On Banksy: Mastering the Art of Context with an Idea and a Wall

Banksy- the illusively legendary artist, with a voice so loud it echoes throughout streets around the world. One of my all time favorite street artists, this character's passion to break the rules and make a statement about society in the process, inspires me in a fantastic way.  In my opinion, pure brilliance.  

I wrote this research paper for school back in 2014, and after putting lots of passion and creative opinions in it, I figured I would share.  These words reflect a lot about me as both an intellectual and an artist. 

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The hustle and bustle of the Brooklyn streets had eluded my thoughts, as I was overcome with a feeling of excitement and anticipation of what I would soon discover to be an utter disappointment.  “Banksy,” I repeated over and over again; he was presumably the most controversial and influential street artists in all the world.  I had seen his movie Exit Through the Gift Shop and was inspired by my own curiosity as to the philosophy of this powerful, yet essentially invisible man.  He had made his way to New York in October 2013, to embark on a temporary residency on the streets of which he called “Better Out Than In,” in order to once again leave a subversive and influential mark on a place teeming with people of all sorts.  Of course, most of his work there was quick to come and go, admired and documented and then overcome by today’s greedy society, whether it be property owners, looters, and even Banksy haters.  

My father and I had strolled up to the building where Banksy had supposedly made a new creation in Red Hook.  As we turned the corner, what I had thought was going to be something grand turned out to be a bland piece of metal bolted to concrete on the wall. There were men, one of whom owned the building, crowded around the piece and we soon found out they had placed the metal to preserve this Banksy original from other vandals in order to bring it to auction. Ironic don’t you think? Well, to my temporary advantage, they were taking the metal off in order to extract the piece from the wall, so I would get to see it one last time before it would succumb to the money-driven gallery art world.  Bolt by bolt, we waited patiently to see the unveiling. It was well worth the wait. The hidden artwork, which was meant for the street to see, was finally brought to light again for what would be the last time before being brought to auction.  

 

A fire-truck red, heart-shaped balloon with a slight reflection of light hitting the edges, covered with bangs and bruises fixed by bandages, floating so aimlessly upon the wall, in a way signifying hope of that ever broken emotion of love.  Simply and irresistibly beautiful, it seemed so alive, as if it were able to breathe in the air.  This piece was meant for the street, amongst the people.

I have always been appreciative of the arts, as creativity runs through my veins.  My mind is compelled to express itself through art, as I have done for most of my life. I have been to countless museums and art galleries, which always seem to ignite some sort of passion to create.  However, this experience had opened my mind to a different point of view.  Bypassing the silly admission fees and forceful rules of museums and quiet white walls of the echoing galleries, I was able to see a beautiful creation that seemed to be part of the world.  It did not need a frame or a designated spot upon a wall with a plaque reading “DO NOT TOUCH”.  It could catch the attention of ordinary passers-by and that’s what I liked about it.   Banksy had altered my perspective on something that carries great meaning in my life: art.

The anonymous man behind the pseudonym Banksy has been assigned many labels: a vandal, a street artist, a painter, a rebel, an activist, a thinker, a writer, an anti-commercialist, a con, a criminal, a dark humorist, a poet, an influencer, a director, and even an all-around mystery. However, despite the labels that people may give him, this figure has undoubtedly made a mark all over the world as his name has appeared on Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people of 2010 along with the likes of Steve Jobs and Barack Obama .   

His subversive commentary on politics and society that is portrayed through his works has become a key aspect of his efforts to present a whole new way of how people conceive street art.  Banksy uses what could be considered dark humor to produce works that are stimulating and shed insight into global problems such as the rise of commercialism, excesses of capitalism, politics, and war.   What makes them so thought provoking is that he places them in the most culturally diverse and easily visible context of the streets where the viewer is directly compelled to experience his works in a way that is part of their daily routine.  While most of our streets are filled with countless ads and a focus on people as consumers in this free enterprise society, Banksy’s choice of canvas for his controversial pieces allow for a much more powerful statement.  However, because he has made such an influential  name for himself in the art world, now people want his art for their own.  Some even go to extremes in order to make a profit from his work, whether it be looting or excavating an entire wall on which he has produced his work.  By taking Banksy’s art out of the context of the street, it changes the meaning of it entirely by contradicting his intention to not only flip the art world upside down, but in the process change the way people interpret the role art plays in everyday life.  

        Although nobody actually knows who Banksy truly is, his emergence in becoming universally known was one well-deserved.  From the streets of Bristol, after supposedly dropping out of school at the age of 16, his road to becoming a legendary success did not come overnight and it most certainly did not come easily.  Having started off painting at the age of fourteen, Banksy truly found his voice when holding an aerosol paint can.  He claimed during an interview with Swindle magazine that, “‘Graffiti was the thing we all loved at school - we all did it on the bus on the way home from school.  Everyone was doing it’” (Ellsworth-Jones 32).  So clearly, Banksy was among a handful of young boys intrigued by the thrill and power of vandalizing in the name of art, but how did Banksy emerge into who he is today?  The answer lies in his driven ambition to make a statement.  He started as a freehand graffiti artist in the early 1990s among others in Bristol’s graffiti gang DryBreadZ crew.  Years later, he switched to stencils which gave him a more distinct style, as he had begun to be recognized around Bristol and in London (Banksy Biography).  His reasoning for doing was explained by author and friend Tristan Manco: “‘[he] started off painting in the classic New York style you use when you listen to too much hip hop as a kid, but [he] was never very good at it’”, but rather could feel the power of cutting out stencils, which throughout history have been used to start revolutions and stop wars, as “‘the ruthlessness and efficiency of it is perfect’” (Ellsworth-Jones 58).  Along with his stenciled style came his focus on common recognizable subjects including rats, apes, policemen, and children. In 2003, he started his excursion of hitting museums and galleries all over the world, simply placing his art with tape, accompanied by a witty description and the name “Banksy”, upon the walls next to countless famous paintings.  While this work was not in the streets, it began his rise to fame and glorified his name in flipping the art world upside down.  People were intrigued.

        With his style developed and his clever way of making his name universally recognized, Banksy’s following became immense.  He emphasizes in an interview that, “You don’t have to go to college, drag ‘round a portfolio, mail off transparencies to snooty galleries or sleep with someone powerful, all you need now is a few ideas and a broadband connection” (Wired Staff).  And with this statement, comes proof in his ability to do just that.  His incursions of putting his work up in museums created publicity, and the common people who may have never stepped foot in a gallery or museum were able to view photographs of the pieces in newspapers, on television, and even the web, in anticipation of where the next one would pop up.  

It was around this time Banksy began to profit greatly from his own works, holding his own exhibitions in various locations in cities around the world, from Bristol to Los Angeles.  And just like the fictional figure Gatsby, camouflaged at his own elaborate parties, a mystery to all party-goers, Banksy put on shows that would catch the excitement and pocketbooks of its guests. Some of the pieces sold at these shows went from anywhere between one thousand to an insane one million euros spent by Brad Pitt (Ellsworth-Jones 133). It was the publicity of these shows that yet again drew the attention of his followers and allowed his work to become more and more recognizable so he could continue to make an influence amidst the streets.  As Danielle Rahm, major contributor to Forbes magazine puts it, “If it was not for his early (and very profitable) success, he would not have the financial freedom to use his artwork and notoriety to get his point of view across” (Rahm). So his earlier gallery shows, his published books, and his movie Exit Through The Gift Shop, were a foundation for securing himself a reputable name on the streets, with the intention of bringing about change.

        As Banksy’s intended audience is the public, not just those who have the luxury of attending museums and galleries, his art carries an interaction among common people on the streets living their daily lives.  Therefore if taken out of this environment, among its deliberate audience, its purpose is essentially defeated.  He is targeting a multitude of people in this world, those who may be too caught up in daily life to appreciate art and who can be brought to a realization that art does have the power to exist without a price tag and that it can make a point about something important.  Banksy has suggested, in an emailed interview to announce his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, that “there’s a whole new audience out there”, leading to the conclusion that “this is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people. We need to make it count” (Ellsworth-Jones 4).   It’s the fact that it is so easily accessible to the eyes of anyone that sets it apart from today’s concept of ‘real art’. It doesn’t belong on a single rich person’s wall, amongst the high-end famous pieces in the MOMA, or in prestigious galleries but it belongs to us, as a people, breathing among us in the fresh air on the street.  As author, Will Ellsworth Jones, of critically acclaimed book Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall states tja Banksy’s work is “much easier for the viewer” and “has managed to attract a whole new audience into the art world” (Ellsworth-Jones 295) The same can thus be said for any type of street art, whether be a Banksy or not.  It engages with the people when they least expect it.  One must plan a trip to a gallery and museum, whereas the street allows for a sporadic encounter of art in a common place.  As Rae, a current street artist rooted in Brooklyn, New York, proclaimed in a recent interview I conducted, “what sets [street art] apart (from other forms of art) is the easy interaction that takes place. The discovery.” That of which is meant for his intended audience of “anyone and everyone” (Rae).  So, Rae, Banksy, and I’m sure other fellow street artists have the desire to not only visually strike their audience, but allow them to discover their pieces amongst the hullabaloo of city life in, as Ellsworth Jones puts it, “a gallery on the streets that is inclusive rather than exclusive” (Ellsworth-Jones 39).  

        Banksy uses subversive themes in his works to formulate witty commentaries on society, and it is his placement amidst the streets that truly brings those elements to life in direct opposition to commercialism and corporate culture, giving people a different perspective on how the context of art can carry the meaning of it far further than meets the eye.  I’m sure you won’t walk far in a city without being targeted as a consumer, whether it be large billboards trying to sell a new Wendy’s double cheeseburger or a large SALE sign on the ‘hottest clothing store around’.  It’s these types of advertisements that are put up in order to make a profit and in turn make the cities less appealing in terms of an aesthetically pleasing environment for us people. By putting his art on the streets, Banksy is opposing that commercialism to sell a product, and rather intends to promote an idea in the form of art.  He doesn’t intend to make money off these pieces, nor does he intend others to make money off of them, but rather he wants there to be a deeper value within the idea of his art.  As author Wendy Simonds speaks about Art Against Hegemony in The Art of Activism, she declares “Banksy riff[s] on the world of advertising in [his] art to mock capitalism or, depending on one’s interpretation, condemn it” (Simmonds 2).  In his attempt to poke fun of the advertising world, his choice of setting makes it much easier to do just that.

        While Banksy’s intention is to make people think about society as a whole through art, advertisers intend to make people think about what kind of product to buy next.  It is the street that provides him full access amongst these advertisers in order to integrate his art for the purpose of questioning this overly commercial use of the public streets.  As Sarah Banet-Weiser, author of “Convergence on the Streets” explains that, “related to street art’s distinction from advertising, the ‘love’ that is behind street art often comes in the form of pointed political critiques, especially those critiques that use the street to question, mock, and critique its commercial uses, such as advertising” (Banet-Weiser 650)(emphasis).  It is the placing of street art that brings this critiquing into play.  As Banksy explains, “the people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff.  They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every allowable surface but you’re not allowed to answer back.  Well they started this fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to fight back” (Banksy 13).  And he fights back with great passion, landscaping his art among these ads in the streets, allowing the people to answer back through engaging viscerally with their heart and minds, as sensitive human beings, not just consumers.  

Another aspect that is affected when Banksy’s work is taken off of the streets is its ability to morph from an inclusive and priceless piece into an exclusive and more modern concept of the mainstream art world, which often comes with a pricetag.  That is exactly what Banksy wanted to diverge from, claiming in an interview with the Village Voice that “it feels like as soon as you profit from an image you put on the street, it magically transforms that piece into advertising,” which Banksy shuns (Hamilton). Simonds exemplifies “Arguments about what art is have a lot to tell about how culture and power operate; they demonstrate social anxieties about authority, expertise, morality, and transgression” (Simmonds 2) In other words, there is a tension between the creation of art and the commercialism that comes along with it.  When Banksy puts his art on the street, he is seeking to create for the purpose of creating, not in order to make a profit.   As Banksy expresses “the people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit, but if you just value money, then your opinion is worthless” (Banksy 13). He wants people to change the way in which they view art in allowing them to encounter beauty without being burdened by a price tag, which in today’s world is hard to come by.  

Clearly, Banksy has made money from his art in the past and his rising fame has made it hard to stay rooted to his philosophy as a street artist, as well as keep his art in the streets.  His self-made fame can sometimes heed his intended purpose of diverging from the profitable mainstream art world.  In the Village Voice interview, reporter Keegan Hamilton explains “Banksy [] reveals concerns about his ongoing struggle to strike a balance between commercial success and artistic integrity” (Hamilton). He clearly doesn’t want commercial success, as he has said in the same interview that “commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist” (Hamilton).  With the rising prices of Banksy’s pieces at auctions and galleries, there is sort of a moral dilemma for anyone “blessed” to have a Banksy piece painted on their property.  Hamilton says “his works are generally intended for public display, but they have occasionally been carved out of entire concrete walls and sold at auction” (Hamilton). This is where one could find themselves in a moral dilemma. Art appraisal, Danielle Rahm, suggests that a Banksy mural “could sell for well over a million dollars at auction, should you wish to cash it in” (Rahm).  And in this economy, that amount of money is enough to drastically change someones life, as financial stability is something that is often associated with happiness in today’s culture.  It’s important to keep in mind some wise words from Banksy himself: “Graffiti art has a hard enough life as it is, before you add hedge-fund managers wanting to chop it out and hang it over the fireplace.  For the sake of keeping all street art where it belongs, I’d encourage people not to buy anything from anybody, unless it was created for sale in the first place” (Rahm).

    Banksy's powerful themes and witty commentaries on commercialism and materialism in his chosen context of the street will continue to work together in sparking curiosity and controversy all over the world.  He has a way of integrating creativity into an environment open to the public, open to nature, and open to criticism as well as praise.  His placement on the streets is in direct opposition to the advertising world, the mainstream art world, and the world of money.  Rather he wants his art to question those aspects of society and to be a larger part of the physical world itself.  Although, his rising fame in becoming so universally known has made it hard for his art to remain where he intended them to. People are so inclined to make money off of his art simply because they are accompanied with the “Banksy” name, and in doing so, take them away from the place they were born: on the streets.   

Luckily, there are some original Banksy pieces surviving amongst the streets that have not yet succumb to the greedy capitalistic society that we are engrossed in.  There are those that have been painted over or defaced, which leaves sort of a mystery behind them.  Street art is continuing to become an accepted part of today’s culture, and new street artists are emerging with the intention of making their own individual  mark on the street while adding to the this movement as a whole.  And though they may express themselves in different ways, street artists all share a common setting which allows their pieces to essentially be bounded to the earth, an everlasting part of this world.  It allows for art to undergo extraordinary things, as Rae states, “The discovery.  The weathering that happens.  It transforms the piece over time.  It can make it better and better.  And then sometimes it's just gone.  Destroyed.  Discarded.  Stolen” (Rae).  So open your eyes, absorb the beauty around you, embrace the context of art in everyday life.  For what is a rose in a field, as opposed to a rose in a vase upon a table?  Let things exist as they are and you may learn to appreciate them even more as a part of this world. Art has the power to say lots of things, be compelled to open your mind.

 

Works Cited

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “Convergence on the Street.” Cultural Studies 25.4/5 (2007): 650.

Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

"Banksy Biography." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

Banksy. Wall and Piece. London: Century, 2006. Print.

Ellsworth-Jones, Will. Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall. New York, N.Y: St Martin's Press, 2013. Print.

Hamilton, Keegan. "Village Voice Exclusive: An Interview With Banksy, Street Art Cult Hero,

International Man of Mystery." Village Voice. N.p., 09 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

Rae. Personal Interview. 20 Mar. 2014.

Rahm, Danielle. "Banksy: The $20 Million Graffiti Artist Who Doesn't Want His Art To Be

Worth Anything." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

Simonds, Wendy. "Presidential Address: The Art of Activism." Social Problems 60.1 (2013):

  1. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.  

Wired Staff. "Banksy Talks Art, Power and Exit Through the Gift Shop." Wired.com. Conde Nast

Digital, 13 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

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