“People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish… but that’s only if it’s done properly.”
In anticipation of several new installations in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s modern and contemporary wing, Modern and Contemporary Art curator, Julia Carver, tells us about one of Bristol’s most famous contemporary artists, the anonymous godfather of Street Art, Banksy.
We explore his history with the city, the decade his works really starting selling, her personal favourites, and his universal appeal among museums and collectors alike who clamor for his works — works that many claim revolutionized the way people invest in art.
Banksy has been a collector’s favourite since his first print release in 2003; in more recent years museums and galleries all around the world want him as part of their private collections for obvious reasons, ‘He’s enormously popular, as we know, and that has a lot to do with how pithy his work is; he often picks up on something that’s happening Now, and what we know in Bristol — but elsewhere as well — is that his work can appear after something’s taken place and act as a commentary on that, and people really respond to that and connect with it. I think it was in the ’90s when he first really came to public attention and was first beginning to be able to sell works. Banksy is someone we keep in our collections because we want to keep our collections alive.’
Banksy’s art, wherever it may be, has become a world-wide tourist attraction; and in his hometown of Bristol there are a litany of walking tours for his fans to go on thanks to the high volume of works by the artist in the city. Along Bristol’s streets you can still find numerous works such as Man Hanging From Window, The Mild Mild West, and his collaboration with fellow Bristol Street Artists Inky and Mobz, Take The Money and Run. Julia’s favourite Banksy piece in Bristol (and of all-time) was Police Sniper, which was visible form the Bristol Royal Infirmary and Bristol Children’s Hospital buildings depicted a young boy behind a police sniper about to pop a brown paper bag. It was defaced and eventually replaced in 2012.
In 2009, The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery hosted a landmark event curated and created by Banksy. This was the exhibition Banksy vs Bristol Museum, which as Julia says, ‘was phenomenal in exactly how successful it was, we had three quarters of a million visitors in about 3 months, it was incredible. I don’t think we’ve had anything quite like it since and it’s hard to imagine if we will again,’ (unless Banksy returns with another knock-out round). ‘The exhibition revolved around Banksy responding to almost every artifact in the museum with creations of his own, he pretty much did something everywhere in the museum; he literally took it all over and responded to each of the displays with his own works: recordings, installations, performances, animatronics [which included wiggling salami Julia says, ’were quite obscene!’], paintings turned on their sides, paintings customized — he really reached into every corner of the museum.’
How exactly the exhibition came about, nobody can be sure. Banksy, much like God, works in increasingly mysterious ways and it’s best not to ask too many questions. But since that seminal exhibition, Bristol Museum now proudly owns works donated by Banksy in their permanent collection. Works such as Angel Bust (or Paint Pot Angel, valued at approximately £150,000 at the time of donation) located in front hall as you walk in, ‘that work attracts a lot of attention.’ Another, smaller work, Jerusalem, is one of Banksy’s rare sculptures. Like his sculpture Watchtower, it was part of his Wall and Piece exhibition in Jerusalem, “It’s a customized hand craved model of Jerusalem by the Palestinian artist Tawfiq Bishara Salsaa. Banksy has customized it with toy soldiers reflecting on the conflict on the West Bank. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you can normally acquire … ”
In 2011, Bristol saw heavy rioting as locals campaigned against a new Tesco opening in Stokes Croft. Overnight, Banksy created what was dubbed as a ‘souvenir’ (not dissimilar in appearance and tone to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art Campbell’s Soup Cans, but with an anarchic twist) of the riots, ‘the Tesco Riot piece is an inkjet print he made instantly in response to the Tesco riots — the next day Banksy had produced the work and I think the proceeds were probably going towards the campaign. They’re a limited edition set of prints of a Molotov cocktail with the Tesco logo on the bottle. You can see it on displayed in M shed* as part of the section that deals with historic protests and riots in the city. So [Tesco Riot] is up there with the Bristol riots, the reform riots of 1831, it’s there with the info material about the suffragette campaign in Bristol and also the counter campaign against the suffragettes.’
As Julia states, one of the keys to Banksy’s success is his responsive social and political commentary and critique on issues that affect us all. The recent presidential election has already seen numerous protest artworks from artist such as Shepard Fairey (designer of Obama’s Hope campaign) and James Ostrer. As a highly responsive artist, is it likely Banksy will respond to Trump’s election and divisive social policies? “I don’t know if Banksy’s done anything so far … but I’m sure he will.’ In the mean time, there’s plenty of evidence that no cause is ever been too big or too small for Banksy’s attention. From the West Bank to Cheddar Gorge, his intention is to make things better however small the increments, ‘Coming home to your own town and keeping your foot in and keeping your feet on the ground by being aware of what’s going on locally as well as what’s going on far away, that’s quite laudable I think […] When he left Bristol he had a ‘leaving Bristol party exhibition’ and sold works there. I think he’s very astute at being able to do that. And I know people in Bristol who those works — one work we had on loan from one of those people a few years ago. He was also quite generous about giving works; and this is just what I know from people in Bristol who knew him but: there’s sort of an agreement with all of his peers that they keep quiet about who he is.”
For those of use who weren’t lucky enough to purchase (or even be given) a Banksy print when he was starting out, Joe Syer, director of art buying platform MyArtBroker, has some words of advice for collectors now looking to invest in a Banksy print, and explains how they are still a profitable investment, ‘A few years ago dealers would expect to pay at least 25% under market value to hold the works and sell for a profit. The last few months have seen a shift with dealers now buying from other dealers at market value just to hold inventory. They are anticipating prices to continue to rise and selling 3-6 months down the line where they are able to realize a profit.’
One of Julia’s preferred pieces in the Museum’s collection is The Grim Reaper, currently on loan from The Theckler, ‘The Theckler is a really interesting place. When it came to Bristol it was called the Old Profanity Showboat and moored in Bristol very near the M Shed. It closed as the ‘Old Pro’ in ’86; but bands such as Portishead and Pulp played there, and people like Rik Mayall, Keith Allen, Paul Merton – the boat itself has a lot of history and was quite counter cultural […] The Grim Reaper piece has a funny story behind it: Banksy had originally just tagged his name on the boat — this is the story, I can’t guarantee how reliable it is — but the story goes that the harbor master had his tag painted over. So Banksy returned and painted The Grim Reaper. Part of what I like about the work is it’s positioning in the M Shed, so close to The Theckler — it’s a really nice piece of site specific position of the work. I also think it takes us back to some of the early street art Banksy would’ve been growing up with where Street Artists would, and still do, make work in the most difficult places you can imagine trying to get to with a can of paint — it’s partly about getting to those places, and a side of a boat is an example of that. Now it’s right next to a wall painting by another Bristol luminary in the art world, Richard Long.’
Maintaining the quality of Banksy art is obviously highly important in maintaining their financial and cultural value, which is where Bristol Museum offered a helping hand in the case of The Grim Reaper, ‘The Feckler had a big refurbishment of the boat and realised the work would deteriorate if they just left it on the side, so they cut it out, conserved it and commissioned Inky, who’s really well known in the city with his Art Nouveau punk girls, to make a new piece.’
With Banksy now hanging on the walls of some of the most respected institutions on the planet, Julia explains the more subtle connections his work shares with other contemporary artists, ‘I don’t know if Banksy would use the term ‘fine art’ about his work but it’s being accessioned in to our Fine Art collection […] I think Banksy shares an affinity with contemporary artists who respond to performing pranks and the tradition of that in the Modern Art of the 20th century that is still taking place. For example we have a work by Ai Weiwei, and I think he is one of Contemporary Art’s big prankster as well; he performs acts of mischief in some of his work that I think is comparable to the acts of mischief Banksy performs. And I think customizing other people’s work, such as the Jerusalem piece, has its history in recent art as well. We also have street art by other Bristol street artists, such as Motor Boy, who are the generation after Banksy meaning there’s context, as we’re trying to broaden that representation in the collection.’
Museums are, arguably, the next best place for Street Art after the street, given the public’s free access and ability to wander in and view works at their own leisure. So with numerous street artists including Keith Haring, KAWS and of course Banksy in permanent collections across the globe, has the stigma left Street Art now establishments have accepted it? ‘I think in the main probably; but you still hear of art being painted-over and people getting into trouble, it’s just a constantly changing world. We have a street art festival in the city now and last year new works were commissioned and painted on shop grills all along North Street (but days later they were tagged by other artists and young people) so it’s changing all the time and there’s a whole new generation. Banksy is in his 40s and he’s now part of a generation who are quite established; who’s work you see around the city, great book by Felix Brown who gives a really good overview of all the artists who were working at the same time as Banksy, and many of those artists have been commissioned to make works for pubs, for restaurants … it’s interesting what’s going on.’ Part of that generation of artists is another ‘prankster’: Damien Hirst, part of the YBA pack of the ’90s, who is also forming part of the newly installed selection of works at the museum, ‘We’ve just installed some new work in our modern and contemporary gallery, including a piece [Beautiful Hours Spin Painting IX] by Damien Hirst — who also gave Banksy one of his paintings to customize — on loan, and we’ve installed Ai Weiwei’s monumental tonne of tea (which literally does weigh a tonne) in the same gallery.’
As well as Hirst’s aforementioned and eternally popular Spin series; his recently released, Pop Art inspired collaboration with Disney, the Minnie and Mickey Mouse series, has proved hugely popular — the small release price being £6k, and the large release price £14k. Hirst said of the ‘spot’ images that follow the footsteps of Lichtenstein, Oldenberg and Warhol, ‘They represent happiness and the joy of being a kid and I have reduced his shapes down to the basic elements of a few simple spots.’
In a time when stock markets are becoming increasingly unstable, Banksy –among a number of other contemporary artists, such as fellow Bristolian Hirst — is proving a low risk investment you can enjoy in the comfort of your own home as it accrues value (however, one must always bare in mind that as Julia says, ‘it’s a constantly changing world’). With the acceptance of Street Art by ‘the establishment’, the general public can be grateful that its rarer pieces are now on display in museums for all of us to see; and collectors can be grateful too, as an artist’s work being featured in a museum’s collection also adds to its value, as does each successful solo exhibition by the artist, like the phenomenal Banksy vs Bristol Museum.
* The M Shed is remote section of the museum added in 2011 to tell the story of Bristol and its unique place in the world. Among its 3,000 artifacts include models of Nick Park’s Oscar-winning animated duo Wallace and Gromit, a 10m long mural by local graffiti artists, pink spray painted record decks (1980) courtesy of Massive Attack, and of course works by Banksy.