Banksquiat. Boy and Dog in Stop and Search
Medium: Acrylic and wax marker on birch wood, in 3 parts
Dimensions: 243.8 x 344.5 cm (96 x 135 5/8 inches)
Signed “Banksy” lower right
In the early hours of September 17, 2017, Banksy paid a clandestine visit to the Barbican in Central London. That morning, as The Londonist shares, Banksy’s newest image caught museum staff by surprise: “a brilliant homage” to Jean-Michel Basquiat, stenciled on the wall in Golden Lane. As The New York Times reported: “Banksy Strikes Again.”
“Major new Basquiat show opens at the Barbican. A place that is normally very keen to clean any graffiti from its walls.”
Banksy timed the creation of his intervention to the opening of Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican, the first comprehensive exhibition of the influential street artist in the United Kingdom since his untimely death in 1988. The present work, Banksquiat. Boy and Dog in Stop and Search, executed on panel in 2018, features two figures from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting, Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, being frisked by members of London’s Metropolitan Police. Basquiat’s boy and dog are rendered in the late artist’s gestural painterly style, while the police officers are executed using Banksy’s signature black-and-white stencil technique. A collaboration beyond space and time, the work unites two street art giants from either side of the Atlantic in a cogent commentary on commodification and privilege in contemporary art.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, 1982. Private Collection. Image: akg-images, Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York
Banksy’s signature stenciling technique—which the artist facetiously calls “cheating”—allows him to create works with a level of detail and precision that is difficult (if not impossible) to achieve otherwise in the inherently quick, covert practice of graffiti.iii These stencils appropriate images or motifs from popular culture, but reinterpret them into novel settings, a shift that imbues the imagery with new, often confrontational, and deeply ironic meaning. For instance, Kissing Coppers, 2004, executed on the wall of a pub in Brighton, a historically gay-friendly city in England, calls to attention lingering homophobia and the history of police crackdowns on LBGTQ+ people (most famously, in the United States, at Stonewall). Banksy’s stenciled interventions, Kissing Coppers and the present work included, separate him out from the crowd, as a stylistic fingerprint that unites his graffiti works around the world.
While Banksquiat. Boy and Dog in Stop and Search finds its visual basis in Basquiat’s Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, Banksy reinterprets Basquiat’s imagery—and rewrites his title—to shift the meaning of the work. Basquiat’s Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump is a blistering summer scene, with the boy and dog posing in the red-hot water of a johnnypump, slang for an opened fire hydrant that turns the street into an impromptu (and technically illegal) water park. Spike Lee famously captures the raucous joy of this summertime activity in his 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, which focuses on residents of Bedford Stuyvesant, a historically Black neighborhood in Basquiat’s native Brooklyn. Basquiat paints his figures against a vibrant background of red, green, and yellow, colors which commonly feature on Caribbean and African textiles, like rastacaps, kente cloth, and the traditional Ethiopian flag. These colors, in place of the white spray of rushing water, underscore the localized connection of the visuals of Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump to the lived experience and material existence of Black Brooklynites.
If Basquiat’s painting, Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, lives in the joyous outset of Spike Lee’s scene, as residents jump and play in the open fire hydrant, then Banksquiat lives in the aftermath, once a white man calls the police on the Black residents. Spike Lee masterfully navigates the precarious joy of the johnnypump in the narrative of the film; Banksy, too, makes careful artistic choices to adapt Basquiat’s work to the presence of his stenciled Metropolitan Police. Banksy removes the majority of Basquiat’s tricolor, Pan-African background, leaving only a thin grey-scaled outline around the figures in the present work. The male figure’s hands, raised perhaps in play or celebration in Basquiat’s original, become a clear “hands up” gesture in the presence of the police. As in Spike Lee’s film, Banksy’s artistic choices show how quickly a playful moment can become a tense encounter for Black Americans; the Johnnypump transforms into a Stop and Search.
Banksy furthers the real-world commentary of Banksquiat through his assertion that Banksquiat. Boy and Dog in Stop and Search is a portrait of Basquiat himself. By eliding the artist with his art, just as the Barbican exhibition does, Banksy raises questions of the commodification and acceptance of artists, particularly Black artists, in a historically white art world.iv While artists like Basquiat have increasingly been embraced in the history of art, art institutions can still feel unwelcoming to Black artists living and working today. Banksy’s commentary—literally, in the form of his Instagram comments—provides insight into the significance of Banksquiat, in situ and in critique of the Barbican.
Banksquiat. Boy and Dog in Stop and Search made its Instagram debut alongside a second graffiti intervention by Banksy at the Barbican, which shows a line of people queuing up to ride a Ferris wheel, with Basquiat’s signature crown motif replacing the ride’s passenger cars. “Major new Basquiat show opens at the Barbican,” he captioned the work, “a place that is normally very keen to clean any graffiti from its walls.”vi The Barbican, as a place of “special architectural and historic interest,” is listed as Grade II on the National Heritage List for England, and it is Grade II* as part of the historic Barbican and Golden Lane Conservation Area.vii As a result of these designations, the Barbican has special protection from “criminal damage,” including graffiti like Banksquiat, which includes harsher punishments for offenders compared to damage done to non-listed buildings.
It is the ultimate irony, then that Banksquiat, in situ on Golden Lane, was immediately protected with Plexiglas; just two days after the work was made, a representative from the Barbican reported that they were “in discussion” with the City of London about “how to care for the pieces.” Graffiti, considered “criminal damage” on the National Heritage list, is suddenly a piece of art by Banksy’s hand, worthy of preservation and care itself. Banksquiat seems to ask whether Basquiat, a young Black man, praised for making street art and living rough within the Basquiat: Boom for Real exhibition, would receive the same star treatment as Banksy for graffitiing the Barbican in 2017. Or, would he have been subject to racial profiling, stopped and frisked; detained, like the figure in the work?