Written by keziah on Feb. 24, 2017
Banksy is an anonymous street artist whose works have appeared in what is thought to be his birthplace, Bristol in England, but also in cities around the world, like London, Vienna, San Francisco, Barcelona, Paris and Detroit. In 2010, he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Often, graffiti artists remain anonymous simply because painting their art on public property is illegal, and they risk being arrested by the police. However, Banksy’s anonymity has turned into one of his most massive draws, and the mystery of his identity has led to much speculation and intrigue about the elusive character.
His works tend to interact with their environment in surprising and creative ways. In a picture of one of his works on his website, a painted boy with a sewing machine is placed under some union jack buntings, and the last few are pinned to the image of the machine, creating the illusion that the buntings are being sewn by the boy.
His style is distinct, featuring a stencilled look and the airbrushed effect common to graffiti art. However, what sets his work apart from other graffiti art is the realism and contrast in his figures, as well as the creative wit and incisive commentary he injects into his work. Sometimes his graffiti art is humourous, but and often takes on a cynical, anti-establishment tone, criticising war, consumerism and disenfranchised peoples.
Very Little Helps, for example, features two children placing their right hands on their chests in a sign of respect as another child hoists a Tesco plastic bag up a flag pole. The bag, hung on its side resembles a flag with its blue stripes, and the use of the familiar logo from a household brand in Britain is part of the artist’s possible critique of big corporations and brands. Very Little Help is perhaps a critique of the way that big companies wield enormous amounts of corporate power that allows them to make important decisions that impact and control the lives of everyday people, almost in the same way that their governments do.
In Morons b/w, a stencilled scene of an auction includes a landscape painting and what looks like
an abstract work. The auctioneer points at a bidder for the current amount of $750,450, and next to
him on stage is a framed work that is blank, save for the text in handwriting: “I Can’t Believe You
Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” Often adopting a tongue-in-cheek tone in his art, the artist has no
reservations about criticising the same art market that has expanded his success and allowed his
work to be sold for amounts like $385,000 and $605,000 in a Sotheby’s auction in 2008.
The success of his work has carved out a space in the fine arts for street art and graffiti pieces. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles identified this as the “Banksy effect,” where street art, traditionally considered an urban subculture, is now desirable as profitable fine art within the art market. Perhaps most impressive is the artist’s self-awareness of his medium within the art industry and the activism that he has managed to pull off through his work. This awareness comes through in Choose Your Weapon (Khaki), where a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt walks a dog, painted in the style of Keith Haring, a successful pop artist from New York.
The man is perhaps a self-portrait, and the weapon wielded by the guerrilla street artist is the dog,
which represents by the profitable fine arts and pop culture to produce Banksy’s brand of cutting
wit and subversive socio-political commentary. Banksy has carved out a space in the fine arts for
urban graffiti, and has amassed incredible success within an industry he actively criticises and
subverts. In an email interview, he said: “I love the way capitalism finds a place—even for its
enemies. It’s definitely boom time in the discontent industry.”