When notorious street artist Banksy first broke onto the scene in the early 2000s it seemed like he had sparked a revolution, bringing the medium of graffiti – traditionally associated with vandalism – to the forefront of contemporary art. His murals, which ranged from satirical jibes at society to outspoken critiques of capitalism, often appeared overnight on the streets of London, causing numerous column inches and heated debate over his true identity the next day.
But this was no flash in the pan. Over the last two decades Banksy has shown his unfailing ability to remain relevant, offering searing commentary on the ever increasing injustices and inequalities of 21st century society.
Here we trace his trajectory from street art to sensation and explore why this chimeric artist is still relevant today.
How did Banksy start out?
Though little is confirmed about Banksy’s identity we do know that he started out tagging the streets of Bristol in the early ’90s with a group of friends who called themselves the DryBreadZ Crew. It was here that he developed his style; he purportedly switched to stencil rather than freehand tagging as a result of almost getting caught one night while working on an elaborate design. As the police came round the corner he fled and hid behind a rubbish truck, noticing at the same time the stencilled letters on the side of the vehicle and the advantage this method would give him in terms of style and speed.
Who was Banksy influenced by?
The origin of his stencilled style can also be attributed to Banksy’s great admiration for legendary French street artist Blek le Rat – aka Xavier Prou – who was famous for his stencilled rodents that appear all over Paris. Citing him as a major influence Banksy said, “If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model.” ‘Rat’ is also an anagram of ‘art’ although he claims not to have noticed this until someone else pointed it out.
He has also claimed to have been inspired by musician and graffiti artist 3D who was one of the first artists to bring the freehand spray can style of graffiti to the UK from New York where subway cars were regularly covered in hundreds of tags at night. Then, of course, there is Basquiat, who started out on the street before becoming an art world sensation in the ’70s, and Keith Haring, who would draw on empty advertising panels in the subway system with chalk, bringing his work to the attention of the everyman as well as the art world elite. Now that Banksy has his own empire selling a line of merchandise and numerous editions of his prints, he has also been compared to Warhol who was one of the first artists to realise the endless possibilities for works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Banksy and Brandalism
As well as pointing fun at individuals in positions of power, Banksy has also been known to target large corporations such as Tesco and Apple, in the tradition of ‘brandalism’. Most famously the Essex Road mural entitled Very Little Helps, which later became a print, sees a group of children saluting a Tesco carrier bag as if it were a national flag. In this way Banksy has earned himself a reputation as a kind of Robin Hood or Guy Fawkes figure, inviting the viewer to enjoy an uncomfortable humour where they are both in on the joke and find themselves to be the butt of it. This practice of brandalism draws parallels with artists such as KAWS who also began his career as a street artist, adept at the art of ‘subvertising’ which involves doctoring billboards to turn a mirror on society’s obsession with consumerism.
With his rise to stardom, Banksy inevitably influenced many of his contemporaries and a whole generation of graffiti artists after him. Never one to hog the limelight, in the early 2000s Banksy decided to put his new found fame – and fortune – to good use by putting on street art festivals in London’s disused tunnels and encouraging others to show their work in public spaces and to follow his footsteps in trying to make the world a better place through this particular form of dissidence.
Banksy in Palestine
2005 marked the beginning of Banksy’s work in Palestine. His first mural on the controversial wall that divides the two states of Israel and Palestine showed a man in the act of throwing a molotov cocktail but the bomb in his hand has been replaced by a bouquet of flowers, recalling Flower Power, the famous photograph by Bernie Boston of a hippy inserting a flower into the barrel of a soldier’s rifle at an anti-Vietnam march in Washington. Since then Banksy has returned to this contested bit of land many times, more recently to open the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem which includes rooms designed by the artist as well as a museum of the wall and a gallery of contemporary Arab art. Embodying his belief that works of art can perform acts of resistance, Banksy has said “A wall is a very big weapon. It’s one of the nastiest things you can hit someone with.”
Wall and Piece
In 2006 Banksy published a book of his best work to date, entitled Wall And Piece, a witty take on Tolstoy’s classic novel. As well as bringing together photographs of some of his most famous pieces – some documenting works that no longer existed, due to clean up operations or being illegally removed by collectors – the book is also full of pithy epigrams and opinions that give a rare insight into this reclusive personality.
Exit Through The Gift Shop
In 2010 Banksy directed a documentary – though some have called it a mockumentary – called Exit Through The Gift Shop, in which many important figures from the world of street art are interviewed, including Shephard Fairey and Banksy himself, though his face remains obscured.
Never one to shy away from controversy or spectacle, in 2015 Banksy opened Dismaland, a thoroughly depressing theme park in the seaside resort of Weston Super-Mare which was intended as a ‘sinister twist on Disneyland’. The entertainment was made up of ten new works by Banksy as well as a selection of pieces by invited artists such as Damien Hirst, Jenny Holzer and David Shrigley. The park was open for just over a month, during which time over 150,000 people visited the town, boosting its economy by over £20m.
Over the decades there has been much speculation over Banksy’s true identity and while many have guessed, it has never been confirmed. The main suspects seem to be Robert del Naja of Massive Attack and Bristol native Robin Gunningham with rumours appearing to corroborate both. This constant state of near anonymity has only served to enhance his career however. Commenting on the street artist’s success, his former collaborator Steve Lazarides said, “He still trusts that I’m not going to show his face, which I’m not. There’s no benefit to it. If he wants to reveal himself then that’s up to him. But the general public don’t want it. If I revealed his face, it’s like telling a five-year-old that Santa Claus isn’t real. Why would I do that? And I think, you know, the general public have constructed a folk hero, and I’m not going to take that away from them.” While Banksy himself has said, “If you want to say something and have people listen then you have to wear a mask.”
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
In a gallery of images of his work on his website Banksy has included the ‘homages’ paid to him over the years, including many rip-offs of his famous Girl With Balloon mural which has found its way, in slightly altered form, to many unauthorised prints, homewares and even an estate agent’s poster. Similarly, Banksy’s sandwich board wearing monkeys are also ubiquitous figures, appropriated to broadcast all manner of messages, almost to the extent of the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ posters.
In 2019 a greetings card company almost acquired the rights to his name, forcing Banksy to claim it as his own, creating a trademark and a line of products that were sold online through his Gross Domestic Product shop, which sold out almost immediately. At the same time he announced the launch of BBay – ‘the approved used Banksy dealership’ which is still marked as ‘coming soon’ on the holding page. In the past he had set up Pest Control, a free service for those wanting to verify their Banksy artwork was genuine, but with this latest venture, he seems to be taking secondary sales into his own hands, perhaps as a dig at the auction houses who sell his work for thousands if not millions.
The Banksy effect
As the Wooster collective put it, “Shepard Fairey created the movement. ….Banksy created the market.” In 2019 a Banksy painting of a tribe of chimpanzees in the House of Commons was sold for over £9million at Sotheby’s. The artist reacted to the result by posting an image of the work on Instagram, accompanied by a quote from art critic Robert Hughes which included the line, “But the price of a work of art is now part of its function, its new job is to sit on the wall and get more expensive” along with the comment, “Record price for a Banksy painting set at auction tonight. Shame I didn’t still own it.”
Banksy in Lockdown
When the world was brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Banksy unsurprisingly had something to say. His first comment about the global crisis was a witty take on the lockdown that kept him from tagging the outside world. Posted on Instagram, the image of his bathroom covered in stencilled rats running amok, was accompanied by the caption ‘My wife hates it when I work from home’.
In May the same year the artist followed this up with a work that compared key workers such as nurses to superheroes, with the caption ‘game changer’, highlighting the sudden shift in society’s perception of these underpaid and overstretched key workers which manifested in performative displays of applause rather than structural change and pay rises as yet.
Banksy and BLM
In June of 2020, when the US and UK were erupting 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’.
Shortly after Banksy posted a suggestion of what could be done with the plinth that once held the statue of slave trader Edward Colston that had been brought down by protesters in the artist’s hometown of Bristol. Both posts received millions of likes and thousands of comments and while many may have thought these to be performative gestures, in August Banksy confirmed his commitment to anti-racism with another post. The video opens with the words, “Like most people who make it in the art world I bought a yacht.” It then goes on to show how the artist converted a former French navy vessel into “an independent high speed lifeboat that patrols the Mediterranean” in search of refugees that need rescuing. Named the MV Louis Michel, the boat was decorated by Banksy with a fire extinguisher and features an adaptation of Girl With Balloon, that shows the girl reaching for a heart shaped life buoy.
There’s no denying Banksy’s continuing impact on contemporary art and particularly the ‘urban art’ market. Today a whole new generation of graffiti artists is referencing and even spraying over his work in an attempt to reach such heights of success. And while his work remains infinitely imitable he retains a unique style of his own, proving himself constantly to be adept at incorporating elements of the urban landscape into vignettes that offer important insights into our society, not just papering over the cracks but bringing them to light in daring and inventive ways. Whether commenting on Brexit or Black Lives Matter, Banksy’s artworks offer biting wit and a refreshing perspective.
While he remains anonymous he has come a long way from his origins on the streets of Bristol and is now firmly encamped in blue-chip territory. And yet the artist remains unwilling to espouse the traditional trajectory of the successful artist, preferring instead to donate the profits of the sales of his artwork to philanthropic ventures such as the MV Louis Michel which in turn confirm his anti establishment credentials, bringing his work to new audiences and endearing him further among his fans.