Home Magazine The street is Banksy's personal canvas

Since his first appearances on the street art scene, very little is known about Banksy (b. 1974).: what is his real name, what about his personality and daily life. Is Banksy an individual or a collective? A man, a woman or a genderfluid artist, like American pop star Miley Cyrus? Although Banksy has always successfully protected his anonymity, we know quite a lot about his incredible adventures (and misadventures) in the art world and his usually easy to recognizable street actions are always a certainty. 

Related articles: About the long-lasting relationship between Art and Politics - 16 vitalizing art pieces that shook the world - An invasion of rats in Banksy's bathroom! 

Banksy is an elusive street artist and a prankster from England. Sources said that Banksy lived in Bristol for ten years and moved to London in 2020. There has been speculation that Banksy is Robert Del Naja. from the band “Massive Attack”. Internet and the I-Phone era have intensified rumours and gossip about his persona. The truth is that eventually it is irrelevant to know who he is or who he is not, since Banksy has now become a brand, a colossal phenomenon, with its related epiphenomena.

Banksy’s mural, stencilling art - rebranded “Existencilism” for his first solo show in Los Angeles in 2002 - cartoons and posts on Instagram have made him emerged as a political activist: anti-war, anti-capitalist, or anti-establishment. An art-jacker, with the shrewdness and audacity of a thief. 

Banksy’s works span everything from Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter, the climate crisis, the art market and technology to slave labour. A teddy bear, lobbing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police (The Mild Mild West, 1997) - an archetypal piece of Rave Bristol culture. Gorilla in a Pink Mask- one of the most famous graffiti work by Banksy - was painted over the exterior wall of a former social club in Eastville when it became a Muslim cultural centre. His motive on street is always satirical, witty, cynic and disarming. Or on the contrary, is it stupid, vain vandalism as someone provokingly asks on the internet?


Banksy, The Mild Mild West, 1999 mural sited on No. 80 Strokes Croft, Bristol, United Kingdom. 


Banksy, Gorilla in a Pink Mask, 2011, Eastville, Bristol.


Deliberately vandalized with red paint (the teddy bear) by an anti-graffiti organization or accidentally whitewashed and then removed from its home (the gorilla), Banksy's works always arouse conflicting and fierce reactions. 

Does Banksy’s street art always have a political message? 

Basically yes, his art always carries a political message, even if its declinations and added meanings have changed the original game.

For example, Banksy’s 2010 film - yes, he is also a film director-, “Exit through the Gift Shop”, was nominated for Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. A genuine documentary or a fictional mockumentary (“prankumentary”?) about street art - where Banksy’s anonymity is well preserved -, 100% real or made up: still a matter of debate, like all Banksy's artistry.

Championing social causes

“I am an artist from the UK, and I’ve made some work about the migrant crisis. Obviously, I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something?”, asked benefactor Banksy to Pia Klemp, a German biologist and Sea Watch captain - who risks 20-year prison sentence for rescuing more than 1,000 migrants in the middle of the Mediterranean. 


Louise Michel’s rescue, courtesy MV Louise Michel.


The anonymous British artist purchased, this past fall, a French navy vessel - named Louise Michel after the French feminist anarchist - converted into a lifeboat which reaches a top speed of 27 knots to rescue migrants from the Mediterranean. Banksy’s involvement in the mission has not been limited to providing financial support for the NGO rescue. Banksy spray-painted Louise Michel’s 100-foot-long exterior in bright pink paint using a fire extinguisher and emblazoned the word “rescue” on its hull, and an artwork that depicts a lifevest-clad girl holding a heart-shaped safety buoy. It’s a maritime tribute to the artist’s famed Girl with Balloonis a 2002-started London series of stencil murals depicting a little girl in black and white who chases with her eyes a red heart-shaped balloon carried away by the wind. The original mural was on Waterloo Bridge in South Bank, London. There is no more trace of it. A 2004 version of the mural was at an east London shop in Shoreditch, and removed by the Sincura Group in 2014 and sold for £500,000 in September 19, 2015.The United Kingdom's number one favorite artwork (Samsung group’s poll, 2017) was used several times to support social campaigns. In 2005 on the Israeli West Bank Barrier - a variation called Balloon Debateof the girl floating above the wall while holding a bunch of balloons; in 2014 a Syrian refugee and the balloon emblem of hope with the hashtag #WithSyria; In June 2017 before the United Kingdom General Election - the balloon colored with the Union Flag for Anti-Conservative voters. On October 2018, a 2006 framed copy of the artwork self destructs after being sold for over $ 1 million at Sotheby’s. Banksy would have built a hidden mechanical paper shredder into the frame bottom.


Original mural of Girl With The Balloonon Waterloo Bridge in South Bank, London 2002.


Banksy bomb art makes more than a Picasso at auction, while Louise Michel’s rescue mission has prematurely ended due to overcrowding. Does Banksy actually spent his entire career dismantling the notion that a street artist isn’t much use? this is the controversial question. Anny Shaw, in The Art Newspaper, considers Banksy’s funding of Louise Michelperhaps his greatest work yet, considering the activist ambitions of the work. Satirical wit and dark political humor functioning as ambitious political gestures. But why we, sometimes, feel we just got banksy-ed?. “value not profit”.

Banksy’s graffiti worth a hundred thousand dollars. The record? $14 million.

Show Me The Monet

A new oil painting by Banksy Show Me The Monet (“poignant and fun”)is expected to sell for a large sum - £5m - at the Modernités/Contemporary auction at Sotheby's London in october 2020, becoming one of the street artist’s most expensive works. Banksy originally created the painting in 2005 as a subversive counterpoint to Claude Monet’s famous work Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lillies (sold for $43.7m at a New York auction). The title Show Me the Monet may cynically refer to a British television series on BBC2 - described as the "artworld's version of The X Factor” - where a panel of expert art critics scrutiny several thousand artists’ artworks for a final secret auction. In Banksy’s own version of the Pond of Water Lillies, shopping trollies and traffic cones adorn the water-lily garden created by Monet - a passionate horticulturist - "for the pleasure of the eye”, in 1893. What is reflected on the pond is a scene of drifting trolleys, thrown off the bridge as symptoms of our collapsing hyper-consumerism, but without neglecting the bucolic backgrounds. Also Banksy's Sunflowers from Petrol Station(2005) - a new take on Van Gogh’s sunflowers - are not as opulent and festive as the Impressionist master’s bunch. A drying version of the modern times. 


Banksy, Show Me the Monet, 2005, oil on canvas.


Banksy’s, Sunflowers from Petrol Station, 2005, oil on canvas.


The further Banksy goes, the more he is rewarded, in terms of millions. in 2019, Devolved Parliament (2009)artwork – which depicted British politicians as chimpanzees debating in the House of Commons – was purchased for a staggering £9.9m. "Laugh now, but one day we'll be in charge”, Banksy commented, echoing a previous stenciled work Laugh Now (2002): a row of ashamed apes wearing sandwich boards. One of the earliest Banksy artworks that reached a milestone in Urban Art. Guess why? it was sold at auction in 2008 for almost $500,000. Originally commissioned by a nightclub in Brighton, Banksy recreated several versions of the artwork as limited edition prints for sale. Banksy himself has contributed to the transformation of a street art piece, with social and political connotations, into a commodity of enormous economic value. The artist started his own farce, yet always appealing to words and ideals with strong implications.


Banksy, Laugh Now, 2002, Screenprint in colours, 2003, numbered 433/600, published by Pictures on Walls, London, on wove paper, unframed sheet: 692 by 495mm 27¼ by 19½in, Courtesy Sotheby’s.


Monkeys have been a reoccurring image in his graffiti art over the years, illustrating the arrogance and stupidity of humanity. “Graffiti has remained gloriously unspoiled by progress”: Banksy, believes that street art is one of the most powerful and efficient means of artistic expression in today’s word. The monkeys and the graffiti artists, been demeaned and ridiculed as savage and uneducated, a protesters and “they have more truth than most of what’s going on in the art world.”

Clever saboteur, genius of the streets that enters and exits at will from the art system, or skilled and provocative manipulator? Graffiti art has perhaps become more respected in recent years and Banksy has to take some of the credit, bringing Street art to the masses.

Exit Through Paradoxes: a biopic

The popularity Banksy has created, by addressing many political issues of our time, says Brexit, produced its opposite: “an eerie commercialism that he rejects deep down”. Discrepancy, paradoxes, oxymora, critique: everything contribute to Banksy’s hype.

Do his works’ lavish auction prices undermine their political message? someone argues that the sales add meaning to them; some say that he knows how to market himself, but Banksy himself comments: “artworks at auction had become the property of the rich rather being the common property of people at large”. Banksy’s motto “Copyright is for losers” was recently replaced by “artist's trademark rights”. His work, his identity will always remain his intellectual property.  


Banksy, Game Changer, 2020, © Reuters/ Banksy Instagram.


With 10,2 mln on Instagram, the anti-establishment icon is a contradiction in terms, but, of course, a political game changer - not on facebook, not on twitter. Banksy’s preferred social media revealed, in June 2020, a painting commenting on George Floyd's killing: a luminous candle sets fire to the US flag. With the picture shown at the beginning of May 2020, Banksy paid tribute to all the doctors, nurses and hospital workers who saved lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Superheroes Spiderman and Batman were thrown into the trash, while the little boy decides to play with a nurse wearing a face mask and a cape. 

Who knows if Banksy one day, will portray himself, as he did with the Apple founder Steve Jobs, who - in a mural sprayed in the entrance area of the refugee camp in Calais - is carrying his legendary first Mac computer, as a migrant from Syria; perhaps like a contemporary Robin Hood, or the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, or the robber with the mask in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing? Anything to unmask the society and secure a better future for Banksy.


Banksy, the son of a migrant from Syria, 2020, © Banksy. 


Banksy, Rage, The Flower Thrower (Love Is In The Air), 2005, Betlehem (Palestine).


Cover image: Banksy, Devolved Parliament, 2009, oil on canvas, 2.8 x 4.5-meter; 9 x 15-foot.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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