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Flying Copper is an iconic example of Banksy's early work, where a heavily armed British police officer dons angel wings and a yellow smiley face.
On a flat coloured backdrop, sky blue or pink depending on the edition, Flying Copper depicts a strange and paradoxical character: the policeman, fully equipped with machine-gun, helmet, walkie-talkie and handcuffs, but topped with a striking, stick-on face and a pair of small angel-like wings. The smiley is both a nod to 1990s acid house culture and the innocence of childhood, depending on your interpretation.
These Banksy prints were released in 2003 as 150 signed and 600 unsigned editions, all featuring the yellow acid-house smiley face. There are also a select few rare Artist's Proofs with a pink smiley instead.
Flying Copper was Banksy's first print release in collaboration with Steve Lazarides and were originally sold for £40 each from the back of Lazarides' car. It first appeared under a number of giant cut-out paintings suspended on cardboard from the ceiling at Turf War, Banksy’s first major exhibition in a warehouse in East London in 2003.
Flying Copper murals were then spotted on the streets of Vienna, London and Berlin. Some appeared with a distinct red Banksy tag through the middle, others had a red, blood-like splatter. A railway bridge in Shoreditch also once featured a row of Flying Coppers, but unfortunately part of this installation was stolen and subsequently featured in a 2012 documentary entitled How to sell a Banksy.
Banksy’s artwork, like most of his creations, is based on the appropriation of pop culture and contrasts. There is a clear satirical disparity between the happiness and simplicity of the smiley, and the policeman’s armour. The smiley face and the angel wings are angelic, whereas his equipment evokes oppression and threat. Flying Copper underlines a theme consistent in the artist’s work – scepticism towards figures of authority and power, a subject also dealt with in Love is in the Air, Monkey Queen or Turf War.
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Because of the ambiguity surrounding the Flying Copper image, the saturated smiley face that obscures our view of the policeman is open to interpretation. For many, it is a nod to the innocence of childhood and its associated ignorance, for others it is simply lifted from the acid house rave logo - ubiquitous as a motif in the 1990s. The contrast between the smiley face and the threatening presence of the so-called ‘peacekeeper’ however, is one that clearly fascinated the artist, as Banksy returned to this contrast throughout his career, namely in works such as Riot Copper (2002), Flying Copper (2002) and Smiling Copper (2003.)
Flying Copper © Banksy 2003
Turf War was Banksy’s first major exhibition, held in a warehouse in East London in 2003. There, a series of cardboard cut-out Flying Coppers hung from the ceiling, surrounding Banksy’s punk portrait of Winston Churchill (also titled Turf War). The exhibition introduced other now-iconic Banksy works and motifs – including Toxic Mary and spray-painted animals, which he would feature in his infamous Barely Legal exhibition in 2006.
Have A Nice Day © Banksy 2003
The yellow smiley face is a motif associated with the acid house music scene of the 1990s. It also evokes the happiness, simplicity, and innocence of childhood – a recurring theme in many of Banksy’s works. But the cheerful face appears in complete contrast with the riot officer’s heavy armour and machine gun, and it is used to disarm and unsettle the viewer. Banksy also featured the yellow smiley face in his print Have A Nice Day.
Stop And Search © Banksy 2007
Flying Copper shows Banksy’s distrust of authority: the riot officer’s wings may look angelic, but they are small and useless compared to the oppressive machine gun and riot gear. The office hides behind a smiling face and façade of benevolence but is, in reality, a dangerous threat – a reference to police brutality that is as relevant now as it was back in 2003.
Flying Copper (Pink And Blue) © Banksy 2003