Imagine that for whatever reason human beings had never had the idea of expressing themselves in the spaces around them. Imagine we had never tried to decorate the walls of our houses. Never attempted to express our dissatisfaction by leaving circumlocutions on fences. The streets would be completely sterile – devoid of images, texts, sculptures. There would be no ‘seeing’ works by JR brightening up the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. No Hypebeast collectors chasing OBEY’s next ‘drop’ with images of the well-fed, heavy-lidded wrestler. And the world of auctions would never have been shaken by the latest provocative gesture by Banksy.

Even the attempt to imagine such a scenario seems doomed to failure.

Graffiti, sculptural installations, land art, and monumental painting on walls (murals) – everything that comes under the general term ‘street art’ – share a method which has its roots in the very beginning of human history.

‘Graffiti is not a type of art. It is a reaction. The greater the risk, the better. The more letters used, the louder it is. You create a logo for yourself in an improvised style. Graffiti is an indicator of public moods. It reflects what’s happening here and now.’

Everything began with primeval ‘graffiti’

Homo sapiens scratched or drew silhouettes on cave walls – depicting animals, nature, everyday scenes, hunting. Thus people documented everything that was happening in their lives. These pictures’ main purpose was to take part in rites and call up the spirits which, primeval people believed, influenced all aspects of life. For instance, dynamic depiction of a mammoth hunt gave people faith that success in a real hunt was in the gift of the spirits.

Classical antiquity continued using sharp objects to scratch images and texts on walls. The first examples of linguistic graffiti were discovered in Ephesus and Pompeii. Texts left on walls by the ancient Romans tell us about their favourite amusements, their political views, faith, and magic rituals; they also give us quotations from the Romans’ favourite works of literature. Obscene expressions were common even then – sometimes hand in hand with arguments about politics or addresses of the most popular prostitutes. Subsequently, this method of recording everyday life on walls made its way into the Middle Ages, hitting peak popularity during the Italian Renaissance, especially the Quattrocento.

The term ‘sgraffito’ – from the Italian ‘graffiare’ – means ‘to scratch, scrape out’ and was first used in a letter by Giorgio Versari in 1564. The Italian word ‘graffiare’ was taken from the Greek γράφειν, meaning ‘to write’. ‘Graffiti’ has the same root.

The use of paints to make drawings or texts expanded the phenomenon of graffiti in the early 1920s. However, it was the 1970s that brought graffiti’s most active development and heyday. Graffiti as we know it today emerged in Philadelphia and then New York at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. (In the 80s Berlin and its famous wall joined the company of the world’s most ‘graffiti-bombed’ cities).

Gesture of presence, or vandalism?

From the 1960s forwards, New York ran into serious difficulties balancing its budget. Many firms had to close; people lost their jobs; and the city’s tax revenue slumped. The authorities made up for the lack of money by borrowing – in the form of short-term loans, whose volume by the middle of the 80s almost brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy. Wealthier citizens hurried to leave the city. They were replaced with welfare recipients struggling to make ends meet on unemployment benefits. The flight of the middle class turned respectable districts of New York into slum-like ghettoes where illegal activities and crime flourished.

It was New York that saw the first personal tags, executed using aerosols. Local teenagers wrote their own names and the names of the streets where they lived, using any surface that came to hand to make themselves known. This was like a game, and at a particular moment it burst the boundaries of the city’s rundown districts and flooded onto neighbouring streets. This disguised game of ‘catch me if you can’ quickly became popular as a social gesture: graffiti gave a feeling of ownership, even if the reality was completely different.

To stand apart from other participants in the ‘game’, people thought up ways of adding individuality to their tags. One approach was graffiti with a double outline. Small inscriptions using a marker pen on the rear seat of a bus quickly evolved into enormous, two-metre-high graffiti on subway coaches. Goods trains and freight wagons in New York became an arena where the leaving of tags became a kind of contest. Rivalry with other graffiti writers facilitated the movement’s development into a separate direction in art. This movement acquired its own culture – expressed, among other things, in its figurative language.

Textual inscriptions grew into pieces – enormous, stylized letters that together formed the artist’s name. Some artists joined forces to form teams that evolved their own unique and distinctive visual style. One such group was established at the end of the 1970s by Fred Braithwaite, better known as Fab 5 Freddy. Freddy was responsible for merging graffiti with hip hop. This became the third pillar on which underground culture stood, along with breakdance and DJ-ing.

1983 brought the first opportunity to see the world of graffiti from the other side. The legendary film Style Wars, produced by Tony Silver and Henry Chanfount, shows the New York subway as the scene of creative battles between graffiti writers. Some people regarded this as a criminal subculture. Others gained insight into the new art movement’s intentions. Still others were seriously inspired and decided to attempt something on the streets themselves.

The idea that graffiti is absolute evil and the general ambivalence regarding graffiti were fed by legal aspects. The city authorities’ attempt to restrain the growth of graffiti by prohibiting the sale of cans of aerosol paint failed. Many artists had no need to buy paints: they simply stole them. Their drawings soon covered more and more surfaces in the city, including the walls, doors, and windows of private homes. Discussions on the true nature of graffiti – vandalism or art? – increasingly leant towards the former. Graffiti artists were seen as criminals associated with more serious violations
of the law.

The authorities’ campaign of aggression against street art and the toughening of punitive measures for spoiling public and private property forced many New York artists to move to Europe. Graffiti spread throughout the world. Bristol, a small city in the south of England, became one of the centres of underground culture and the birthplace of the most famous anonymous street artist to enter into critical dialogue with this culture.

Britain – Bristol – Banksy

All we know about Banksy is his pseudonym and the works created under it. Everything else remains a mystery which has yet to be solved by even the most assiduous conspiracy theorists. It may be that Banksy’s true identity is too popular, and so its bearer is compelled to go by a pseudonym. Or it might be that Banksy is an entire group, an association of artists on a mission to realize their leader’s most audacious gestures.

Our current information is that Banksy was born in 1974. In 2008 the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday published an investigation by the journalist Claudia Joseph advancing the theory that this art terrorist’s real name is Robin Gunningham. This may explain the pseudonym: Ban is short for Robin.

In an interview he gave – anonymously, of course – Banksy described how his fascination with graffiti goes back to his schooldays. When he was 10, a lad with the nickname of 3D (Robert del Naja, currently lead singer of the Bristol band Massive Attack) was always ‘bombing’ the streets. 3D was one of those graffiti artists who had to move when things got tough in New York; he brought street art – and hip hop culture – to Bristol. A pioneer of graffiti in the UK, he began working in 1983, the same year that cinemas were showing Wild Style, a film about the reckless way they did graffiti in New York. In 1985, after receiving the last in a series of warnings from the police, 3D retired from his career as a graffiti artist, leaving behind him new groups of Bristol artists.

‘John Nation is the shouty social worker who has influenced British culture more than anyone else in the last 20 years.’

One of these artists was John Nation. The Aerosol Art Project which Nation set up at a youth centre in the rundown district of Barton Hill at the beginning of the 1990s was the only place in Bristol where it was possible to spend days on end legally drawing on walls. Another feature that attracted street artists to the youth club was the railway running alongside it – a starting point from which tags could be spread all over Bristol through raids on trains and buses.

At the age of 16, after leaving school, Banksy took up street art. Every weekend he made a pilgrimage to the Barton Hill Youth Centre; his aim was to realize himself in aerosol painting. The following year, 1989, during a major nationwide police campaign, the authorities arrested 72 graffiti artists, including Tom Bingley, a comrade of Banksy better known as Inkie. The numerous operations to arrest graffiti artists – including the most complex, Operation Anderson – shook street culture’s confidence. However, even this series of clearing operations did not deter the most committed. Ready for continual confrontation with the authorities, they continued ‘bombing’. It was one of these small groups that Banksy joined in the 1990s.

Bombing with metaphors

Although inexperienced and a generation younger than the first wave of Bristol graffiti writers, Banksy was immediately accepted into DryBreadZ’s team. His very first attempts at painting on walls revealed a thoughtfulness that distinguished him from his fellow graffiti artists. When working on graffiti, he thought hard about the locations for his pieces and how this would affect perception of the works. He preferred to bomb in popular ‘hot spots’ – highly public places that were dangerous but effective.

As well as scouting for locations, Banksy showed an almost academic seriousness in researching the most favourable way to position a drawing on a surface. He drew his graffiti in such a way that the surrounding setting and objects reinforced the drawing and its meanings. Bus passengers glancing at a bus stop for just a few seconds would have time to notice Banksy’s graffiti and look at it properly. Banksy treated the city as a space to be filled with witty allegories. Enhanced reality that could be seen without the need for special gadgets or devices. All you had to do was be present at the spot chosen by the artist.

Banksy was a confident draughtsman, which was in itself a technical advantage. Initially, he was a traditional graffiti artist and drew letters. Subsequently, he began adding hand-drawn drawings to his textual compositions.

Several years later, now 18, Banksy was noticed by the transport police while ‘bombing’ a train at a railway station. He took to his heels, tore his clothes to shreds, and hid under a dumper truck. The one and a half hours he spent in this hiding place with machine oil dripping on him were, strangely enough, an inspiring experience that revolutionized his artistic technique. As he hid, he noticed graffiti stencilled onto the bottom of the truck’s fuel tank – and decided to adopt this method in his own work. Optimizing this process helped him execute his street drawings faster and so reduce the risk of being caught.

Making stencils meant spending more time working in the studio. As well as coming up with a tactic for transferring his graffiti to a surface, Banksy began paying more attention to the conceptual component of his drawings. He started combining the layered technique of stencilled painting with the principles of street art. The painting-like imagery and meanings resulting from this synthesis elevated underground art to a branch of mainstream art. Graffiti was evolving into street art, a path which would soon be taken by already-famous street artists including Shepard Fairey, Osmegeos, and BAST. Tags addressing a specific subculture became proper street pictures with images that could be understood by a wider audience.

Apart from the technical innovations, this experience definitively shaped the idea of Banksy’s anonymity, something which was essential so he could continue working. Banksy could be said to have been lucky in this respect: after Operation Anderson, his name has never again appeared on a police list; all he has had to do is preserve the status quo.

Aerosol art activism

From the very beginning, Banksy established himself as a mute voice using his drawings to unmask social and ethnic problems. The economic crisis in the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s pursuit of capitalism and militarism, protests and revolts against tax reforms, new public-order laws, the increase in the number of nomadic hippies and liberal groups all over the country: all this made Banksy’s art emphatically political.

Banksy turned chaotic tagging into conceptual street art that spotlighted the unfairness of the new order in society. Driven on by oppositionist fervour, he joined the commune of so-called ‘new gypsies’ – radical liberal communities that set up the festival of free music and art at Glastonbury (at one of these events Banksy created an installation that parodied Stonehenge by turning public toilets into megaliths) and promoted an alternative way of life. This experience was reflected in a work created in 1998 on the raves of the 80s and the pursuit of total freedom. In subsequent works by Banksy we find another unofficial symbol of rave culture: the ever-smiling smile sign in the form of death grinning venomously with a scythe or a portrait of a member of the special services.

Banksy’s concern for social issues developed into a protest that was radical but well-conceived and consistent. The Mild Mild West (1999), a mural on a disused building in Bristol, depicted a toy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at three policemen. This anecdotal picture is salted with a large helping of irony. But the irony is bitter; it strikes oppressed parts of society precisely it can hurt them most. The reference for this mural is an event on Winterstoke Road in Bristol, when riot police began raiding parties and attacking partygoers. In Banksy‘s hands the incident becomes an illustration of the defencelessness of the lower classes and the absurdity of aggressive, almost automatic control of civil society under the cover of the UK’s anti-terrorism laws.

Bansky showed other, more ‘humanized’ policemen in Kissing Cops (2004), a work that was both a challenge to the police’s sense of self-irony and a tribute to Maurizio Cattelan’s famous cops. Here Banksy seems to be reminding us that the police have questions to answer concerning their powers, and yet at the same time he is sympathising with them – as people with their own weaknesses and passions.

After ‘besieging’ Bristol, Banksy set about ‘bombing’ London. On the fauna in his work, which covers the whole city, and on his pacifist narratives and performances in museums and other contexts,

see the continuation of this article.