Banksy is a pseudonymous England-based graffiti artist, political activist, film director, and painter.
His satirical street art and subversive epigrams combine irreverent dark humour with graffiti done in a distinctive stencilling technique. Such artistic works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.
Banksy’s work was born out of the Bristol underground scene which involved collaborations between artists and musicians. According to author and graphic designer Tristan Manco and the book Home Sweet Home, Banksy “was born in 1974 and raised in Bristol, England. The son of a photocopier technician, he trained as a butcher but became involved in graffiti during the great Bristol aerosol boom of the late 1980s.” Observers have noted that his style is similar to Blek le Rat, who began to work with stencils in 1981 in Paris and members of the anarcho-punk band Crass, which maintained a graffiti stencil campaign on the London Tube System in the late 1970s and early 1980s and is active today.
Known for his contempt for the government in labelling graffiti as vandalism, Banksy displays his art on public surfaces such as walls and even going as far as to build physical prop pieces. Banksy does not sell photos of street graffiti directly himself; however, art auctioneers have been known to attempt to sell his street art on location and leave the problem of its removal in the hands of the winning bidder. Banksy’s first film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, billed as “the world’s first street art disaster movie,” made its debut at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The film was released in the UK on 5 March 2010. In January 2011, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary for the film.
Early career (1992–2001)
Banksy began as a freehand graffiti artist 1992–1994 as one of Bristol’s DryBreadZ Crew (DBZ), with Kato and Tes. He was inspired by local artists and his work was part of the larger Bristol underground scene with Nick Walker, Inkie and 3D. From the start he used stencils as elements of his freehand pieces, too. By 2000 he had turned to the art of stencilling after realizing how much less time it took to complete a piece. He claims he changed to stencilling whilst he was hiding from the police under a rubbish lorry, when he noticed the stencilled serial number and by employing this technique, he soon became more widely noticed for his art around Bristol and London.
Banksy’s stencils feature striking and humorous images occasionally combined with slogans. The message is usually anti-war, anti-capitalist or anti-establishment. Subjects often include rats, apes, policemen, soldiers, children, and the elderly.
In July 2011 one of Banksy’s early works Gorilla In A Pink Mask which had been a prominent landmark on the exterior wall of a former social club in Eastville for over ten years, was unknowingly painted over after the premises became a Muslim cultural centre.
On 19 June 2002, Banksy’s first Los Angeles exhibition debuted at 33 1/3 Gallery, a tiny Silver Lake venue owned by Frank Sosa. The exhibition, entitled Existencilism, was curated by 33 1/3 Gallery, Malathion LA’s Chris Vargas, Funk Lazy Promotions’ Grace Jehan, and B+.
In 2003, at an exhibition called Turf War, held in a warehouse, Banksy painted on animals. Although the RSPCA declared the conditions suitable, an animal rights activist chained herself to the railings in protest. He later moved on to producing subverted paintings; one example is Monet’s Water Lily Pond, adapted to include urban detritus such as litter and a shopping trolley floating in its reflective waters; another is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, redrawn to show that the characters are looking at a British football hooligan, dressed only in his Union Flag underpants, who has just thrown an object through the glass window of the cafe. These oil paintings were shown at a twelve-day exhibition in Westbourne Grove, London in 2005.
Banksy, along with Shepard Fairey, Dmote and others created work at a warehouse exhibition in Alexandria, Sydney for Semi-Permanent in 2003. Approximately 1,500 people attended.
£10 notes to Barely Legal (2004–06)
In August 2004, Banksy produced a quantity of spoof British £10 notes substituting the picture of the Queen’s head with Diana, Princess of Wales’s head and changing the text “Bank of England” to “Banksy of England.” Someone threw a large wad of these into a crowd at Notting Hill Carnival that year, which some recipients then tried to spend in local shops. These notes were also given with invitations to a Santa’s Ghetto exhibition by Pictures on Walls. The individual notes have since been selling on eBay for about £200 each. A wad of the notes were also thrown over a fence and into the crowd near the NME signing tent at The Reading Festival. A limited run of 50 signed posters containing ten uncut notes were also produced and sold by Pictures on Walls for £100 each to commemorate the death of Princess Diana. One of these sold in October 2007 at Bonhams auction house in London for £24,000.
In August 2005, Banksy, on a trip to the Palestinian territories, created nine images on the Israeli West Bank wall.
Banksy held an exhibition called Barely Legal, billed as a “three day vandalised warehouse extravaganza” in Los Angeles, on the weekend of 16 September 2006. The exhibition featured a live “elephant in a room,” painted in a pink and gold floral wallpaper pattern, which, according to leaflets handed out at the exhibition, was intended to draw attention to the issue of world poverty. Although the Animal Services Department had issued a permit for the elephant, after complaints from animal rights activists, the elephant appeared unpainted on the final day. Its owners rejected claims of mistreatment and said that the elephant had done “many, many movies. She’s used to makeup.” Banksy also made artwork displaying Queen Victoria as a lesbian and satirical pieces that incorporated art made by Andy Warhol and Leonardo da Vinci.
The Banksy effect (2006–07)
After Christina Aguilera bought an original of Queen Victoria as a lesbian and two prints for £25,000, on 19 October 2006 a set of Kate Moss paintings sold in Sotheby’s London for £50,400, setting an auction record for Banksy’s work. The six silk-screen prints, featuring the model painted in the style of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe pictures, sold for five times their estimated value. His stencil of a green Mona Lisa with real paint dripping from her eyes sold for £57,600 at the same auction. In December, journalist Max Foster coined the phrase, “the Banksy effect,” to illustrate how interest in other street artists was growing on the back of Banksy’s success.
On 21 February 2007, Sotheby’s auction house in London auctioned three works, reaching the highest ever price for a Banksy work at auction: over £102,000 for his Bombing Middle England. Two of his other graffiti works, Balloon Girl and Bomb Hugger, sold for £37,200 and £31,200 respectively, which were well above their estimated prices. The following day’s auction saw a further three Banksy works reach soaring prices: Ballerina with Action Man Parts reached £96,000; Glory sold for £72,000; Untitled (2004) sold for £33,600; all significantly above estimated values. To coincide with the second day of auctions, Banksy updated his website with a new image of an auction house scene showing people bidding on a picture that said, “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” In February 2007, the owners of a house with a Banksy mural on the side in Bristol decided to sell the house through Red Propeller art gallery after offers fell through because the prospective buyers wanted to remove the mural. It is listed as a mural that comes with a house attached.
In April 2007, Transport for London painted over Banksy’s iconic image of a scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, featuring Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta clutching bananas instead of guns. Although the image was very popular, Transport for London claimed that the “graffiti” created “a general atmosphere of neglect and social decay which in turn encourages crime” and their staff are “professional cleaners not professional art critics.” Banksy tagged the same site again and, initially, the actors were portrayed as holding real guns instead of bananas, but they were adorned with banana costumes. Some time later, Banksy made a tribute art piece over this second Pulp Fiction piece. The tribute was for 19-year-old British graffiti artist Ozone who, along with fellow artist Wants, was hit by an underground train in Barking, East London on 12 January 2007. The piece was of an angel wearing a bullet-proof vest holding a skull (pictured below left). He also wrote a note on his website saying:
The last time I hit this spot I painted a crap picture of two men in banana costumes waving hand guns. A few weeks later a writer called Ozone completely dogged it and then wrote ‘If it’s better next time I’ll leave it’ in the bottom corner. When we lost Ozone we lost a fearless graffiti writer and as it turns out a pretty perceptive art critic. Ozone – rest in peace.
On 27 April 2007, a new record high for the sale of Banksy’s work was set with the auction of the work Space Girl & Bird fetching £288,000 (US$576,000) around 20 times the estimate at Bonhams of London. On 21 May 2007 Banksy gained the award for Art’s Greatest living Briton. Banksy, as expected, did not turn up to collect his award and continued with his notoriously anonymous status. On 4 June 2007, it was reported that Banksy’s The Drinker had been stolen. In October 2007, most of his works offered for sale at Bonhams auction house in London sold for more than twice their reserve price.
Banksy has published a “manifesto” on his website. The text of the manifesto is credited as the diary entry of one Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin, DSO, which is exhibited in the Imperial War Museum. It describes how a shipment of lipstick to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp immediately after its liberation at the end of World War II helped the internees regain their humanity. However, as of 18 January 2008, Banksy’s Manifesto has been substituted with Graffiti Heroes No.03 that describes Peter Chappell’s graffiti quest of the 1970s that worked to free George Davis of his imprisonment. By 12 August 2009 he was relying on Emo Philips’ “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised God doesn’t work that way, so I stole one and prayed for forgiveness.” A small number of Banksy’s works can be seen in the movie Children of Men, including a stenciled image of two policemen kissing and another stencil of a child looking down a shop.
Banksy, who “is not represented by any of the commercial galleries that sell his work second hand (including Lazarides Ltd, Andipa Gallery, Bank Robber, Dreweatts etc),” claims that the exhibition at Vanina Holasek Gallery in New York (his first major exhibition in that city) is unauthorised. The exhibition featured 62 of his paintings and prints.
In March, a stencilled graffiti work appeared on Thames Water tower in the middle of the Holland Park roundabout, and it was widely attributed to Banksy. It was of a child painting the tag “Take this Society” in bright orange. London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham spokesman, Councillor Greg Smith branded the art as vandalism, and ordered its immediate removal, which was carried out by H&F council workmen within three days. Over the weekend 3–5 May in London, Banksy hosted an exhibition called The Cans Festival. It was situated on Leake Street, a road tunnel formerly used by Eurostar underneath London Waterloo station. Graffiti artists with stencils were invited to join in and paint their own artwork, as long as it did not cover anyone else’s. Artists included Blek le Rat, Broken Crow, C215, Cartrain, Dolk, Dotmasters, J.Glover, Ben Eine, Eelus, Hero, Pure evil, Jef Aérosol, Mr Brainwash, Tom Civil and Roadsworth.
In late August 2008, marking the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the associated levee failure disaster, Banksy produced a series of works in New Orleans, Louisiana, mostly on buildings derelict since the disaster. A stencil painting attributed to Banksy appeared at a vacant petrol station in the Ensley neighbourhood of Birmingham, Alabama on 29 August as Hurricane Gustav approached the New Orleans area. The painting depicting a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan hanging from a noose was quickly covered with black spray paint and later removed altogether. His first official exhibition in New York, the “Village Pet Store And Charcoal Grill,” opened 5 October 2008. The animatronic pets in the store window include a mother hen watching over her baby Chicken McNuggets as they peck at a barbecue sauce packet, and a rabbit putting makeup on in a mirror.
The Westminster City Council stated in October 2008 that the work “One Nation Under CCTV,” painted in April 2008 would be painted over as it was graffiti. The council said it would remove any graffiti, regardless of the reputation of its creator, and specifically stated that Banksy “has no more right to paint graffiti than a child.” Robert Davis, the chairman of the council planning committee told The Times newspaper: “If we condone this then we might as well say that any kid with a spray can is producing art.” The work was painted over in April 2009. In December 2008, The Little Diver, a Banksy image of a diver in a duffle coat in Melbourne Australia was destroyed. The image had been protected by a sheet of clear perspex, however silver paint was poured behind the protective sheet and later tagged with the words “Banksy woz ere.” The image was almost completely obliterated.
The Cans Festival
The Cans Festival was an urban art festival held from 3–5 May 2008 in London and organized by the noted street artist Banksy. It was held in an abandoned tunnel on Leake Street, London (SE1 7NN).
Banksy invited thirty-nine artists from around the world, including, Bsas Stencil, Prism, Roadsworth, Blek, C215, Dotmasters, Hero, Sten, Sadhu, Lex, Lucamaleonte, Faile, Logan Hicks, Btoy, Vhils, Vexta and John Grider exhibited their works in an abandoned tunnel near Leake Street in South East London.
The festival’s name is a play on the famous French film extravaganza The Cannes Film Festival.
In May 2009, Banksy parted company with agent Steve Lazarides and announced that Pest Control, the handling service who act on his behalf, would be the only point of sale for new works. On 13 June 2009, the Banksy UK Summer show opened at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, featuring more than 100 works of art, including animatronics and installations; it is his largest exhibition yet, featuring 78 new works. Reaction to the show was positive, with over 8,500 visitors to the show on the first weekend. Over the course of the twelve weeks, the exhibition was visited over 300,000 times. In September 2009, a Banksy work parodying the Royal Family was partially destroyed by Hackney Council after they served an enforcement notice for graffiti removal to the former address of the property owner. The mural had been commissioned for the 2003 Blur single “Crazy Beat” and the property owner, who had allowed the piece to be painted, was reported to have been in tears when she saw it was being painted over. In December 2009, Banksy marked the end of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference by painting four murals on global warming. One included the phrase, “I don’t believe in global warming;” the words were submerged in water. A feud and graffiti war between Banksy and King Robbo broke out when Banksy allegedly painted over one of Robbo’s tags. The feud has led to many of Banksy’s works being altered by graffiti writers.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
The world premiere of the film Exit Through the Gift Shop occurred at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on 24 January. He created 10 street pieces around Park City and Salt Lake City to tie in with the screening. In February, The Whitehouse public house in Liverpool, England, was sold for £114,000 at auction. The side of the building has an image of a giant rat by Banksy. In March 2010, the work “Forgive us our Trespassing” was displayed in the London underground. The work had to be displayed without the halo over the boy’s head. After a few days the halo was repainted and the poster was removed by Tube advertising bosses. The display was organised by Art Below, a London based public art agency. In April 2010, Melbourne City Council in Australia reported that they had inadvertently ordered private contractors to paint over the last remaining Banksy art in the city. The image was of a rat descending in a parachute adorning the wall of an old council building behind the Forum Theatre. In 2008, vandals had poured paint over a stencil of an old-fashioned diver wearing a trenchcoat. A council spokeswoman has said they would now rush through retrospective permits to protect other “famous or significant artworks” in the city. In April 2010, to coincide with the premiere of Exit Through the Gift Shop in San Francisco, five of his pieces appeared in various parts of the city. Banksy reportedly paid a San Francisco Chinatown building owner $50 for the use of their wall for one of his stencils. In early May 2010, seven new Banksy pieces appeared in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, though most have been subsequently painted over or removed. In May 2010, to coincide with the premiere of Exit Through the Gift Shop in Royal Oak, Banksy visited the Detroit area and left his mark in several places in Detroit and Warren. Shortly after the Detroit piece showing a little boy holding a can of red paint next to the words “I remember when all this was trees” was excavated by the 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios. They claim that they do not intend to sell the work but plan to preserve it and display it at their Detroit gallery. There was also an attempted removal of one of the Warren pieces known as “Diamond Girl.”
In late January 2011, Exit Through the Gift Shop was nominated for a 2010 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Banksy released a statement about the nomination, where he said, “This is a big surprise… I don’t agree with the concept of award ceremonies, but I’m prepared to make an exception for the ones I’m nominated for. The last time there was a naked man covered in gold paint in my house, it was me.” Leading up to the Oscars, Banksy blanketed Los Angeles with street art. Many people speculated if Banksy would show up at the Oscars in disguise and make a surprise appearance if he won the Oscar. Exit Through the Gift Shop did not win the award, which went to Inside Job. In early March 2011, Banksy responded to the Oscars with an art piece in Weston, UK, of a little girl holding the Oscar and pouting. Many people think the piece is in reference to 15-month old Lara, who dropped and damaged her father’s (The King’s Speech co-producer Simon Egan) Oscar statue. Exit Through the Gift Shop was broadcast on British public television station Channel 4 on 13 August 2011.
Banksy was also credited with the opening couch gag for the 2010 The Simpsons episode “MoneyBART,” depicting people working in deplorable conditions and using endangered or mythical animals to make both the episodes cel-by-cel and the merchandise connected with the program. His name appears several times throughout the episode’s opening sequence, spray-painted on assorted walls and signs.
In May 2011 Banksy released a limited edition set of prints which showed a smoking petrol bomb contained in a ‘Tesco Value’ bottle. This followed a long running campaign by locals against the opening of a Tesco Express supermarket in Banksy’s home city of Bristol. Violent clashes had taken place between police and demonstrators in the Stokes Croft area. Banksy produced the poster ostensibly to raise money for local groups in the Stokes Croft area and to raise money for the legal defence of those arrested during the riots. The posters were sold exclusively at the Bristol Anarchists Bookfair in Stokes Croft for £5 each.
Notable art pieces
When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.
In regards to personal fame, Banksy has stated that “We don’t need any more heroes; we just need someone to take out the recycling.” However, in addition to his artwork, Banksy has claimed responsibility for a number of high profile art pieces, including the following:
- At London Zoo, he climbed into the penguin enclosure and painted “We’re bored of fish” in 7-foot-high (2.1 m) letters.
- At Bristol Zoo, he left the message ‘I want out. This place is too cold. Keeper smells. Boring, boring, boring.’ in the elephant enclosure.
- In March 2005, he placed subverted artworks in the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
- In May 2005 Banksy’s version of a primitive cave painting depicting a human figure hunting wildlife whilst pushing a shopping trolley was hung in gallery 49 of the British Museum, London. Upon discovery, they added it to their permanent collection.
- In August 2005, Banksy painted nine images on the Israeli West Bank barrier, including an image of a ladder going up and over the wall and an image of children digging a hole through the wall.
- In April 2006, Banksy created a sculpture based on a crumpled red phone box with a pickaxe in its side, apparently bleeding, and placed it in a side street in Soho, London. It was later removed by Westminster Council. BT released a press release, which said: “This is a stunning visual comment on BT’s transformation from an old-fashioned telecommunications company into a modern communications services provider.”
- In June 2006, Banksy created an image of a naked man hanging out of a bedroom window on a wall visible from Park Street in central Bristol. The image sparked some controversy, with the Bristol City Council leaving it up to the public to decide whether it should stay or go. After an internet discussion in which 97% of the 500 people surveyed supported the stencil, the city council decided it would be left on the building. The mural was later repainted with blue paint by fellow graffiti artists.
- In August/September 2006, Banksy replaced up to 500 copies of Paris Hilton’s debut CD, Paris, in 48 different UK record stores with his own cover art and remixes by Danger Mouse. Music tracks were given titles such as “Why Am I Famous?”, “What Have I Done?” and “What Am I For?”. Several copies of the CD were purchased by the public before stores were able to remove them, some going on to be sold for as much as £750 on online auction websites such as eBay. The cover art depicted Paris Hilton digitally altered to appear topless. Other pictures feature her with a dog’s head replacing her own, and one of her stepping out of a luxury car, edited to include a group of homeless people, which included the caption “90% of success is just showing up.”
- In September 2006, Banksy dressed an inflatable doll in the manner of a Guantanamo Bay detainment camp prisoner (orange jumpsuit, black hood, and handcuffs) and then placed the figure within the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California.
- He also makes stickers (the Neighbourhood Watch subvert) and was responsible for the cover art of Blur’s 2003 album Think Tank.
Asked about his technique, Banksy said:
I use whatever it takes. Sometimes that just means drawing a moustache on a girl’s face on some billboard, sometimes that means sweating for days over an intricate drawing. Efficiency is the key.
Stencils are traditionally hand drawn or printed onto sheets of acetate or card, before being cut out by hand. Because of the secretive nature of Banksy’s work and identity, it is uncertain what techniques he uses to generate the images in his stencils, though it is assumed he uses computers for some images due to the photocopy nature of much of his work.
He mentions in his book, Wall and Piece, that as he was starting to do graffiti, he was always too slow and was either caught or could never finish the art in the one sitting. So he devised a series of intricate stencils to minimize time and overlapping of the colour.
There is dispute in the street art world over the legitimacy of stencils, with many artists criticizing their use as “cheating.”
Political and social themes
We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.
Banksy’s works have dealt with an array of political and social themes, including anti-War, anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, nihilism, and existentialism. Additionally, the components of the human condition that his works commonly critique are greed, poverty, hypocrisy, boredom, despair, absurdity, and alienation. Although Banksy’s works usually rely on visual imagery and iconography to put forth his message, he has made several politically related comments in his various books. In summarising his list of “people who should be shot,” he listed “Fascist thugs, religious fundamentalists, (and) people who write lists telling you who should be shot.” While facetiously describing his political nature, Banksy declared that “Sometimes I feel so sick at the state of the world, I can’t even finish my second apple pie.”
In 2004, an alleged photograph of him in Jamaica at the Two-Culture Clash Project surfaced. In October 2007, a story on the BBC website featured a photo allegedly taken by a passer-by in Bethnal Green, London, purporting to show Banksy at work with an assistant, scaffolding and a truck. The story confirms that Tower Hamlets Council in London has decided to treat all Banksy works as vandalism and remove them. Through the pictures, Banksy’s identity was speculated to be Robin Gunningham, a man born in Bristol on 28 July 1973. Gunningham was educated at Bristol Cathedral School, and, according to a former friend, was “extremely talented at art.” Gunningham lived with artist Luke Egan. Around 2000, when Banksy moved from Bristol to London, Gunningham is known to have moved from Bristol to a London flat in Hackney, and a number of Banksy’s most famous works appeared nearby. At that time, Gunningham lived with Jamie Eastman, who worked for a record label that used illustrations by Banksy.
In May 2009, the Mail on Sunday once again speculated about Gunningham being Banksy after a “self-portrait” of a rat holding a sign with the face of the man on the 2004 photo shot on it was photographed in East London. This “new Banksy rat” story was also picked up by The Times and the Evening Standard.
In response to reports that Banksy was Robin Gunningham, Banksy’s agent refused to either confirm or deny the reports.
In May 2007, an extensive article written by Lauren Collins of The New Yorker re-opened the Banksy-identity controversy citing the 2004 photograph of the artist that was taken in Jamaica during the Two-Culture Clash project and later published in the Evening Standard in 2004.
Simon Hattenstone from Guardian Unlimited is one of the very few people to have interviewed him face to face. Hattenstone describes him as “a cross of Jimmy Nail and British rapper Mike Skinner” and “a 28 year old male who showed up wearing jeans and a t-shirt with a silver tooth, silver chain, and one silver earring.” In the same interview, Banksy claimed that his parents think he is a painter and decorator.
Banksy, himself, states on his website:
I am unable to comment on who may or may not be Banksy, but anyone described as being ‘good at drawing’ doesn’t sound like Banksy to me.
Peter Gibson, a spokesman for Keep Britain Tidy, asserts that Banksy’s work is simple vandalism, and Diane Shakespeare, an official for the same organisation, was quoted as saying: “We are concerned that Banksy’s street art glorifies what is essentially vandalism.” In his column for The Guardian, satirist Charlie Brooker wrote of Banksy “…his work looks dazzlingly clever to idiots.”
He has also been long criticised for copying the work of Blek le Rat, creator of the life-sized stencil technique in early 1980s Paris. Blek, real name Xavier Prou, initially brushed off such criticism, stating pride if he were an influence on “an artist that good”, and Prou was seen adding to a mural initiated by Banksy in San Francisco in early 2011.
However, later that same year, in the documentary Graffiti Wars, Prou took a different perspective, stating:
When I see Banksy making a Madonna with a child or Banksy making rats, of course I see immediately where he takes the idea. I do feel angry. When you’re an artist you use your own techniques. It’s difficult to find a technique and style in art so when you have a style and you see someone else is taking it and reproducing it, you don’t like that. I’m not sure about his integrity. Maybe he has to show his face now and show what kind of guy he is.”