“I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” — Banksy
Despite his opinion stated above, Banksy has managed to change the face of art. He has made a once closed off industry reserved for the rich, educated and able into something accessible to the common man. London’s Wooster Collective notes, “Like Andy Warhol before him, Banksy has almost single handedly redefined what art is to a lot of people who probably never felt they appreciated art before. By being an iconoclast, and in the process becoming a mythic hero for a lot of people, Banksy has become an incredible icon in our society…” His work speaks for those living in urban environments, those whose voices are not heard. He loves using rats as subjects — he claims they are his favorite because they have invaded everywhere, high to low a rat can and will find its way in. To Banksy the rodents represent the little people, the unloved, those forgotten by the invisible hand of corporate and government forces that seems to control every aspect of the day to day. He has single handedly transformed graffiti into contemporary art — Street Art — and become the world’s most famous vandal. We don’t know what he looks like, but we know quite a bit about his opinions as they are slathered across walls in almost every major city in the world. His notoriety is legendary — Ralph Taylor, a contemporary art specialist at Sotheby’s, states “He is the quickest growing artist anyone has ever seen of all time” — but no one has ever seen his face. He insists upon anonymity; it is his way of avoiding responsibility both in terms of the upkeep of fame (openings, appearances, etc.) and the illegality of his work. He is famously skilled at reducing ideas down to simple visual elements — referred to as Red Nose Rebellion — and his stencil technique allows for a sometimes astonishingly clean and readable aesthetic. Politically he is an anarchist environmentalist with nihilistic propensities, firmly anti war, capitalism, fascism, imperialism and authoritarianism. But even with all of those isms he never takes himself too seriously. When commenting on his political leanings he explains, “Sometimes I feel so sick at the state of the world, I can’t finish my second apple pie.” His work serves as a critique exploring the human condition with themes of greed, poverty, hypocrisy, boredom, despair, absurdity and alienation in the most straightforward and humorous way possible. You certainly don’t need a degree in art history to understand what Banksy is saying in his art. But alas, there lies another piece of the endless swirling controversy that surrounds Banksy — is it art? Or is it just vandalism? Charlie Brooker, a columnist for The Guardian, comments “His work looks dazzlingly clever to idiots.” In 2008 the Westminster City Council declared that all graffiti will be destroyed no matter how renowned the person behind it may be. He’s been a thorn in the UK’s side for years now, always managing to escape their punitive measures and always striking again. But when it comes to Banksy, the coolest aspect of his life and times is what is called “The Banksy Effect.” Through the popularity of his own work he has managed to help other street artists gain attention too, and in this way has made the contemporary art scene that much more interesting.
In 1990 Banksy began his legacy as part of Bristol’s Dry BreadZ Crew, a group of local graffiti artists. He quickly learned that he was not fast enough for free hand. As he explains, efficiency is key and if you can’t get the piece done before the cops show up you’re busted. He thus devised a stenciling technique — which many in the graffiti community consider cheating. His stencils — often pieces of cardboard or thick stock that have hand drawn or printed images on them — are cut out by hand and then placed on the surface in order to quickly guide the spray paint into place. Since the beginning he’s been working with anti war, anti capitalist and anti establishment messages and frequently used rats, apes, cops, soldiers, kids and the elderly as his subjects. His work got its first bit of exposure in 2002 with the exhibit Existencilism, which is also the name of his first self-published book. His next exhibit Turf War came the following year and was held in an empty warehouse which Banksy filled up with hand painted live animals. Despite safe conditions there were of course protestors at the site, which proved to garner only more attention for the exhibit. He started getting more creative after this and began a series of “subverted paintings,” oil paintings of famous works which he would then paint over. For example, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers wilting on the canvas or the Mona Lisa mooning the viewer. The paintings were gathered up and shown in a 2005 exhibit which also featured live rats wandering about. The creativity continued, and he decided it was time his work was shown with the greats. So he snuck into museums disguised in a trench coat and full beard (not that anyone could recognize him anyway, but he totally went for it, ya know?) like the Louvre and Tate Modern where he covertly hung his pieces. Some were taken down but others still remain — he got four pieces up in museums in New York, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the New York Museum of Modern Art, and to this day two are still hanging on the walls. Our personal favorite is the tale of how he visited the Natural History Museum and left behind the taxidermied creature Banksus militus vandalus — a taxidermy rat holding a spray paint can.
He isn’t always just fucking with the old guard though. Beyond challenging the art world’s status quo, he has his own agenda to advance. Socially, politically, environmentally…Banksy has a lot to say. During the summer of 2005 he ventured to the Palestinian side of the West Bank barrier and produced 9 pieces on the wall, including children digging their way through to palm trees and beach scenes as well as a ladder that went up and over.
In 2006 he visited Disneyland and left an inflatable doll in the desert surrounding the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride dressed as a Guantanamo Bay prisoner complete with orange jumpsuit, black hood and handcuffs. You can only imagine their surprise. 2006 was a busy year for him because he also took a stand against America’s love for frivolous celebs — the target: who other than the queen of unimportance, Paris Hilton herself. She had just released an album, aptly titled Paris, and our dear Banksy went to almost 50 different UK record stores, replacing her album with one containing his own cover art and mixes by Danger Mouse including songs titled “Why Am I Famous?” “What Have I Done?” and “What Am I For?” 500 copies were switched out and not one person returned the faux versions. Not one. The cover art depicted Hilton digitally altered to look topless, another showed her chihuahua Tinkerbell’s (see and why did I know that dog’s name off hand? That does not require a citation, that fact actually was lurking in the recesses of my mind. Sigh.) head replacing her own, and one more had Hilton exiting a luxury vehicle in front of a crowd of homeless people with the tag “90% of success is just showing up.”
For the three year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina Banksy went down to New Orleans and produced a series of murals on abandoned buildings, sites that had still not been tended to years after the disaster. One shows soldiers stealing a tv from a shop window, another shows Abraham Lincoln homeless and wheeling a shopping cart. He even went so far as to tap into the local graffiti scene, painting a depiction of New Orlean’s “Gray Ghost” a man who has been patrolling the city and painting over all graffiti he can find with the same shade of gray since 1997.
Also in 2008 his work showed in his first ever NYC exhibit. He found a vacant storefront in downtown Manhattan and quickly erected the Village Pet Store & Charcoal Grill. Many passersby did not even realize the store was an exhibit. The windows were filled with animatronic animals — a rabbit applying makeup, a mother hen watching over her flock of baby nuggets as they pecked at dishes of BBQ sauce and even a full size leopard swinging its tail. This was the first time he had worked with animatronics, and unless someone told you there was absolutely no way to know that the work was Banksy’s — not one piece of graffiti or a single painting was in the shop. The store clerks remained in character, dutifully answering customers questions and never once acknowledging that they were inside a display. When asked what brands of pet food were available they would reply that there was nothing to buy except hype…and of course the mutated pets. Visit the official website here.
Then in 2009 he put the spotlight on global warming, creating a piece saying “I Don’t Believe in Global Warming” submerged in water. It was around this time that the Westminster City Council declared that no matter how famous Banksy might be they will still get rid of any of his work that appears within the city bounds. The council stated that he had “no more right to paint graffiti than a child” and Robert Davis the commissioner explained, “If we condone this then we might as well say that any kid with a spray can is producing art.” The overall feeling of Westminster, as well as other cities, is that graffiti at its core is just a blight on the community and makes areas feel unsafe and threatening. And this is where the core contradiction of graffiti//contemporary street art lies. Yes, it is illegal. Yes, it is practiced by people who couldn’t give two shits about what the establishment wants them to do — for example, working on a commission only basis would rob the art of one of its most fundamental elements: the thrill. But what do you do when a graffiti artist’s work is pulling in hundreds of thousands of euros at auction? Well if you’re the city of Westminster, you paint over it. It’s important to understand how ravenous the art world is for Banksy’s work — some of it is even auctioned as is on the street, leaving the buyer to deal with removing it…even if it’s on public property where removal will cause damage. Even his smaller side projects sell far beyond their estimated values. From 2004-2006 he distributed a 10 pound “note of Banksy,” dropping handfulls of them atop crowds and in public outdoor areas. The bills featured the head of Princess Diana instead of the Queen and said “Banksy of England” instead of bank of England. The notes now sell for over 200 pounds on eBay. If you remove the illegal element of his work, does that in turn remove the value? It’s all quite a big conundrum, but it’s incredible how the hype surrounding this man has truly revolutionized and revitalized an industry. Aside from Banksy’s work drawing high rollers to viciously compete at auction, it has also inspired other street artists to up their game and incorporate a new found focus into their work. Particularly since now big bucks are involved. A striking example of this happened in 2007 at a street art exhibit featuring not only Banksy but also Faile, Space Invader, Swoon and Shepard Fairey. It was expected that Banksy’s work would once again break auction records, but instead something curious occurred. A piece by Nick Walker, estimated at $6,000 sold for over $100,000. Paper Magazine columnist Marc Schiller comments, “I couldn’t help but ask myself: “How the fuck can a Nick Walker sell for over $100,000?” It’s not that Nick isn’t a talented artist. He is. But $100,000? The price is not only astronomical, it’s absurd. Again, only one explanation: the Banksy Effect.” New energy, new focus and most of all new money. Below you will find some of our favorite pieces of urban street art — and whether they’ve got Banksy to credit or if they despise him, the reason we’re featuring them is because of that legendary street rat. [So artists, if you're reading this, we promise we aren't crediting the awesome-ness of your work to Banksy -- just giving him a nod for helping us direct our attention to you. Loveyoumeanit.]
Some of our favorites:
Leon Keer, et al
Mori Para Poder Vivir, Simeon Cummings, Isabel Paula Sanchez Garcia, Albert Mosoll Vives
Skip Waste Project: turning dumpsters into art
Peter Gibson aka Roadsworth
Unknown — if you know the artist, please comment!