The Outsider Who Has Become an Insider
There has perhaps been no artist in the 21st century quite as divisive and well-known as Banksy. Part of this controversial allure can be linked to his unorthodox canvases: the streets, buildings, and spaces outside of the formidable academic gallery setting. Or maybe it is the scathing poignancy of his political messages which, due to his growing commercial attention, have sometimes been interpreted as disingenuous and conventional. Yet as well-known as he is, Banksy’s identity still remains largely anonymous, despite multiple conspiracy theories. From his humble beginnings as a street artist and Bristol outlaw in the early 1990s to becoming one of the most revered (and loathed) voices in the art world, today’s episode takes a glimpse at whom Will Ellsworth-Jones calls “the outsider who has become an insider.”
Banksy. The Mild Mild West, 1999. Bristol, UK.
Banksy is best known for his stenciled graffiti work, often portraying stark, tongue-in-cheek social commentary. His style harks back to the French graffiti artist Blek le Rat, who utilized a similar stenciling technique. By the late 1990s, Banksy had solidified the bold dissidence and witty humor that had come to define his artistic tone. These qualities are evident in The Mild Mild West (1999), created in his hometown of Bristol. Described as “fluffy but defiant” by Steve Wright, the mural depicts a teddy bear with a Molotov cocktail aimed at a trio of riot police, commenting on institutional violence and the reactionary response of the local authorities and the community alike after unlicensed raves were raided. This piece also hints at his later textual work, during which he vandalized tourist hotspots such as Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and Trafalgar Square with phrases like “this is not a photo opportunity” and “designated riot area”.
Banksy. Follow Your Dreams, 2010. Boston, USA.
Banksy. Napalm, 2004. Screenprint on paper.
This interventionist artist is also known for appropriating corporate, pop-culture, and capitalist figures in an act known as brandalism, a form of critique stemming from punk culture. Napalm (2004) exemplifies Banksy’s “subvertising,” which features Phan Thị Kim Phúc (famously captured as the Napalm girl in a chilling photograph of the Vietnam War in 1972), who is seemingly dragged by Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, two of America’s most identifiable caricatures of capitalism and Westernization. By framing these figures side-by-side, Banksy provides an evocative critique of the effects of globalization, as well as the minimization of vulnerable “othered” subjects in the face of a political and cultural catastrophe.
Banksy. Flower Thrower, 2003. Jerusalem, Israel.
Banksy. Graffiti on Palestine Separation Wall near Bethlehem, 2005. Israeli West Bank Barrier.
But the political messages behind his artwork are only one aspect that makes Banksy’s work so powerful – indeed, it is the context in which he creates that adds to the immediacy of his work. Certainly, his 2005 graffiti of two children escaping into a colorful, tropical paradise would not hold as much resonance if it was not stenciled on the Israeli West Bank Barrier. As one of his most impactful guerilla projects, Banksy not only disavows the elitism and safety of the gallery space, but he provokes engagement with the world outside of aesthetics through political action. The “counterculture” authenticity of these messages, however, is not always so convincing, especially after receiving growing appreciation from celebrities and art collectors. Indeed, the stencil of a maid featured in Keep It Spotless (2007) began as a statement on representation in Art History, but it was rehashed in this defaced Damien Hirst piece, selling for $1.87 million at auction.
Banksy. Keep It Spotless, 2007. Household gloss and spray paint on canvas.
Banksy. Peel Fiction, 2007. London, UK.
Nevertheless, Banksy remains an avid philanthropist and passionate voice when it comes to injustice and inequality, even as he explores new ways to express himself through painting, videography, and performance art. One of his most recent projects includes Dismaland, an interactive theme park characterized as being “unsuitable for children.” Featuring a mangled Cinderella carriage, lessons on anarchism, and depressing staff members, the project was an uncanny art show riddled with dark humor and blatant irony meant to shock and amuse.
Banksy. Dismaland, 2015. Weston-super-Mare, England.
Banksy's latest known work consists of seven murals in various locations throughout Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv, the suburb of Irpin, and the town of Borodyanka – all of which were heavily impacted by Russian bombardments. One of the murals portrays a man, who is said to resemble the Russian president, being thrown to the ground during a judo match with a young boy. Another depicts two children using a metal tank trap as a seesaw. The third mural, painted on the ruins of a building destroyed by bombing, features a female gymnast performing a handstand.
Banksy. Graffiti in Borodianka, Kyiv region, Ukraine.
Banksy. Graffiti painted beside tank traps in Independence Square, Kyiv, Ukraine.
Banksy. Graffiti in Borodianka, Kyiv region, Ukraine.
By integrating his work with the spaces we inhabit, Banksy reminds us that art is much more than aesthetic appreciation – it is a weapon against hegemonic power structures, a voice for those who aren’t always heard, and a tool to interact with those around us on a political and cultural level.
“The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It's people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.” – Banksy
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” – Banksy
“There's nothing more dangerous than someone who wants to make the world a better place.” – Banksy
“Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.” – Banksy
“People who get up early in the morning cause war, death and famine.” – Banksy
“A lot of people never use their initiative because no-one told them to.” – Banksy
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