Does it really matter? Pick any number of titles from below…
Guerilla Artist, Muralist, Studio Artist
Activist, Philanthropist, Humanitarian
Show Producer, Film Director, Writer
Urban Poet, Provocateur, Humorist, Philosopher
Banksy is one of the most sought-after and talked about urban artists in the world. Banksy, the pseudonym adopted by the artist, heavily guards his privacy. The details of his life remain largely unknown to the public. He has garnered great fame for his street works, which often combine spray paint and stenciling techniques with commercial, political, and contemporary imagery, infused with ironic social commentary and humor. Often critical of big businesses, corporations, police and government, Banksy’s work has been found on the sides of buildings, billboards, and city walls from London to New York, from Jamaica to the Gaza strip. Banksy is a bit of an enigma himself, as he amasses more followers than any other artist has ever been able to, he has chosen to remain anonymous. He has made it clear that he does not want the celebrity he has earned for his immense talent, instead – he chooses to have his work speak for itself, perhaps because he feels his identity might distract or detract from what the focus should be: his work, and the statements he is making.
Coming to prominence in the 1990s, Banksy has long been a chronicler of his time. His works have engaged with many of the most difficult issues our society needs to (or should) address, offering strong and often shocking imagery as a form of social commentary and critique. He painted on the West Bank barrier wall as early as 2005, and on the streets of Gaza; his works have appeared at the Louvre, the MoMA, the British Museum, but also in random parking lots in Los Angeles, and near sewers and dumpsters in many of the biggest cities in the world.
He made history when he left a Girl with Balloon in London’s Southbank in 2002. He has taken on giant corporations such as Disney, McDonald’s and Tesco; he has reworked Leonardo, Monet and Van Gogh. His works have addressed everything from the absurdity of war, police brutality, social inequality, as well as political tensions, climate change, consumerism, human and animal rights issues, and Brexit. Others — such as the girl hula-hooping with a bicycle wheel that appeared last year outside a Nottingham beauty salon —have simply brought joy to local neighborhoods.
Underpinning his practice is the strong and never failing belief that art, when dispersed freely among society, has the power to change the world for the better.
“Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw wherever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colors and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet.”
1. The Artist
By Dr. Carol Damian
Banksy, The Artist, is often neglected amidst the sensationalism of his activism, disruption, mysterious identity, and caustic views of the world. Much has been said over the past 20 years in an attempt to define what he does and why and how he observes the world with such an acute eye. Whether his attitude is sarcastic, truthful, pessimistic, or just the result of an upbringing surrounded by political challenges that begged for visual intervention and commentary, he is very much his own person, whoever he is. The power of his messages obscures the skill set required to succeed visually and conceptually in a variety of media, ranging from street graffiti to posters to prints to paintings and other objects (a ship, for example). Today, the message is again eclipsed by the art market; the very capitalist institution he criticized has become a mechanism where money actually contributes to that message and validates its ridiculousness. The poor street artist of unknown name commands extraordinary amounts of money! The hypocrisy and the irony are just what the artist feeds on and puts him in a position to review the art world that he once resisted from within.
Banksy in his studio, Steve Lazarides
A study of Banksy’s visual vocabulary and its development over the years begins with markings on public (or private) surfaces illegally and secretly. Ranging from small utilitarian street objects to billboard-sized murals, Banksy has taken graffiti to a new dimension. The word graffiti originates from Greek γράφειν—graphein—meaning “to write.” Today, graffiti has entered into art history’s rhetoric as more than random letters or markings and applied to what are now considered works of art. Scratched into the surface or painted or marked with anything like coal, chalk, paint, graffiti is often accompanied by other types of coverage, typically from spray paint. Called “tagging” by the artists who create personal identifications to sign their work and mark territory, individual signatures have become iconic additions to the walls as the artists flaunt their illegal intrusions.
Banksy is no exception. He has developed a unique style of intervention with the use of stencils that are in stark contrast to spontaneous markings or the tags of graffiti. Photographic in quality, the stencils appear life-like, further confusing the spatial construct of the imagery on a wall. Stencils are just one type of remarkable image-making that propels Banksy’s works into a myriad of message-driving applications and into the world of art. Ready or not, here he comes.
Banksy’s artistic output is just phenomenal.
Banksy is not only known for his high-profile murals; he also created numerous artworks on different media that are sought-after by collectors worldwide.
Banksy has not stopped creating murals since he got started during his youth in Bristol. It is hard to know how many he has done to date, as virtually all of them have been defaced, removed, or lost to the passage of time. His self-published books already reference more than 100, as of 2004. Banksy has travelled the world extensively, and has left murals virtually everywhere he goes. Most of his preserved murals are in the UK – either in London or Bristol.
Banksy Murals = over 1,000?
He has also been releasing limited edition prints for many years, in various formats, including signed and unsigned works, as well as artist proofs in different color variations. Prints are also a central part of Banksy’s oeuvre. He’s released approximately 70 prints in various edition sizes since 2002, totaling more than an estimated 30,000 prints in circulation.
Banksy Prints = around 30,000?
Banksy also created hundreds of originals – mostly on canvas, but also some on found materials such as metal, and wood pallets. He has also produced various sculptures that have been shown over the years at exhibits such as Barely Legal and Banksy vs. Bristol Museum.
Banksy Originals = maybe 1,000?
Further demonstrating that his talent and creativity knows no bounds, he has also enjoyed a great deal of success in film. His only full length film (to date), Exit To The Gift Shop was nominated for an Oscar. He contributed to an episode of The Simpsons. But, in reality, any of his exhibits, shows, pranks, is an artwork in itself – every element or experience is carefully crafted and curated to create the desired effect. Banksy has excelled in giving artistic and aesthetic value to anything he has ever touched.
2. Stencil Master
Stenciling produces an image or pattern by applying paint or aerosol to a surface through an intermediate object with designed gaps in it which create the pattern or image by only allowing the pigment to reach some parts of the surface. The stencil is both the resulting image or pattern, and the intermediate object. In practice, the (object) stencil is usually a thin sheet of material, such as paper, plastic, wood or metal, with any kind of design cut from it.
The key advantage of a stencil is that it can be reused to repeatedly and rapidly produce the same design. Typically, stencils are made with the intention of being reused. To be reusable, they must remain intact after a design is produced and the stencil is removed from the work surface. With some designs, this is done by connecting stencil islands (sections of material that are inside cut-out “holes” in the stencil) to other parts of the stencil with bridges (narrow sections of material that are not cut out).
Stencil technique in visual art is also referred to as pochoir. A related technique (which has found applicability in some surrealist compositions) is aerography in which spray-painting is done around a three-dimensional object to create a negative of the object instead of a positive of a stencil design. This technique was used in cave paintings dating back to 10,000 BC, where human hands were used in painting handprint outlines among paintings of animals and other objects. The artist sprayed pigment around his hand by using a hollow bone, blown by mouth to direct a stream of pigment.
‘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.’
What this tends to result in is that his surprisingly sophisticated draughtsmanship is often overlooked or taken for granted. Banksy did not create the stenciling technique that has been used for centuries, he simply mastered it. One just need look at a few of his stencils to appreciate not only the level of detail, but also the shading – the effects Banksy is able to produce using various stencils and aerosols is truly remarkable.
In much the same way Picasso did a century earlier, Banksy’s approach is built on solid technical foundations which are then stripped back to the cleanest and purest possible form.
“All artists are willing to suffer for their work. But why are so few prepared to learn to draw?”
Stencils have been applied to military uses across the globe for many years, and continue to be used today. They are used to mark up equipment, vehicles, rations, signposts, helmets, etc. One use of military stencils was the application of playing card designs to USA Airborne helmets during World War Two as a method to identify regimental units.
Banksy, besides his unbelievable technique, remains an artist whose work is motivated by its message, the clarity of the execution is key to its communication, as well as its ability to make the maximum possible effect and reach the widest possible audience. When all you can command is a couple of seconds of attention – as eyes wander when walking through the streets of the capital – the message needs to be succinct, visually striking and simple.
Banksy once characterized graffiti as a form of underclass revenge, or guerilla warfare that allows an individual to snatch away power, territory and glory from a bigger and better equipped enemy. Banksy clearly sees a social class component to this struggle, remarking, “If you don’t own a train company, then you go and paint on one instead.”
Banksy’s work has also shown a desire to mock centralized power, hoping that their work will show the public that although power does exist and works against you, that power does not preclude others from sharing their point of view and challenging the establishment on issues that affect society.
3. Graffiti Master
‘Despite what they say, graffiti art is not the lowest form of art, although you might have to creep out at night and lie to your mum, it’s actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission.’
Rats with cameras, children holding heart-shaped balloons, policemen kissing each other, apes and rats carrying placards, cops with smiley faces, this is the witty and uniquely imaginary world of Banksy, Britain’s most famous contemporary street artist, as well as its most mysterious.
Banksy has been making his distinctive hand-painted mark on the world’s cityscapes since the early 1990s, turning them into his own idiosyncratic sketchbooks. Primarily created by spraying black-and-white paint through stencils, his artworks are often humorous and nostalgic, but their apparent whimsical nature masks a sharp political bite – and there is virtually always a strong statement he is making. Banksy‘s quintessential strategy: to humorously disarm war-related iconography by turning it into an image of peace, such as with his famous masked flower-thrower, Love Is In The Air.
Banksy has constantly created visuals to elevate the genre, to provoke a reaction from the viewer as to how it relates to other artistic movements, or is related to art history. Banksy painted a mural portraying Velazquez as a graffiti artist, for example, to encourage dialogue on what would Velazquez do if he was born in our century….
Velazquez as a Graffiti Artist, London, 2007
Street art is often considered to have originated with the birth of hip-hop culture in late 1970’s America. But its roots actually lie in earlier guerilla art forms such as the Situationist actions of the 1950’s and the radical happenings of the 1960’s, intended as a critique of art’s commodification by the cultural establishment. For example in the early 1960s, the Danish ex-Situationist Asger Jorn made a series of what he called ‘Modifications’ or ‘Défigurations,’ in which he painted over cheap 19th-century prints, usually sourced from flea markets, to enhance and modernize what he considered meaningless old images.
Yves Klein organized multi-sensorial shows that were destined to illustrate an artistic concept within the mind of the attendee, and his impact on the scene cannot be ignored as he laid some of the groundwork for others to follow. With this venerable lineage, Street Art today encompasses many art forms and styles, including graffiti, posters, installation, video, and many forms of modern technology.
Banksy also used or invented terms that are smart accolades to art history such as Pest Modernism or Existencilism.
Post-Modernism or Pest-Modernism?
After many years of making his hugely popular and sometimes humorous work, Banksy has helped raise street art from an underground cult into a globally recognized movement. Thanks to his success and warm reception, critics and galleries have come to accept and respect graffiti and street artists for the important role they play from a historical art perspective. Examples include Shepard Fairey, responsible for Barack Obama’s iconic “Hope” poster from the 2008 US election, and the Norwegian stencil artist Dolk, both of whom are now represented by mainstream galleries and are collected by folks from all over the world.
4. Activist Philanthropist
A committed humanitarian and environmentalist, Banksy has used his voice and his unparalleled reach to fight for the causes he most believes in, contributing to organizations including Greenpeace, as well as Leonardo DiCaprio’s 11th Hour Foundation. He reinforced that these various causes were fundamentally important to his oeuvre by featuring them in both Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, and Wall and Piece, his seminal book documenting the first ten years of his life as a street artist.
Banksy, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, November 2001
In most of his exhibits, Banksy was keen on sharing a “manifesto.” It translated into a significant installation at Barely Legal, in Los Angeles: There is an Elephant in the Room.
There’s an elephant in the room. There’s a problem we never talk about.
Banksy has donated numerous artworks to promote various causes such as Civilian Drone Strike, which was sold in 2017 to raise funds for Campaign Against Arms Trade and Reprieve.
In 2018, a sculpture titled Dream Boat, which was exhibited atDismalandin 2015, was raffled off with the proceeds being sent to the NGO Help Refugees (now called Choose Love). Participants were able to, for a minimum donation of £2 for each attempt, guess the weight of the sculpture in a pop-up shop on Carnaby Street.
In 2002, Banksy produced artwork for the Greenpeace campaign Save or Delete. He also provided works to support local causes; in 2013, a work titled The Banality of the Banality of Evil was sold for an undisclosed amount after a failed auction to support an anti-homelessness charity in New York. In 2014, an artwork on a doorway titled Mobile Lovers was sold £403,000 to keep a youth club in Bristol open. In 2019, he again helped his hometown when he created merchandise for homeless charities in Bristol.
Save or Delete Jungle Book, 2001
Acrylic and permanent marker pen on card
66×90 cm (26 x 35 7/16 inches)
Save or Delete Jungle Book was commissioned by Greenpeace for their “Save or Delete” campaign to highlight the problems of global deforestation and combat the illegal trade in logging. The original artwork features some of the main characters from The Jungle Book, the iconic Disney story, which were then transposed on to a photographic image of a devastated forest. This new image was intended for use on Greenpeace posters, billboards and postcards, which were printed but never put into circulation because of the protectionist policies at Disney.
Version of the photographic poster, illustrated in Wall and Piece page 161
Banksy has been producing a number of works and projects in support of the Palestinians since the mid-2000s, including The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem.
In July 2020, Banksy sold Mediterranean Sea View, which raised £2.2 million for a hospital in Bethlehem. The paintings were original created for The Walled Off Hotel, and are Romantic-era paintings of the seashore that have been modified with images of lifebuoys and orange life jackets washed up on the shore, as a reference to the European migrant crisis.
More recently, Banksy gifted a painting titled Game Changer to a hospital in May 2020 as a tribute to National Health Service workers during the COVID pandemic. It was later sold for £14.4m in March 2021 to benefit a number of NHS-related organizations and charities.
In August 2020, it was revealed that Banksy had privately funded a rescue boat to save refugees at risk in the Mediterranean Sea. The former French Navy boat, renamed after Louise Michel, has been painted pink with an image of a young girl holding a heart-shaped safety flotation device.