was home to thousands of desperate people, mainly young men from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria, fleeing who-knows-what and seeking a better life in the UK. Often by hiding in or under lorries to reach the isle.

Calais was unfondly known as the “jungle” by the British press. A photographer and I were there to find a rather unsavoury bloke from Tunisia who was allegedly running a romance scam against British women.

The old entrance to the now-demolished camp was accessible via a motorway slip road. You’d take the exit and reach a T junction. There, you could go left underneath a bridge towards Calais town centre or right to a usually muddy road that eventually became the camp.

A stencil artwork rises before the sun does

Now there are two rules when you’re in a situation that could turn ugly: always park facing the exit and be prepared to wait. Do not storm in. And tell the photographer to keep their ridiculously conspicuous telescopic lens hidden. I sometimes think it would be simpler for us to come armed with a giant foam finger reading: “We’re journalists!”

Twenty-four hours later, having been pulled back to London, there’s the same painting staring back at me on the front page of the Guardian

So wait facing forward we did. And wait, wait, endlessly wait. Between keeping an eye out for the man we were there to “front up” (journalism speak for putting allegations to someone face to face), we sat underneath the motorway underpass next to some tents. As I stared at the endless scrawls of graffiti on the concrete walls, we hatched a plan. We’d give it until 9pm and, if we didn’t see him, we’d get back before sunrise and try again.

However, when luck ran out and we returned the next morning around 6am, the graffiti wasn’t as vandalistic as it was the night before. There was a high-quality stencil-style artwork there. Was it new? I couldn't tell. I’d been staring for so long, how can you separate the delirious from the definite?

As groups of young men silently returned to the camp, many having failed to find a suitable lorry, no one else batted an eyelid. So it couldn’t have been new, must be the lack of sleep, said the photographer. Must be his incessant vaping, I whinged. It was like sitting in a steam room, I couldn’t see the chap we wanted even if he banged on the windscreen. Never mind new paintings.

Either way, it looked familiar, so we came to the conclusion that we were somewhere between distracted and suffering delusions brought on by eating dodgy French Brie in haste at a train station the day before.

Banksy makes headlines, again

Twenty-four hours later, having finished the job and been pulled back to London, there’s the same painting staring back at me on the front page of the Guardian.

“Banksy mural appears at Calais ‘jungle’,” read the strap.

“No! I knew it! We didn’t even take a photo. All his vaping … fuming! Think of what could’ve been,” I cried.

I jumped on to Instagram and there it was, Banksy had confirmed it on his account. “We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant,” he wrote in a rare public statement.

His words accompanied pictures of the mural … in daylight. Meaning he was still there after sunrise. After we were there.

And with it went my chance to become the headlines rather than write them by finally unmasking him. “Banksy rumbled in the jungle by handsome reporter,” I think would've been fair. So was the opportunity to share his more important message than the fodder I was actually there for.

“If it wasn’t for the one-man smoke machine puffing away,” I chided.

However, being first did allow me and Darth Vaper to enjoy the raw work of perhaps the world’s best-known artist before the public stormed in to cut it off, cover it in Perspex or ship it off to an auction.

That is the power of the elusive artist after almost 30 years of scribbling on walls. And the magic of Banksy shows no sign of going up in smoke.

Updated: March 19, 2024, 12:33 PM