Police, Cops and Coppers


“The Greatest Crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules.”

Banksy‘s relationship with law enforcement is understandably nuanced, given that his mural works are still mostly illegal, and need to be conducted under the cover of darkness, behind a fiercely protected anonymity. His complicated dynamic with law enforcement is explored many, many times throughout his career, from murals, to originals and also prints on paper.
Interestingly, the urban legend about Banksy says that an early encounter with the police when he was 18 is part of the reason why he started using stencils. One night when he was hiding from the police under a truck, Banksy noticed the stenciled plate on the bottom of the fuel tank and realized that the use of stencils could cut his painting time in half and minimize the risk of getting caught.
But there was more to it than just the time element.

“As soon as I cut my first stencil, I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.”


Police, Cops, and Coppers

1. Fuck The Police
2. You Told Me That Joke Twice
3. Avon and Somerset Constabulary
4. Crime Pays
5. Rude Copper
6. Flying Copper
7. Stop and Search
8. SWAT Van
9. The Battle of the Beanfield


1. Fuck The Police

Set against a stark white background, a tense police officer has drawn his baton. He looks beyond the confines of the board, but it is instantly apparent what, or better who, he is looking for. “Fuck the police” is written in crude red letters on the wall behind him. The officer is too late and the culprit seems to have escaped, leaving his anti-authoritarian message for everyone to see. The officer looks like he might be more than willing to “rough up” whoever was responsible for leaving that thoughtful note on the wall.
Fuck The Police, 2000
Acrylic and spray enamel on board
122×122 cm (48×48 inches)
Fuck the Police from 2000 is a striking, early example of what was to become one of Banksy‘s most iconic motifs, rendered in black and red against the white board, the image possesses a visual immediacy and clean aesthetic that is key to its popularity.
Stop Me Before I Paint Again, 2004
Oil, acrylic and spray paint on canvas
91.5×91.5 cm (36×36 inches)


2. You Told Me That Joke Twice

You Told That Joke Twice is one of Banksy’s rare, incredibly painterly original canvases. Depicted in dynamic, colorful brush strokes and spray paint, the image shows a clown being taken away by the police, suggested by the title that he is literally being carried off for having told the same joke twice – certainly a reaction that seems excessively harsh for something as minor as repeating a joke.
You Told Me That Joke Twice, 2000
Acrylic, spray enamel and oil stick on canvas
124.8×165.1 cm (49×65 inches)
This vibrant piece is a humorous commentary by Banksy: you can get jailed for almost anything these days and, oftentimes, the punishment does not fit the crime. Naturally, Banksy feels that police spending their time attempting to stop street artists from sharing their work is a trivial, inconsequential thing for them to be spending their time on. Surely, he feels, this cannot be the biggest problem law enforcement has to grapple with in a world where far more insidious things take place and are pursued with less vigor by the police.
Exhibited at Banksy‘s seminal first indoor exhibit at Severnshed in his hometown of Bristol, this work shows the playful wit associated with Banksy’s pared down compositions.


3. Avon and Somerset Constabulary

When Banksy started his graffiti career in Bristol, the local police force has a particularly draconian policy against graffiti. Avon and Somerset Police was the territorial police force responsible for law enforcement in the county of Somerset and in four districts that were in the now defunct county of Avon: Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.
This work is in a way Banksy‘s revenge, as he presents two police officers, in a pink background, using binoculars – one looking up in the sky, the other looking elsewhere. In typical Banksy fashion, he says much while saying – but the message is clear: these fools have no clue what they are looking for. The bright pink background gives the work a child-like feel, further suggesting we are looking at two dunces.
Avon and Somerset Constabulary, 2000
Acrylic and stencil spray-paint on canvas
76x76x4.5 cm (29 7/8 x 29 7/8 x 1 3/4 inches)


Avon And Somerset Constabulary was first created around 2001 as a spray-painted stencil on canvas in pink or blue backgrounds, both released in an edition of 10. Original canvases of Avon And Somerset Constabulary were also created around the same time – such as a variation with a red and white striped background.


Avon and Somerset Constabulary, 2000
Stencil spray-paint and oil on canvas
60.5×60.5 cm (23 13/16 x 23 13/16 inches)
Edition: 2, each in a different colorway

In Avon And Somerset Constabulary, two uniformed police officers are looking through binoculars, on the lookout for mischief. One officer is scanning the skyline while the other, baton at the ready at his hip, is almost looking directly out of the canvas, perhaps about to accuse the viewer of misdemeanour.

Avon and Somerset Constabulary, 2000
Stencil spray-paint and emulsion on canvas
85x69cm (33 1/2 x 27 1/8 inches)

Avon And Somerset Constabulary is Banksy’s satirical take on the suspicious and overenthusiastic police force, looking everywhere – even the sky – for troublemakers to crack down on. It is also less scornful of the police than Banksy’s later works. Here, the police officers look merely incompetent rather than dangerous or sadistic.


4. Crime Pays

In Existencilism, Banksy‘s second self-published book, the artist is also very clear as to his relationship with law enforcement, and the relevance of their role towards our Western societies.

“There is nothing more dangerous than someone
who wants to make the world a better place.”



Obviously the Royal Guard has been one of Banksy‘s favorite targets – early murals presenting some of them peeing all over London, others tagging various walls.
The Metropolitan Police is also seen “acting out” on various iconic Banksy murals. In Snorting Copper, for instance, we see a prime example. This mural, executed in 2005, shows a police officer in London snorting a line of cocaine. It also included several miles of paint “dribble” which trailed through the city and led to the stencil which would certainly be quite a line! Banksy was trying to illustrate some hypocrisy – cocaine is an illicit substance, and possession of it is a crime; yet, here we see one of the individuals tasked with enforcing that law doing the very same thing he jails others for. This artwork was vandalized but, thankfully, has since been restored. It was located on Curtain Road at the Waterloo Station in London.

“There are no exceptions to the rule
that everyone thinks they are an exception to the rules.”

Banksy directs a lot of his vitriol towards police since they arrested so many of his friends (and perhaps him) for doing their art on the streets. In Banksy’s mind not only is there no harm in the work he and his peers create, in fact, a great deal of good can come from it. It can stop wars, spread peace and love, force us to confront and question issues facing our society, and sometimes just make people smile.

“Doing what you’re told is generally overrated”



5. Rude Copper

This striking visual obviously is an open criticism to the behavior and the apparent disdain of authority towards the underprivileged. Rude Copper features a British police officer, wearing his traditional custodian helmet, stenciled in Banksy’s signature black and white style, giving the viewer the middle finger with startling effect. the perspective of the piece is so accomplished that his hand appears to come out of the frame. The figure wears the custodian helmet traditionally worn by police on patrol in England and Wales.
The figure glares out at us, half in shadow, with an insolent stare, suggesting in fact that he might be an impersonator, rather than a true copper, who has adopted the uniform in a sharp satire of modern policing methods…
Rude Copper, 2002
Screen-Print on paper
59×42 cm (23 x 16 1/2 inches)
Rude Copper is considered to be the first of Banksy’s commercial prints. Intended to be a run of 100 prints, it was changed to 250 at last minute. Some were hand-finished with unique spray painting, some others were tagged with the “Anarchy” sign, many extras were printed, around 50 were signed. It was released in two different types of paper.
Rude Copper was the first sold and produced with Steve Lazarides, who became Banksy’s agent at that time. Since he had no gallery space, he was selling the prints from the boot of his car. The price on release was GBP 40.

Policemen and Security Guards Always Wear Hats



6. Flying Copper

Flying Copper shows a heavily armed police officer portrayed with small angel wings on his back. The policeman has a striking yellow smiley face which evokes of 1990s acid house culture but also a simply-drawn popular and childlike design. The symbolism of the smiling face juxtaposed with assault rifle and armor shows a striking image of oppression and threat behind a friendly face. Flying Copper explores the duality between peace-keeper and danger reminding the viewer to be skeptical of those with too much authority or power…
Flying Copper, 2003
Screen-print in colors on paper
Editions: 150 signed, 600 unsigned
Flying Copper is one of Banksy’s earliest and most iconic images well known all around the world. Indeed, this visual is the perfect example of Banksy’s style featuring contrasting aesthetics: photo-realistic stencils combined with graphic features. Those features associated together is aimed at provoking the viewer… The juxtaposition of opposed concepts cannot leave indifferent: we associate very contrasted feelings with the “smiley face” (happiness), and with riot gear (fear and intimidation), and yet Banksy illustrates them within the same person. The little angel wings on the policeman’s back accentuate an amusing juxtaposition between morality, truth, military control and intimidation.
Flying Copper first appeared under a number of giant cut-out paintings suspended on cardboard from the ceiling at Turf War, Banksy’s first major exhibition in a warehouse in East London in 2003. The cut-outs were then spotted on the streets of Vienna and London, where the stencil appeared with a distinct red Banksy tag through the middle of it. Shoreditch Bridge also featured a row of Flying Coppers, but unfortunately part of this installation was stolen and subsequently featured in a 2012 documentary entitled “How to sell a Banksy”.

Take It To The Bridge

Banksy made a recurring use of the police officer flanked with the smiley face in various originals dated 2002 and 2003: Riot Copper, Smiling Copper, Happy Copper, Flying Copper.


Riot Copper, 2002
Stencil spray-paint on canvas
 30.5×30.5 cm (12×12 inches)
Edition of 4, each in a unique color



7. Stop and Search

Stop and Search is a recurring theme in Banksy‘s iconography declined on various murals and also a screen-print on paper released in 2007.
The stop and search policy, which allows a police officer to conduct a search of a person without a warrant or proof of wrongdoing, has become emblematic of the rise of the “nanny state” so heavily criticized by Banksy.
Stop and Search, Glastonbury
In a twist so typical of Banksy, he reverses the roles in a mural painted in Jerusalem in 2003, rendering the situation even more absurd as the innocent girl wearing a pink dress is searching an heavily armed soldier.
Stop and Search, Jerusalem, 2003
Stop and Search was released in 2007 as an edition of 500 signed prints. This work portrays, in monochrome, a storyline with Dorothy (the central character of the Wizard of Oz), her dog, Toto, and a police officer wearing blue latex gloves; the only colored element in Stop and Search. The police officer is searching through Dorothy’s basket. This print relates to the plot of The Wizard of Oz and suggests that Dorothy and Toto are being prevented from getting home. The purity and naivety associated with the protagonist in the film is embedded within the artwork and only accentuates the absurdity of the search itself.
Dorothy is a character representing innocence and freedom, and yet even she is not free from the menacing influence of the state.
Stop and Search, 2007
Screen-print in colors on Arches 88 wove paper
Edition: 500 signed
Stop and Search takes another twist in one of Banksy‘s most recent walls appearing in London at the Barbican Center in 2017, just in time for the opening of a major retrospective of Jean-Michel Basquiat‘s works. Indeed Basquiat is now revered as one of the top artists of the 21st Century, but Banksy reminds us Basquiat was a black-American artist, and he might have been stopped by the Police if he would have been still alive to attend his own exhibition?
Basquiat Welcomed by the Metropolitan Police, Barbican Center, 2017


8. SWAT Van

Banksy‘s typical response to fear and tyranny is laughter and cynicism, and he has found so many ways to mock law enforcement through various media, whether murals or canvasses. But SWAT Van brings his artistry to the next level as, not only it is depicting a scene in which heavily armed, faceless Special Forces agents are hoodwinked by a small boy, but, he is doing so on the very apparatus of their strength: the all powerful armored vehicle.
SWAT Van, 2006
Household gloss and spray paint on van
295x700x250 cm (116 1/8 x 275 9/16 x 98 7/16 inches)
SWAT Van is an imposing object; its menace is palpable. The art historical trope of the readymade has never been so loaded as with the present work and yet this piece shares more DNA with Duchamp’s Fountain than many of the works of his numberless imitators. For any decontextualization to have an impact it must subvert the original function of the object; if a urinal can become a fountain then an armored vehicle can become both a playground and a counter-cultural canvas.

The secret of Banksy’s success is built on the foundations of his relationship with the police of his native Avon and Somerset. SWAT Van itself is an elegant evocation of all the contradictions of the artist’s career and specifically his artistic output.
On the one side of the van the taut, technical composition of a fiendishly complex stencil catches the breathless moment before the boy’s prank takes place. The other side both physically and figuratively shows the raw aggression and vandalism of the overlapping, freehand tags. All of Banksy is on show here, his bravado, his imagination, his technical prowess, his confidence and his willingness to put his head above the parapet and speak truth to power.


9. Battle of the Beanfield

This impressive painting by its scale is a direct reference to a well-known and sad event in Britain’s history when, in 1985, an injunction to forbid a Festival led to an open-air battle between Police and “New Age Travelers”. In his usual humorous and cynical take, Banksy depicts several police officers in riot gears, running and playing in this very field as if they actually were the festival goers, the facts are less bucolic…
Battle of the Beanfield, 2009
Acrylic and spray-paint on canvas
250×300 cm
On June 1 1985, a clash between Wiltshire Police and “New Age Travelers” became known as The Battle Of The Beanfield, scene of one of the biggest mass arrests in English history.
Determined to enforce a High Court injunction that banned the Stonehenge Free Festival from taking place, 1,300 police in riot gear outnumbered the travelers by more than two to one. Dozens of travelers were injured, over 500 travelers were eventually arrested. This represents one of the largest mass arrest of civilians since at least the Second World War, possibly one of the biggest in English legal history. According to various media reports, the authorities were very violent towards men, but also towards women and children.

From this issue