British Graffiti Artist, Political Activist, and Film Director
Progression of Art
In this iconic image, two (seemingly male) police officers in full, typical British uniforms are depicted kissing, in what appears to be a loving embrace. This work was originally spray-painted on the side of the Prince Albert pub in Trafalgar Street near the downtown core of the city of Brighton. Before its creation, one of Banksy's associates approached the pub owner on his behalf to seek permission for the work. The pub owner says, "My first thought was, 'oh no'. I thought we'd get in loads of trouble for it." But to his delight, after its creation, a group of uniformed officers appeared in front of the pub to view the piece and proceeded to take pictures. In 2011, the piece was replaced with a copy protected by a Perspex case, while the original was flown to the United States to be sold at auction.
The piece can be read in many ways. In one respect, Banksy is advocating for a sexual-identity accepting society by placing icons of authority in a pro-gay position. His use of policemen, rather than ordinary citizens, is intriguing, because the very subjects of his tender portrayal are often the ones to working to eradicate his vandalism. While some believe that he is poking fun at policemen, showing them in a vulnerable, intimate moment, others read the work more positively, as showing a human side to the police force, and emphasizing the strong bonds that exist on the police force between partners and teammates. The work is an undeniable testament to Banksy's use of irony to challenge us to build a bridge of understanding between expected enemies of ideology.
Spray paint - Originally painted in Brighton, England. Now in private collection
Rage, the Flower Thrower
This work, now covered and protected by a Perspex overlay, features a man dressed up in what we associate with traditional riot gear, with a bandana obscuring his face, and his cap on back-to-front. His stance is one of a person about to lob a Molotov cocktail; he's taking aim and is ready to throw his weapon. However, instead of a weapon, he holds a bunch of flowers (which are the only part of the mural to appear in color.) This piece is located on a wall on the side of a garage in Jerusalem on the main road to Beit Sahour, Bethlehem.
By substituting a weapon with a bunch of flowers, Banksy is advocating peace instead of war, and he opted to install this message of peace in a high-conflict area. The work also carries the message that peace comes with active hard work. The bouquet of flowers in this work, in addition to symbolizing peace, life, and love, may also be understood as commemorating lost lives in an age old religious conflict. It is a fine example of Banksy's use of art to relay messages of social importance.
Stencil and spray paint - Bethlehem
Again, Banksy has taken a pre-existing image - in this case an iconic photograph from Vietnam in 1972, of a girl - Kim Phuc - fleeing from a napalm attack on her village. The original photograph was taken by associated press photographer Nick Ut and has developed into a short hand for the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Banksy has isolated the image of the horror-stricken girl (originally surrounded by a few other clothed children and seven soldiers running down a road away from the site of the napalm attack) and flanked her with Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. These two instantly recognizable, smiling characters, when juxtaposed with the image of Napalm Girl, give the image a very twisted and sinister feel.
Both Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald are two family-friendly faces of American capitalism, the same country that dropped Napalm on Vietnam. Banksy's work then becomes a critique of not just America but also of capitalism. The girl's horror-stricken face is juxtaposed against the two characters' big, bright smiles. In this simple image, Banksy shows both the fun, carefree facade of American culture, and the reality that America also has a very dark, underbelly which drops bombs on people, and both commercializes and glamorizes war. Banksy once stated that "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."
Screenprint on paper
Show Me the Monet
This work by Banksy refigures the iconic Impressionist painting Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lillies (1899) by Claude Monet. Monet's original reveals a tranquil scene of his own garden, with rich vegetation reflected in the calm water. Banksy has replicated Monet's original painting almost exactly, using the same materials as Monet, however Banksy has added two discarded shopping carts and a traffic cone to the pond.
By using shopping carts, an image associated with consumerism, Banksy's message is that society is focused on material goods, buying more than is necessary in a futile attempt to make ourselves feel happy and fulfilled. Moreover, by representing these man-made objects as discarded in an otherwise beautiful natural setting, he critiques contemporary society's disregard for nature in favor of commodity fetishism and the production of excessive waste, Even the title of Banksy's work has subverted the meaning of the original, with the word money being a play on Monet, which can be read as a critique of the commercialization of art.
Oil on canvas
This mural depicts two young boys playing with buckets and shovels, like children creating sandcastles on a beach. The boys, one standing, the other kneeling, look back at the viewer, rendered in Banksy's typical black and white stencil aesthetic. Just above the boys, the artist has created the illusion of a broken section of the grey wall on which the mural was created. Through this false hole, a photorealistic color image of a tropical beach paradise is visible, with sand, water, and several palm trees.
As with much "guerrilla" street art, the location of the piece plays a central role in its meaning. Banksy stenciled this work onto the Israeli-Palestinian West Bank barrier wall in August 2005 along with eight other murals (including a dove with a bulletproof vest and a heart-shaped target over its chest, a child beneath a ladder stretching to the top of the wall, and the silhouette of a young girl being lifted upwards by a bunch of balloons). While the Israelis consider the wall to be a protection against terrorism, the Palestinians claim that its purpose is racial segregation.
Banksy's spokeswoman Jo Brooks said that while Banksy was creating the piece, "The Israeli security forces did shoot in the air threateningly and there were quite a few guns pointed at him." However, Banksy questioned, "How illegal is it to vandalize a wall if the wall itself has been deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice?"
This piece plays on the notion that the grass may be greener, and the landscape (perhaps environmental, perhaps political) may be better on the other side of this large barrier (although we know that it isn't). The artist may also be suggesting that a better political landscape could only emerge if the barrier were destroyed. By including children in this, and several others of the murals on the wall, the artist forces us to consider the toll that the local conflict takes on the innocent. The viewer is even more strongly implicated in the work through the direct gaze of the children.
When painting these murals in 2005, Banksy had a conversation with a Palestinian man who told him, "You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful," to which Banksy replied, "Thanks." The Palestinian man then said, "We don't want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home."
Paint - West Bank barrier wall
One Nation Under CCTV
This work on Newman Street in London was painted on the wall of a building used by the Royal Mail. At the bottom right, a child in a red hooded sweatshirt, black shorts, and a grey backpack, is seen painting the phrase "ONE NATION UNDER CCTV" while being watched by a police officer and a dog at the bottom left.
The mural was situated in the line of sight of a CCTV camera. In fact, Banksy managed to erect three stories of scaffolding under the cover of darkness to create the entire artwork in one night. This work aims to criticize the excessive surveillance (both from CCTV cameras in public spaces, as well as in other forms such as online) that has recently become a controversial issue both in the UK and abroad. Banksy has done other works that aim to "tease" security cameras, for instance by stenciling the words "what are you looking at?" on a blank wall faced by a CCTV camera.
The Westminster City Council stated in October 2008 that the work would be painted over, regardless of the celebrity status of the artist, as it was illegal graffiti. The council 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, "If we condone this then we might as well say that any kid with a spray can is producing art." The work was eventually painted over in April 2009.
The condemning of street art as illegal vandalism, and its frequent removal, has been the focus of many other works by Banksy. But on the other hand, the fact that many of his works get removed shortly after their creation adds to the excitement and fanaticism that surrounds Banksy's work. Banksy biographer Will Ellsworth-Jones wrote in 2013 that Banksy "is an artist who has got people running around the city desperate to see his work before it gets painted over."
Spray paint - London
Mona Lisa Bazooka
In this work, Banksy plays upon one of the world's most famous paintings, The Mona Lisa (1503-4). Although in his piece, the female protagonist wears a headset while aiming a rocket launcher in his typical black and white stencil style. The piece first appeared in the Soho district of West London.
While Banksy's juxtaposition of art history's most famous female with a powerful modern weapon may certainly be humorous and cheeky, there is more that can be read into the image. While Da Vinci's Mona Lisa appears graceful and passive, Banksy gives her a powerful, confrontational, and active sensibility. Her facial expression remains just as calm as in the original, however, next to the powerful weapon, her welcoming smile reads as slightly menacing. It can also be read as a statement on how blasé citizens have become to the ongoing realities of war, always taking place somewhere far removed from their own tranquil lives.
Spray paint - London
This mural was created in May 2008 on Leake Street, London, as part of the Cans Festival. It depicts a maintenance worker in an orange vest in the act of pressure washing art off of a wall. The art appears to be ancient cave paintings of warriors and animals (horses, deer, and or bison), much like the famous discovery in the caves at Lascaux, France.
With this work, Banksy is drawing a parallel between the ancient, prehistoric cave paintings, and modern-day graffiti / street art. While it is standard practice for the latter to be cleaned off of walls, it would be unthinkable for the same fate to befall the former. In this way, the artist questions the value placed on certain works of art, and the label of "vandalism" assigned to others.
Spray paint - London
This more recent Banksy work serves as an excellent example of the way that "guerrilla" street artists use the surrounding environment as an integral part of their works. In this work, Banksy has stenciled a simple black silhouette of a child with a large mallet in the process of striking something in front of him. The pre-existing object that the boy is about to hit is a red fire hydrant, which has a pipe coming up through the top leading directly to a round red object several feet higher (possibly a fire alarm). With the inclusion of the small boy with the mallet, this utilitarian plumbing fixture is instantly transformed to look like a "high striker" or "strength tester" (the classic carnival game where a player must use a mallet to hit a lever at the bottom of a tower, with the goal of launching a small puck upwards to hit the bell at the top of the tower).
The piece is located on 79th Street, just east of Broadway, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. A local business owner and Banksy supporter installed a Plexiglas cover to protect the work.
With site-specific works like Hammer Boy, Banksy and other street artists encourage viewers to envision urban spaces, surfaces, and objects differently, and to see fun and whimsy in otherwise mundane spaces. In this way, street artists have much the same mentality as skateboarders or people who practice parkour. For all of these groups, city spaces and surfaces are not restricted to their prescribed uses. Instead, participants feel the freedom to co-opt and repurpose the urban environment. A fire hydrant is not just for holding water, it can also become a child's plaything. A handrail is not only for holding and supporting oneself, it can also become a tool for enacting daring acrobatic feats.
Spray Paint - New York City