Radar Rat, 2002
Spray-paint on cardboard
50.2 x 37.5 cm (19 3/4 x 14 3/4 inches)
From a series, unique in this format
Sotheby’s New-York: 13 May 2021
Rendered in Banksy’s signature monochrome, stenciled style, Radar Rat is one of the mysterious street artist’s most prolific subjects. There is of course irony and satire embedded in Banksy’s depictions of the rat: the animal is emblematic of the urban landscape, and often met with disgust and fear. Here, however, Banksy shows the small creature from the streets as intelligent and discerning.
First appearing in 2002, Banksy has since produced many variations of Radar Rat, from urban graffiti to paintings on canvas to bronze sculptures. The rat appears often in Banksy’s work, sometimes holding signs that read messages such as “Get Out While You Can” and “Welcome to Hell”; other times, painting a dripping red heart.
The present lot is a unique iteration of Radar Rat, a singular format of the animal that ironically appears throughout his work. Radar Rat holds a tape recorder in one hand and a sonic radar in the other; he’s wearing headphones and looks past the viewer, over their left shoulder, intently. A master of surprising juxtapositions, Banksy’s satirical oeuvre has fueled his reception as a cultural phenomenon, with reach extending far beyond the art world alone. Radar Rat is an iconic image that utterly encapsulates Banksy’s mission, rife with parody and critique.
The popularity of the rat as a symbol in street art is attributed to Blek Le Rat, a French stencil artist who initiated the urban art movement in France in the 80s. Also known as Xavier Prou, the “Father of stencil graffiti art”, began to spray-paint small rats in the streets of Paris and on the banks of the Seine… “Because rats are the only wild animals living in cities, and only rats will survive when the human race disappears and dies out. I wanted to do a rat invasion. I put thousands all over Paris.”
Rats play a major role in Banksy’s iconography and are said to be emblematic of street art itself. In his 2005 autobiographical book Wall and Piece, which features over 30 different representations of rats from the artist’s early career painted in the United Kingdom and Germany, Banksy states:
“Rats exist without permission. They are hated, hunted and persecuted. They live in quiet desperation amongst the filth. And yet they are capable of bringing entire civilizations to their knees. If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model.”
In this way the rat can be associated with the figure of the graffiti artist who is also smart and resourceful yet unloved and chased by the authorities, forced to act under the cover of darkness.
Done in Banksy’s iconic spray-stencil style, Radar Rat portrays a rat standing on its hind legs, wearing headphones and holding radar equipment with a hand-sprayed coral-red spiral in the background. He appears to be listening intently to the world around him, in what seems to be a comment on the ever-increasing presence of surveillance equipment in cities such as London.
Radar Rat can also be seen on a few walls in the streets of London, including King’s Road, and was later released as a very rare screen-print in 2004 as well as on the cover of Dirty Funker’s Future album in 2008.