Artist Focus: Banksy
Banksy is a renowned artist based out of England. Part of his appeal is that he has stayed true to his graffiti artist roots and kept his actual identity anonymous. However, it is believed that he was born around 1975 in Bristol, the same part of England where he staged his most recent project, “Banksy vs. Bristol Museum” (artofthestate). The project follows one of his well-known techniques of altering replicas of museum collections to fit his core themes, the majority of which lampoon society, authority, war, consumerism, and other facets of modern-day society. The most important difference in his new project is that it is in fact sanctioned by the Bristol Museum, which enabled him to complete the extraordinary feat of filling 3 floors with 100 of his pieces in less than 48 hours. In his previous days, however, Banksy was notorious for infiltrating museums and presenting his pieces without the knowledge or consent of museum authorities (artofthestate). His works are also prominently displayed all over England, and indeed the world, and many of them are unsanctioned. Despite the magnitude of some of these projects, Banksy has never been caught in the act by authorities or otherwise, which further adds to his mystique (and appeal). This may be because of his fame, or perhaps because of the fact that many citizens regard him as a modern-day superhero.
Banksy’s most infamous works are in the streets. One item his work constantly ridicules is the continuous state of surveillance the British people are subject to, which carries an extra bite since most of his pieces on this theme are positioned within view of the very cameras that are unable to identify him. He also frequently uses rats in his work to portray the darker side of humanity (Web Urbanist). These rats are shown holding cameras like paparazzi, pouring toxic waste into the street, and painting graffiti, among other things. In other cities, he focused on themes that had meaning to those areas. In New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward, he put up pictures of poor and desperate-looking people looking neglected, but also portrayed themes designed to give hope like musicians and people holding American flags. In Gaza, the notorious wall that splits Israel from Palestine is covered with ironic images of luxurious life on the other side. His museum works are typically designed more to critique art as we know it. A replica of a famous lion statue that now has blood on it’s muzzle and a whip gripped between its teeth. In one of his paintings the subject is cut out from the canvas and sitting on the frame, as if too lazy to pose (BBC).
The point of Banksy’s works seem to give an overwhelming message: Stop looking for a message. Despite the fact that the majority of his works are decidedly anti-modern, anti-war, etc., he also pokes fun at those who read too much into said ideals. After one of his auctions, a sketch appeared on his website depicting an auction house where a canvas was on sale that simply said, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit” (BBC). He was also responsible for the distribution of flyers at an anti-war convention that stated: “I don’t believe in anything, I’m just here for the violence” (New Yorker). He’s put a smiley face on the Mona Lisa, a bow on an Apache attack helicopter, and a gas mask on a little girl. His work is all about presenting the viewer with a scene of ridiculousness and letting them read from it what they choose. Just be careful how much of it you take seriously, or it could be you getting ridiculed on the next 10-story building side.
The only criticism I have of Banksy is his choice to branch out. His original works, stencil and graffiti pieces that spontaneously popped up around the city, those are what speak to the people. His recent forays into museum pieces and actual canvases are pushing him further away from the public that kept him anonymous while simultaneously making him an icon around the world. He once made a statement that “every other type of art compared to graffiti is a step down,” and I think it is this principle that he needs to return to. It was once a public race to find the next Banksy work, because the people never knew who would stumble upon the next Banksy rat painted on a dumpster, fire hydrant, or street corner. His internet following exploded as the people of the cities took to the streets to find his masterpieces, and began plotting them on maps like a nationwide scavenger hunt (East London Advertiser). Granted, much of his hard work was painted over by graffiti removal mandates, and it’s difficult to watch something you’ve worked at disappear. And graffiti doesn’t always pay the bills, especially the smaller unsanctioned works. But I can’t imagine that seeing your canvas hanging on some millionaire’s wall is nearly as satisfying as walking past hundreds of searching cameras, thousands of unsuspecting citizens, and knowing that the mural covering the wall in the middle of town is made with the same paint that’s staining your fingers. In my mind, that emotion would be priceless.