Topical graffiti

After ‘besieging’ Bristol, Banksy began ‘bombing’ London. His ‘avatars’ spread parasite-like all over the city but settled especially densely in Shoreditch, the centre of street culture at this time. Monkeys that look smarter than humans and rats alluding to Blek le Rat, the street artist who pioneered stencil paintings in Paris, quickly became part of London’s visual language. The underground culture of society’s bottom layers spilled out into urban space in images of mischievous black-and-white rats. Rats are, after all the most resilient animals, capable of surviving in and adapting to even the most unfavourable conditions.

London steadily filled up with protest humour – drawings of animals, policemen inspecting children, children inspecting policemen, soldiers, old men, and so on. Banksy wanted to underline the beauty and individuality of ordinary people, compared with institutions that propagate pressure and control. Inscriptions involving the surrounding context began to appear on the streets. One of them was the rhetorical question, ‘What are you looking at?’, placed next to a surveillance camera. Banksy also, though, created works in which he expressed disapproval of the new society, criticizing the consumerism he saw everywhere around him – for instance, ‘Sorry! The lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock.’

In a sense Banksy can even be seen as attempting to urbanize London. He put up joke plaques saying, ‘Designated graffiti area’ and ‘Designated protest area’. Members of the city council, however, were clearly unable to give this initiative the appreciation it deserved.

In the 1990s things became slightly more relaxed in the UK.

British culture was experiencing a kind of heyday: the state had relaxed its control of many fields of power, and this affected censorship too. The government’s previous conservative policy gave way to a democratic one, helped by Tony Blair and his liberal tactic of ‘Cool Britannia’. The new government realized that total prohibitions were neither fashionable nor effective. Provision of freedoms and financial support, including in the arts, would give artists opportunities for self-realization, while rewarding the state with cultural development and a chance to cut a fine figure on the world’s political stage. And it worked.

It is no accident that some of the most expensive artists now alive – Damien Hirst and Banksy himself – grew and bore fruit on British soil. In the 1990s Damien Hirst joined forces with other artists to form Young British Artists (YBA), an alliance which revolutionized the art scene throughout the world and, not surprisingly, led the way in British contemporary art. YBA’s mutinous, provocative character attracted numerous grants, as well as collectors and galleries. But it was not long before the torrent of finance and attention blunted YBA’s revolutionary edge; it settled into being just another part of the well-fed, glamorous establishment.

Street art, on the contrary, was nothing if it wasn’t about protest. The official art community did not accept street artists: it thought their statements populist and not sufficiently serious. So street art could not look to art institutions for support; it was popular, however, among ordinary people.

Anti-exhibitions in anti-galleries

Despite the lack of enthusiasm shown by the official art community, Banksy found a way of realizing his works. Not on his own, but together with his fellow-Bristolian, photographer Steve Lazarides. Right up until 2008, the partnership between Banksy and Lazarides was proof that to spread art among the masses, you don’t need a gallery or acceptance by art institutions. The friends literally did everything with their own hands, helped by support from the community of street artists.

Santa’s Ghetto, a DIY-type exhibition that was one of Banksy’s first, was held in the winter of 2002. Works by Banksy and his fellow street artist Ben Eine were hung all over The Dragons, a two-storey bar in Shoreditch which was a secret meeting place for graffiti artists of the time. Steve Lazarides understood very well what kind of people could fill the bar, so a tactic of democratic prices was chosen. Few however, could have predicted the ensuing surge of interest in art by street artists. Visitors bought the works in bulk, attracted by the price of 250 GBP per piece. This was art for ordinary people at an affordable price. Santa’s Ghetto was an anti-gallery holding an anti-auction.

Subsequently, the anti-gallery concept was revived by Banksy a few years later: at Crude Oils, his solo exhibition project in 2005.

Banksy rented a disused shop in Westbourne Grove in Notting Hall. The exhibition consisted of 22 versions of pictures by the Old Masters accompanied by 200 rats that were deliberately released directly into the exhibition space. Wilting Sunflowers from Petrol Station, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol in which Banksy replaced Marilyn’s face with that of the supermodel Kate Moss, and Show Me the Monet, an oil painting featuring supermarket trolleys and a transport cone in the lily-strewn water under Monet’s bridge were classic paintings reconceived by Banksy in the light of contemporary global problems.

It was inevitable that pacificism and a rejection of militarism, ideals that had taken root in Banksy’s hippy-pubertal period, should be expressed in his works – especially when, after the UK joined the invasion of Iraq, youth culture again turned its back on the government. A new wave of anti-war protests made Banksy’s work even more acutely of the moment. His approach was to reduce ad absurdum the mood of protest in society and then flavour it with a pinch of tough but easily recognizable humour.

Wrong War was Banksy’s way of making public what everyone had been thinking about, but few had been able to express or make themselves heard saying. The theme of war was continued in Banksy’s first major exhibition, Turf War, held at a disused warehouse in London’s East End in 2003. Banksy would not have been Banksy if he hadn’t made graffitied cows and pigs the stars of his show. Animals painted with references to contemporary art, portraits of Andy Warhol, and parts of road signs grazed amid thousands of lookers-on (and, of course, animal-rights activists) and cars that had been piled on top of one another.

Recognized as ‘one of the best and shortest in England’, this exhibition was a sensation. Breaking decisively with the ‘white cube’ exhibition concept, it showed that street art has no need for traditional methods of presentation. As a genre, street art was streaks ahead of many art movements in the audacity with which it exhibited its innovations. Yet again, it made it clear it would not go knocking at the closed doors of museum institutions.

Museum actionism

Nevertheless, Banksy did ‘end up in a museum’. This clickbait phrase succinctly describes his next stunt. Over the course of 2005 he used a prank to steal his way into a number of classical institutions. A contraband operation resulted in three well-known American museums – MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History – unintentionally acquiring new works for their collections for just a few hours.

‘You Have Beautiful Eyes’, a portrait of a woman in a gas mask, a formal portrait of an officer holding an aerosol can with anti-war graffiti in the background, and a stuffed beetle with rockets on its wings: all these objects spent several hours in the museums’ permanent collections before being removed by the museum staffs. However, a tin of Tesco’s soup resembling Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup Cans continued hanging at MoMA in New York for almost two weeks.

This gesture made Banksy a pioneer of illegal performance and took him beyond the bounds of the generally accepted notion of the ‘artist’. By working with street space, the graffiti aesthetic, and actionism, Banksy stretched the concept of artist to the point where it included multidisciplinary art.

Points on the map

In 2005 Banksy left the UK to paint the security barrier between Israel and Palestine. The aim was to draw the attention of the public to how unfairly the Palestinians were being treated. Banksy was not the first to leave his artistic ‘traces’ on the wall. Despite the clearly political character of this conflict, not one of the works he created declared adherence to either of the two sides. However, his allegories highlighting the opposition between oppression and freedom were so strong that they began to break down the concrete wall – including literally. Banksy created illusions of cracks in the wall, filling them with paradisal landscapes and a peaceful blue sky. These idyllic views contrasted strongly with what was actually happening on the Palestinian side.

In 2007 Banksy visited the West Bank with other foreign artists and created several further works in Bethlehem: Pigeon Wearing Body Armour, Stop and Search, Donkey Documents, etc. The famous Flower-Thrower, since renamed Love in the Air and probably Banksy’s most pacifist statement, refers to the protests of the 1960s against the war in Vietnam – a time when hippies used flowers to spike the machine guns pointed at them. The sheer quantity of the works, their location, and the fact that they were open to different interpretations not only heated up the Arabo-Israeli conflict but also gave Banksy’s gesture a global resonance.

In 2017 Banksy opened his own hotel – The Walled Off Hotel – in Bethlehem. The hotel is situated right at the security barrier, so the windows of all its rooms face straight onto the wall. The rooms get almost no sunlight, which explains why Banksy came up with the advertising slogan ‘The worst view in the world’. The hotel’s entire interior decoration is reminiscent of Palestine’s colonial past and the UK’s role in this conflict: a bar in the colonial style, false bas-reliefs, balustrades alluding to English architecture, and even a doorman chained to the entrance with manacles.

Banksy’s first exhibition outside England took place in Los Angeles 2006. Once again, the venue was a disused warehouse.

Barely Legal greeted visitors with an enormous live elephant whose skin colour mimicked the room’s patterned wallpaper. How many people attending the exhibition recognized this as the metaphor ‘the elephant in the room’?

American visitors, used to modern artists’ exhibiting in white spaces, were shocked by Banksy’s alternative approach. Visitor numbers were swelled by representatives of celebrity-rich LA, including a number of glamorous personalities (all of whom had to stand in line with everyone else while waiting to get in). Despite its resounding success, the exhibition revealed a new conflict in Banksy’s positioning. Although keen to maintain his independence from traditional galleries and museums, he found himself beginning to converge, partly unintentionally, with the path of institutional recognition and the art establishment. He also opted for the exhibition format for presenting his art – a move that was not accepted by the community of street artists, which prefers to keep its distance from glamorous high-society reporting and the hype in ‘elite’ circles.

‘I like success but not what goes with it.’

By 2008 street art was spreading all over the planet and had become a fixture in the urban landscape and infrastructure. Inspired by Banksy’s success and the equalization of opportunities on the art market, young artists went out onto the streets to create their own works. Successes at this time include Shepard Fairey, Ron English, Ben Eine, and JR. Banksy can be credited with not merely popularizing street art but also making it possible to commercialize worldwide success without any need to feel shame.

The Banksy effect

Following Christina Aguilera’s purchase of a picture depicting Queen Victoria, on 19 October 2006 a series of works depicting Kate Moss was sold at Sotheby’s in London for 50,400 GBP, setting a record for works by Banksy. In the following year, 2007, Bomb Middle England sold at auction for 102,000 GBP.

Prices for Banksy’s works not only grew but grew steadily. The ‘Banksy effect’ penetrated all social strata – from enterprising collectors to speculators looking to make a quick buck by flipping a purchase. The only difference between these two categories was that while the former hunted for street art in galleries and at auctions, the latter went onto the streets and broke off pieces of wall with Banksy’s works on them to sell on the black market. To stop the growth in unlawful sales and guarantee the authenticity of works being sold, Banksy introduced a system of certificates of authenticity. This system is effective to this day.

In 2009 Banksy reminded the art community of his hooliganism by organizing a secret exhibition in a museum in Bristol. This was a paradox: an exhibition organized in collaboration with the authorities who had, just a few years before, forbidden graffiti, launched Operation Anderson, and arrested street artists. But Banksy found his way into a museum for a second time and managed to do what no one else had done before in a museum space.

He filled the stagnating Bristol City Museum with his ‘ruined pictures’, mechanical stuffed animals, an enormous ice-cream van, etc. Cheeky paintings acquired Baroque frames with monograms as a symbol of how illicit art has become an accepted part of the art community. However, conscious of this system’s lack of transparency, Banksy continued to criticize art institutions and to ask questions, such as:

‘What is street art? And what is art in general?’

Unable to slot into any specific segment of the art world and criticized from both directions, Banksy continued to make a point of showing that contemporary art, especially pop art, held no attraction for him. He has criticized some contemporary artists – including Andy Warhol, whose ‘bananas’ he put in the hands of the main characters in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction instead of guns. He has made fun of Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs, putting them on a lead in the hand of a policeman. In another work a maid lifts up the bottom edge of a wall drape decorated with a large number of coloured pharmaceutical dots in the manner of Damien Hirst. And in yet another we see Banksy himself walking Keith Haring’s iconic ‘barking dog’.

Banksy has increasingly turned to the topic of manipulation of the art market, the problem of value and prices. In 2013 he secretly opened a pop-up shop on 5th Avenue in New York, putting 25 works of spray art up for sale. Any passer-by could acquire a Banksy original for just $60 – a surrealistic situation which would today be unimaginable. But people walked past without even looking inside the kiosk.

This ‘fair of unprecedented generosity’ ran up against a complete lack of demand – since there had been no publicity, none of the noise that is usually ‘part and parcel’ of any work by Banksy. No one asked themselves, ‘Are these real works by Banksy?’ In fact, passers-by had no questions to ask at all – they were just not interested. This commercial failure was Banksy’s way of poking fun at the public and its response to any art which is not labelled ‘This is art.’ He also made fun of himself, as someone who was already part of this incomprehensible and at the same time predictable art world.

Shredded art

The apogee of Banksy’s strategy of shocking / mocking the art public was the unprecedented action that took place at a Sotheby’s auction in October 2018. Banksy’s picture Girl with Balloon, which began as a stencilled wall painting in 2002, was sold to an unknown woman for 1.04 million GBP.

Immediately after the hammer came down for the last time, the image began to self-destruct in a shredder mounted in the frame. Since the paper-destroyer in the frame stopped working half-way through, the result of this action was a new art object, which was renamed ‘Love is in the Bin’. The auction house declared this was ‘the first work in history to have been created during the course of a live auction.’ Banksy had carried out possibly the most resonant prank in the entire history of modern art. This joke ricocheted three years later, in 2021, when Love in the Bin was sold at auction at Sotheby’s for 18.6 million GBP – an 18-fold increase.

‘The striving for destruction is also a creative stimulus.’

Sotheby’s possibly intended to domesticate Banksy, to tame his refractoriness – by having his works legitimized by figures from the world of high art. But the tactic did not work. Banksy’s gesture of deliberate, public destruction of his own work reminded the world of art institutions exactly who they were dealing with, who was setting the rules of the game, and who was in charge of the auctions – and of art in general.

This was Banksy’s way of reacquainting the entire world of art with the force of his wit and marketable cheek. He has inspired more than one generation with confidence in their own ideas – by demonstrating that anybody at all can become the best-known artist in the world. And he has definitively written his fake name into textbooks on the history of modern art: from ironic stencilled pieces on the streets to serious artistic statements about the point of art; from writings on the disused walls of buildings in Bristol to record prices at world-class auctions; and from primeval cave drawings to high-class artistic vandalism that goes beyond the bounds of our reality – in both the literal and metaphorical senses.

Is there anyone who still thinks Banksy insufficiently serious?