Vandal? Street Art maverick? Subversive sprayer? Painter and decorator? Bristolian Bad Boy and king of the stencil, Banksy, has been described in countless ways by his defenders and detractors alike.
Despite uncertainty surrounding how best to describe him, one thing is for sure: Banksy exhibitions have single-handedly revolutionised the relationship between graffiti and the gallery, and upended any notion of the ‘traditional’ viewing experience.
Due to the temporal nature of his artwork, as well as his personal elusiveness, Banksy has very few of his artworks in permanent collections.
Between October 2003 and May 2005, however, Banksy succeeded in installing a series of his own artworks in a number of high-profile settings, ranging from Tate Britain (2003) - where he installed his painting Crimewatch UK Has Ruined The Countryside For All of Us – to Paris’s Louvre (2004) and New York’s Brooklyn and Metropolitan Museums (2005).
While Banksy makes sure to maintain at least a small degree of distance from the gallery, since 2000 his work has been shown at a large number of exhibitions, both authorised – and unauthorised.
Amongst those unauthorised exhibitions of Banksy’s work is Laugh Now, an unofficial exhibition of the artist’s work held at the Moco Museum in Amsterdam.
Beyond Banksy’s appearance in the Dutch capital, there have been unofficial Banksy exhibitions in Las Vegas, Bucharest, London and Auckland, each of which was geared towards the artist’s saleable works and prints.
You can see Banksy's justifiably adverse reaction to unauthorised shows on his website, where he names and shames galleries under the heading 'Product Recall.'
As for Banksy’s official, authorised exhibitions organised by the artist himself, here are some of the most important:
Banksy’s first ever solo exhibition was held at Severnshed – a restaurant located in Bristol’s harbourside, right next door to the infamous venue, Thekla – once home to one of Banksy’s best-known early works, The Grim Reaper.
At the centre of the small-scale exhibition, which took place in early 2000, was what Banksy described then as a tenet of all graffiti: ‘that you aren’t going to be told what to do, and that you’ll go out and make the city the way you want it to look.’
Featuring a number of stencil and acrylic works on canvas, including the Simple Intelligence Testing series (which in 2008 sold for a record £635,500 at Sotheby’s auction house in London), the artwork received mixed responses.
Commenting on the exhibition, a visitor said, ‘If he’s gunna start putting rats and spanners and things like that sprayed on stone work all over the city of Bristol, well, I mean, the place would look tattier than it does at the moment.’
Pun-filled exhibition Existencilism was Banksy’s first in the United States. Taking place at Los Angeles’ 33 1/3 Gallery in the summer of 2002, the exhibition featured what would go on to be some of the infamous street artist’s most well-known pieces.
Now iconic works such as Barcode, Queen Victoria, Love Is In The Air and Laugh Now were all shown to the public for the first time at Existencilism, which was a sell-out hit amongst punters.
A few years later, Banksy would return to Los Angeles with his 2006 exhibition, Barely Legal.
Turf War was Banksy's first major exhibition, held in London, 2003. Where was Banksy's exhibition in London? Well, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps predictably, Banksy's exhibition was not held in a major gallery, but at a warehouse in London’s East End. It featured an array of original Banksy ‘artworks’, which ranged from classic oil paintings - each ‘vandalised’ by the artist in his trademark ‘tongue-in-cheek’ style - to live animals, painted by the artist using stencils.
Amongst the most well-known features of the exhibition was Banksy’s Turf War – a satirical reworking of Winston Churchill’s The Roaring Lion portrait, taken by Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh during a 1941 visit by the British premier to the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.
The exhibition was a huge success, but caused a furore with animal rights activists. Banksy justified his use of live animals by evoking his outsider status in the booming London Street Art scene.
Commenting on the exhibition, Banksy said, ‘If you come to London to paint graffiti, you get quite a hard time for being a bumpkin […] People write over your stuff […] I thought rather than pretend I don't come from the country, I'd big up the West Country - bring in lots of animals - paint on them’.
In October 2005, Banksy ramped up his dethroning of art historical canon and the art establishment, unveiling the Crude Oils exhibition. Taking place over the course of just a week, the exhibition saw Banksy commandeer the interior of a small shop at 100 Westbourne Grove in London’s Notting Hill.
Housed within the confines of this makeshift gallery were 20 reworked versions of iconic oil paintings by the likes of Hopper, Warhol, Monet, and van Gogh. Amongst those works to feature were two of Banksy’s most famous: Sunflowers From Petrol Station - the artist’s third all time highest selling work at auction as of 2021 - and Show Me The Monet, sold in 2020 for nearly £7.6 million.
The most memorable feature of the exhibition? The gallery space was occupied by 200 live black rats.
Swapping the dreary climes of the English capital for the balmy surrounds of California, Barely Legal (2006) was held in an industrial warehouse in Los Angeles.
Supersizing his controversial artistic interventions for an American audience, this ‘three-day vandalised warehouse extravaganza’ featured a 37-year-old Indian elephant, painted to match the wallpaper of the exhibition space. A metaphorical figuration of the ‘elephant in the room’ – the elephant was used to highlight the exhibition’s tackling of social and political issues, such as growing poverty and the so-called ‘War On Terror’.
Visited by Hollywood A-listers like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the exhibition featured works including Girl With Balloon and Trolley Hunters.
Returning to his native Bristol in 2009, Banksy undertook a summer residency at the Bristol Museum, turning it – and its contents – upside down. Entitled Banksy vs. Bristol Museum, it was his largest yet at the time.
Overnight, the museum was transformed into a collection of Unnatural History, with fish fingers in gold-fish bowls, alongside displays of hot-dogs and chicken nuggets.
Comprising over 100 works of art, 78 of which were previously unseen, the exhibition saw Banksy take over the museum’s main entrance, transforming it into a sculpture hall. A mixture of bizarre installation works – some of which featured animatronic technology – and wacky, defaced oil paintings replaced the museum’s usual exhibits.
The exhibition saw a fantastic display of Banksy originals amongst the historic museum collections of Old Master paintings and sculpture. Banksy originals displayed included, Venus After Surgery, Rembrandt with Googly Eyes, The Flight to Egypt (Low Cost) and Home Sweet Home.
Banksy vs Bristol Museum was a huge hit, with over 8500 people visiting on its opening weekend alone, and featured such well-known works as No Ball Games.
Banksy’s largest exhibition to-date, Dismaland, took place inside an abandoned seaside swimming resort in Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset, England. Described as a ‘sinister’ parody of Disneyland, the exhibition’s name is a riff on a series of paintings by American artist, Jeff Gillette, whose work also featured.
Dismaland was quite unlike anything Banksy had ever created. More than just visual art, it included several interactive performances, as well as concerts by the likes of Pussy Riot and De La Soul.
Printed inside the event’s official brochure were the ominous words: ‘Are you looking for an alternative to the soulless sugar-coated banality of the average family day out? Or just somewhere cheaper. Then this is the place for you — a chaotic new world where you can escape from mindless escapism.’
A multi-sensory, immersive art ‘experience’, it engaged head-on with contentious social and political issues of the day, namely the ongoing Mediterranean migration crisis.
Exhibited alongside original artworks by Banksy himself were numerous pieces by other artists from around the world, including the likes of Damien Hirst and David Shrigley. Lasting 5 weeks, Dismaland brought in around £20 million in revenue to the local area.
On the 20th March 2017 a 10-room boutique hotel located just meters away from Israel's West Bank wall opened its doors to the public. Boasting “The worst view in the world,” the now-privately owned hotel was originally created by Banksy as a gallery, protest and hotel rolled into one, to mark 100 years since Britain’s involvement in beginning the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The building contains artwork by Banksy himself, alongside those by Dominique Petrin and Palestinian activist and artist Sami Musa. The hotel also contains a museum explaining the story of the West Bank Wall - the illegal barrier which is visible from every room - alongside photographs from the Gaza strip both during and before its devastation by war. The gallery is now also a permanent space dedicated to the display of local Palestinian artists and curators - aiming to bring their work to an international audience.
Autumn of 2019 saw Banksy create a new kind of artistic venture, beginning with the opening of a storefront in Croydon titled Gross Domestic Product. Despite buyers flocking to the store with the hope of securing themselves one of the artist’s latest editions, they were redirected upon their arrival to a website instead, on which they could register their interest in being put forward into a lottery to win only one item.
Promising on the site that “Gross Domestic Product may prove a disappointing retail experience…especially if you’re successful in making a purchase” to actually get an artwork, one had to answer the age-old conundrum “Why does art matter?” The answers were then judged by comedian Adam Bloom, with those deemed original or funny allowing one’s name to be put forward into the lottery.
Basically, GDP was a chance for Banksy to stop anyone from getting their hands on his work with the sole intention of ‘flipping’ it for more money. Gross Domestic product asked buyers to “Please buy a work of art because you like it, not because you think it’s a good investment.” And so, alongside unique signed prints and paintings, the shop included a handbag made from a house brick, various mugs and tee shirts, and even the Union-Jack stab vest worn by Stormzy at his 2019 Glastonbury show.