Well known for his anti-establishment artworks, it is no surprise that one of Banksy’s most common subjects is the character of the police officer. Whether they are being ridiculed, impersonated or disparaged, these figures can be seen throughout the artist’s oeuvre in murals and prints alike.
As a graffiti artist the very nature of Banksy’s earliest works were criminal, and from the start he was forced to remain anonymous. These days it’s out of choice, but Banksy’s entire oeuvre is connected to law enforcement. Through the illegality of his art he is in constant tension with the forces of authority and his distinct stencilled style even came about as a way of making his mark quickly to avoid arrest. His long disdain for law enforcement can be seen in his first ever large-scale mural in Bristol, The Mild Mild West from 1997, which shows a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police.
However, Banksy’s complex and often witty relationship to the police is perhaps best encapsulated by the words that can be found on the back of his 2005 book, Wall and Piece: ‘“There’s no way you’re going to get a quote from us to use on your book cover” – Metropolitan Police spokesperson’.
As the artist’s work has matured these attacks on the state and its protectors show no signs of slowing down. In June of 2020, when the US and UK erupted with protests over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police force, Banksy posted a new artwork to Instagram in support of the Black Lives Matter movement that showed a memorial candle setting the American flag alight, accompanied by a short but powerful statement that said, among other things, ‘people of colour are being failed by the system’.
Why does Banksy target the police?
While we are taught that the police are there to ‘protect and serve’ the citizens of a country, for anti-establishment artists such as Banksy it often seems like they are nothing but puppets of an authoritarian ‘nanny state’. Commenting on this position Banksy has said, “My main problem with cops is that they do what they’re told. They say ‘Sorry mate, I’m just doing my job’ all the fucking time. And every time someone says ‘if it was down to me it would be ok, but I’m following orders’ a little bit inside of you dies. If you say it as often as cops do, then there isn’t much left.” In a similar vein he has also said that “The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.”
In response to this attitude Banksy creates works of art that question this implacable authority. In pieces such as Rude Copper an officer wearing an old fashioned custodian helmet can be seen raising his middle finger to the viewer. Although still worn today, this headwear is largely considered to be the signature of the old ‘Bobby on the Beat’, a local, friendly neighbourhood copper, who is a far cry from the figure in the image.
How does Banksy use the image of the policeman in his work?
For Banksy the image of a police officer is often a way of showing the plight of the underdog, the powerless and the dispossessed. In works such as I Fought The Law, the artist pays homage to the famous song by The Clash to condemn police brutality and perhaps even inspire fellow citizens to speak out through the medium of graffiti. With its punk references the work is just one in a series that pokes fun at the heroes and symbols of the establishment, such as Churchill in Turf War and the monarchy in Monkey Queen.
Dripping with irony, Banksy’s artworks often use humour to poke fun at the police however this is often overshadowed by the real life suffering and injustice the works point to. Speaking on his dealings with the police in the past Banksy has said, “I like ironies unless they’re real. I was arrested for painting a picture about corruption over a billboard. As a result I spent 40 hours in a cell with the cops taking the piss and telling me lies, followed by a spell of community service and a hefty fine for which I never got a receipt and no record appeared to be kept.”
How does Banksy use popular culture to mock the police?
Much of the humour in Banksy’s work featuring police officers comes from the way he subverts and undermines their authority by juxtaposing their serious expressions and uniforms with unexpected elements. In Flying Copper, a police officer in full riot gear is shown holding a machine gun however he also has feathery angel’s wings and his face has been replaced by the familiar yellow smiley icon associated with the ’90s rave culture that began with acid house music.
Similarly, in Stop And Search, the artist mocks law enforcement by depicting a scene where the character of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz is subjected to the infamous ‘stop and search’ policy. First introduced in the UK in the ’80s, the policy is increasingly coming under attack for its underlying agenda of racial profiling. Dorothy, with her dog Toto at her feet, is the picture of innocence here as the man, donning a riot helmet and a baton that lies threateningly at his side, rummages through her picnic basket looking for dangerous weapons.
Following the theme of childhood innocence, Banksy’s work Jack And Jill shows two children skipping towards the viewer, dressed in summer clothes that are juxtaposed with the instantly recognisable bulletproof vest worn by the British police. A jarring addition to this nursery rhyme image, the vest allows the viewer to see more insidious signs that all is not what it seems. On closer inspection the children’s faces appear prematurely lined with age, their expressions frozen with unease, suggesting that the innocence of childhood has long been lost and that the nanny state has the power to control even the youngest of its subjects.