Arguably the most controversial street artist in the world, the works of Banksy have become a subculture in their own right. Banksy’s political statements and disruptive vision have impacted cities across the globe at vital moments in recent history, provoking alternative viewpoints and encouraging revolution in the art world. His identity remains unknown, even after more than 30 years of involvement in the global graffiti scene. He has worked in many different street art mediums and in many different styles, breaking down the boundaries and expectations of street art critics. His work includes many powerful, often controversial images, encouraging their rapid spread across the internet. Today, his iconic works have been re-shared and repurposed beyond measure.
Banksy’s early days in graffiti art
Banksy began his graffiti career by admiring the works of Blek Le Rat. He often recycled the artist’s old ideas, moulding his own distinctive voice and style as he went. Initially, he hung around with a graffiti crew in Bristol by the name of DryBreadZ Crew or DBZ. Soon after, he began to partner with Inkie, another notable graffiti street artist.
At the age of 18, Banksy was nearly caught vandalizing public spaces by police. As his crew fled from the scene, Banksy was stuck hiding beneath a dustbin van. Banksy noticed stencil letters sprayed onto the truck, and as he had been looking for a faster way to paint, he decided decided stencilling would be his new graffiti type.
Now, the most common form of street art Banksy practices is stencilling. His works are often in the form of multi-layered stencils and are often combined with other media sources. He sometimes includes objects pre-existing in the streets, such as street signs, to convey his message by crafting striking street art installations. His artwork is often satirical, combining dark humour with messages surrounding art, philosophy, and politics.
By the early 2000s, Banksy had relocated to London, where he began to gain notoriety; but, at the same time, his international work took off. Eventually, he decided to travel to Palestine and the West Bank, where he stencilled nine images on the Bethlehem Wall. These images were an instant hit, and exploded online.
At this time, Banksy’s silkscreen prints and stencil paintings were racking up record-breaking sales in storied art auctions such as Sotheby’s and Bonham’s of London. These successful sales marked Banksy’s entry into the commercial art world. In 2010, Banksy assumed the role of author and filmmaker for his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
Who is Banksy?
Very little is known about Banksy himself, as he refuses to be interviewed and carefully maintains his anonymity. A world-renowned mystery man, Banksy has risen through the ranks to become one of the world’s greatest street artists partly by creating an urgency and desire to understand and unveil his character. Street art fanatics are consistently impressed by the far-reaching scope, variety, and bravery of every artwork he delivers, but are always left wanting more. This tactic encourages viewers to explore a completely new perspective or idea, often inspiring both amateur and professional artists. This inspiration is also known as the “Banksy Effect.”
A number of claims have been made over Banksy’s identity, fuelling media interest. Most recently, many sources, including an entire newspaper publication, suggested he was a Bristol native by the name of Robin Gunninham. Though the prospect of uncovering Banksy’s identity would allow for a greater understanding of his motives and mission, no claim had ever been confirmed. His identity has reputedly even been concealed from his family.
In October 2013, Banksy undertook a month-long residency in New York in 2013 named “Better Out Than In”. During this time, he unveiled a new piece of work everyday. On Day 13, the artist disguised himself as a typical street vendor and set up a stand in Central Park, where he sold black-and-white original paintings for $60. Only eight pieces of art were sold. The following day, Banksy authenticated those eight canvases on his website, alongside the message: “Yesterday I set up a stall in the park selling 100% authentic original signed Banksy canvases. For $60 each”. A year after, ‘Winnie the Pooh’, purchased during Banksy’s New York residency, sold for £56,250 on July 2nd 2014 at Bonhams in London.
In summer 2015, Banksy opened Dismaland in the seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare; a dystopian theme park. Prepared entirely in secret, the project unveiled 10 new works by Banksy as well as works from 58 other artists.
In March 2017, Banksy participated in the designing of the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, opposite the Israeli West Bank Barrier. With nine rooms designed by Banksy himself, guests could literally sleep inside a work of art. Originally intended as a temporary and provocative piece of installation art, the Walled Off Hotel rapidly became a top tourist attraction. Alongside the spot on which Jesus was reputedly born, a traditional pilgrimage site, the controversial 700-kilometre-long wall is now a surprising tourist site.
In October 2018, a painting by the anonymous street artist sold at Sotheby’s auction house in London for £1.04 million. Shortly after the hammer came down, the print of Banksy’s 2006 ‘Girl with Balloon’ began to pass through a shredder installed in the frame, shredding half of it. “It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” reported Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s Senior Director and Head of Contemporary Art in Europe. The piece was a famous Banksy print known as “Girl with Balloon” created back in 2006. Banksy’s balloon girl, which was voted UK’s best-loved work of art in 2017, became the first instance of a self-destructing painting. Banksy posted a video to his Instagram account to confirm the move was intentional and demonstrate how he built a shredding device into the large golden frame. The work was then given a new title: “Love is in the Bin”. One less than savvy Banksy owner, that actually shredded their own Banksy print in the hope the stunt would add value to their investment, was very disappointed.
Banksy recently stencilled the image of a migrant child signalling for help with a neon pink flare beside one of the Venice canals along a series of nine oil paintings, which, when placed together, depict a large cruise ship. The work aimed at denouncing the mass tourism which is endangering the Italian city.
In 2017, Banksy donated a series of three paintings, entitled ‘Mediterranean Sea View’, to auction to raise money for a hospital in Bethlehem. The oil paintings were in a detailed, traditional style that has grown more prominent in Banksy’s more recent works. Of course, the stunning landscapes came with a Banksy twist: life jackets washed up on the shore, intended to highlight the growing European migrant crisis.
In October 2019, another Banksy artwork took the country by storm. Amidst the political controversy at the time, Banksy released ‘Devolved Parliament’; a painting that depicts the House of Commons overtaken by apes. It sold at Sotheby’s for an astonishing £9.9 million, making it the most expensive Banksy painting sold to date. In typical Banksy fashion, he responded to the sale on Instagram with a line from Robert Hughes: “But the price of a work of art is now part of its function, its new job is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.”
In response to the global Coronavirus pandemic, Banksy hung a brand new black and white artwork, depicting a young boy playing with a ‘superhero’ NHS nurse doll, in the foyer of Southampton General Hospital. He released a statement saying that he hoped the painting brightened up the hospital, and thanking the NHS for their work.
Banksy’s artistic endeavours continue to take him around the world. Artworks have cropped up in Australia, France, Italy, the United States, Canada, Jamaica, and Israel, and are instantly protected and revered.