Probably the world’s most sought-after and talked about street artist, Banksy is a controversial figure who is known for attacking and satirising the establishment and highlighting greed and inequality in today’s society, while at the same time promoting a message of love, care and community. His distinctive stencil style can be seen all over the world, from London and New York to Venice and the Gaza Strip.
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Originally from Bristol in the southwest of the UK, Banksy began his career as a freehand graffiti artist in the 90s as part of the city’s DryBreadZ Crew (DBZ). He moved to working with stencils after realising that it would be a quicker way to create his images, ensuring he wouldn’t get caught by the police. He was originally inspired by the Bristol street art scene, which featured artists such as Nick Walker, Inkie and 3D as well as French artist Blek Le Rat whose style he borrowed from and developed into his own distinct iconography of subversion and satire. Around this time he met Steve Lazarides who would later become his agent, photographer and collaborator. His first large wall stencil is thought to be The Mild Mild West from 1997 which shows a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police.
The question on everyone’s lips since Banksy first appeared on the street art scene over 20 years ago has always been – who is Banksy? The answer is – we still don’t know. Speculation is rife as to the identity of the most elusive urban artist in town but recently he was ‘outed’ as Robin Gunningham by scientists claiming to use ‘geographic profiling’ to match Gunningham’s movements with the locations of Banksy’s murals. He has also been named as Robert 3D Del Naja (the frontman of the Bristol band, Massive Attack) by journalist Craig Williams, but upon further comparison this seems unlikely.
There is even speculation that Damien Hirst is Banksy, or that Banksy is in fact a woman, or more than one person. To this date no Banksy identity claim has ever been fully proven, however there is a clue in his tag; the name Banksy is thought to derive from the artist’s earliest tag, ‘Robin Banx’ which could imply he is indeed Robin Gunningham.
But why does Banksy seek to remain anonymous? On the one hand, street art is illegal and there is a risk he could be considered a criminal for what is essentially still classified as graffiti even if he is widely appreciated as a contemporary artist by fans and critics alike. On the other hand, an unmasking might not only be detrimental to his freedom but also his brand; there's no denying that the intrigue and mystique around his identity boosts Banksy’s profile and message further. As the artist himself has said, “If you want to say something and have people listen then you have to wear a mask. If you want to be honest then you have to live a lie.”
Fame & Notoriety
The early to mid 2000s saw Banksy move to London and gain notoriety for his distinctive stencilled murals which began to appear all over the city. One of his most famous images from this period is Girl with Balloon which he painted in prominent locations in the city’s Southbank and Shoreditch areas. In 2005 he evolved the design for a stencil on the hotly contested Palestinian side of the West Bank wall which showed the girl, now in silhouette, floating upwards as if to surpass the man made barrier. This bold intervention brought his work to the attention of a global audience and arguably cemented his reputation as a politically active street artist. Back in London he continued to make waves on the scene with his often humorous murals that poke fun at figures of authority, such as the police and politicians, as well as large corporations like Tesco and Disney. He has also pulled a few stunts that increased his reputation for controversy, including painting a live Indian elephant to resemble wallpaper at a 2006 exhibition in the US entitled ‘Barely Legal’. Today the artist has over 10 million followers on Instagram and his antics accrue innumerable column inches in the global press.
In 2004 Banksy produced a series of counterfeit £10 notes where the head of Queen Elizabeth II had been replaced with that of the late Princess Diana, shown with her eyes looking out of the ‘frame’ and a soft smirk on her lips. Known as the Di-Faced Tenner, the note reads, ‘Banksy of England’ instead of ‘Bank of England’ and is printed with ink on paper near-identical to that used on official UK-issued currency. At least 100,000 Di Faced Tenners were printed by Banksy in August 2004 which he then distributed among the crowds at the Notting Hill Carnival and at the Reading Festival. The same year Banksy released a sheet of five counterfeit £10 notes, printed on both sides, released in a signed edition of just 50 along with a rare edition of 32 artist proofs which remains in high demand.
Banksy vs The Art World
While many consider Banksy to be ‘just’ a graffiti artist there are many others who value his work as a fine artist, which is demonstrated by the record prices his work achieves at auction and the ever increasing demand for his prints and multiples on the market. 2019 saw the artist reach a new auction record of £9.9million with Devolved Parliament, a painting that depicted the House of Commons filled with chimpanzees. Over the years there have been many museums and galleries keen to show his work, often without his consent, something which the artist calls out on his website. His work often portrays this tension with the elitist art world, whether through subversively incorporating a mocking message into the work itself – such as in his Morons print which shows an auctioneer selling a canvas emblazoned with the words ‘I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit’ – or through more direct interventions such as one of his more high profile stunts which saw him shred one of his Girl with Balloon prints (thus becoming the Banksy shredded painting Love is in the Bin) right after it sold for £1.4million at Sotheby’s in 2018.
Buying Banksy prints
As well as producing high profile murals on the street, for many years Banksy has also been releasing limited edition signed and unsigned prints which are constantly in demand from collectors and fans. When it comes to print releases, one of the most famous Banksy artworks is undoubtedly Girl With Balloon – voted the UK's favourite piece of art.
There's no denying that the price of Banksy prints continues to grow to astronomical heights, particularly on the secondary market. It is estimated there have been around 70 Banksy print releases over the past 18 years, amounting to some 30,000 prints by the British street artist in homes, private collections, galleries and museums around the world. Of those 30,000 only around one third are signed by Banksy; these are highly sought after while the unsigned versions – still in high demand – make up a vast percentage of the work in circulation on the secondary market.
If you want to buy a Banksy, whether signed or unsigned, you will likely have to make a foray into the secondary market as new print releases available to the public are few and far between. If you require guidance on buying or selling a Banksy print you can find out more from our Banksy sellers guide, buyers guide or Pest Control guide, or get in touch with MyArtBroker directly.