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Napalm

Banksy's disturbing work Napalm reworks a well-known photograph by photojournalist of the Vietnam War, Nick Ut, titled "The Terrors of War."In the original photograph, a young girl runs from her recently napalmed village. In Banksy's version, Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald have captured the child, still crying, by her arms.

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Meaning & Analysis

Also known as Can't beat that Feeling, Banksy’s disturbing Napalm print is a direct play on Nick Ut’s world-famous photograph, The Terrors of War.

Upon its first publication, The Terrors of War shook global audiences to the core with its shocking portrayal of Vietnamese children, who are depicted fleeing from a napalm blast that had just hit their home in the village of Trảng Bàng.

The focal point of the photograph is a nine-year-old girl named Phan Thi Kim Phuc. She is depicted naked, running in fear for her life alongside other children and soldiers of the Vietnamese Army. Despite suffering severe burns to her back, she survived the attack and now lives in Canada. She has since been the focus of a book entitled The Girl in the Picture by author Denise Chong, published in 1996. The year after its release, the photograph won both the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography and the World Press Photo of the Year.

In Banksy’s reimagining of the famous image, Phan Thi Kim Phuc is positioned in the centre of the composition, flanked on either side by Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald: two cartoon-like characters representing two of the world’s most litigious corporations.

This juxtaposition is one of Banksy's most cutting and provocative social criticisms. The horror of the scene is twisted and intensified by the pair of beaming characters, seemingly unconcerned by her distress, forcing the viewer to question their benevolence. Are they saving her life or guiding her to her fate?

Prevalent symbols of American commercialism, Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse appearance in this print constitutes an attack on American consumer culture. They invite us to reflect on the dangers of capitalism and its impact on the general population, especially children, and call on us to denounce its overriding lack of humanism. Napalm is laced with a sense of socio-political issues such as power, violence and national identity, and their prevelance in America and the world over.

10 Facts About Banksy’s Napalm

The Terror of War by Nick Ut

Image © National Gallery of Art, Washington / The Terror of War © Nick Ut 1972

1. What is the inspiration behind Napalm?

Banksy’s Napalm, also called Can’t Beat That Feeling, is a take on Vietnamese-American photographer Nick Ut’s Pulitzer prize-winning photograph The Terror Of War, from 8 June 1972. The original image shows children and soldiers fleeing after the South Vietnamese air force accidentally dropped napalm (a gel mixture that burns up to 1200°C) on the village. Central to the image is a crying girl, running with her hands stretched out, having been burnt in the napalm attack.

Napalm by Banksy

Napalm © Banksy 2004

2. What does Banksy’s Napalm show?

For Napalm, Banksy removed the other children and soldiers in it’s original photograph and instead features Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse, the mascots of McDonald’s and Disney, holding the girl’s outstretched hands with inappropriate, trademark grins on their faces. The two characters’ joyous smiles stand in stark contrast to the distraught expression of agony on the little girl's face – as the artwork’s other name is Can’t Beat That Feeling, Banksy throws into question which ‘feeling’ the title refers to.

Kids On Guns by Banksy

Kids On Guns © Banksy 2004

3. Who was the girl in the picture?

The girl pictured in both it’s The Terror Of War and Banksy’s Napalm is Phan Thi Kim Phuc, who was 9 years old at the time of the napalm attack. She suffered severe burns covering 30% of her body, but it helped to get her transferred to an American hospital where she received life-saving treatment.

Kim Phuc now lives in Canada and is a UNESCO ambassador. Her biography The Girl In The Picture was published in 1999.

Napalm by Banksy

Napalm © Banksy 2004