Since his beginnings on the street art and graffiti scene, Banksy has been notorious for his works’ social commentary on many controversial subjects from police brutality, to the refugee crisis, war and animal cruelty. Barcode belongs to the artist’s celebrated early works and dates back to 2004. The monochrome screen print is among Banksy’s most famous and thus most sought-after works. There are only 150 Barcode prints signed by the artist and 600 unsigned prints.
Barcode appeared stencilled on the side of a random house on Pembroke Road in Bristol. The stencil was quickly removed from the wall in August 2010 and surprisingly resurfaced after four years on the occasion of a school exhibition in Somerset. The work was first seen at auction in March 2012, selling at Bonhams, New Bond Street, in their Urban Art Sale. Estimated at auction for £60,000 – £80,000 it realised £75,650. The print had been acquired directly from an exhibition entitled ‘Existencilism’ at the 33 1/3 Gallery in Los Angeles. More recently, in June 2016, Bonhams sold another Barcode original for £158,500 at their Post-war and Contemporary Art sale.
The monochromatic palette, often employed by Banksy to emphasise his powerful message, depicts a majestic leopard seemingly emerging into the foreground of the composition leaving behind a barcode resembling a cage on wheels, from which the leopard seems to have escaped. The ‘bars’ of the barcode have been bent apart to create an opening, enough that the assumption is that the leopard has emerged from within.
Like many of Banksy’s works, the artwork allows for several interpretations…
The use of the barcode, introduced in the mid-1970s was intended to make people buy more and faster, here it is used as a symbol of consumerism and capitalism. Banksy employs it to resemble a cage to represent from which a power creature can escape. The leopard can be seen to be demonstrating the ability to free oneself from the shackles of consumerism. An animal setting an example to humans.
On the other hand, another interpretation links the choice of the leopard and the barcode by their unique character. Just as all leopards have a unique pattern of spots, all barcodes have unique combinations too. The big cat embodies the diversity of form, whereas the notion of consumerism suggested through the image of the barcode evokes conformity. In Banksy's composition, this link is said to refer to any individual’s private information now integrated into data banks. Furthermore, it has been said to be a less complex comment on the treatment of animals placed in cages by humans for their amusement, in zoos or sea-parks, or the poaching of wild animals and their illegal trade.
It’s a classic Banksy paradox, where two seemingly disparate forms, one a symbol of nature and life and the other of technology and control, stand together to make the viewer question everything.