Rory Clarke examines the history and evolution of Banksy, and what we know of the elusive artist.
Few artists are known as much for the manner in which they
create and deal with their works as they are for their works
themselves. Fewer still are revered near entirely for this. Only
one, truly, is as infamous for shredding their work as they
are for having it mounted in world-famous museums. You
know who I’m talking about. Except you don’t. Not really.
Ever since Banksy emerged in Bristol in the 1990s, he
has been as much a concept as an artist. His pieces are
instantly recognisable, with characteristic political and
anti-authority undertones and interrogatories. A Banksy
piece is instantly distinguishable, yet they are never
signed. Initially, this may have been for self-preservation.
His predominant medium of graffiti was, no matter how
artistic or admired, categorised as criminal damage.
Noting how the discrete style of stencil graffiti used
is one of the fastest seems to confirm this narrative.
However, as the world has got to ‘know’ Banksy, at
least through his art, another reason for his anonymity
presents itself; he eschews fame, interviews and largesse.
The trappings of modern celebrity do not attract him.
Moreover, the artist, prolific on Instagram and other social
media sites, only claims and notifies the wider world of
newer pieces when social media has picked them up.
Balloon Girl. Love is in the Bin. Bomb Hugger. Well Hung
Lover. Devolved Parliament.
The names of Banksy’s pieces may not resonate to the
same degree as the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper. This is
not necessarily a surprise nor a failing of the work. Firstly,
the pieces are not named by Banksy himself but given
monikers in the wider media. Moreover, it is arguable that
in eschewing the cult-following enabled by naming and
totemising a piece, Banksy invites people to contemplate
and absorb the pieces themselves, rather than merely
considering them a ‘box to be ticked off a bucket list’.
Nevertheless, Google the above phrases and you will
inevitably recognise some epoch-defining pieces.
The pieces are audacious and thought-provoking,
designed to prompt debate in areas that may have
previously been considered uncontroversial. The most
recent work Create Escape, which came to prominence
earlier this month, depicts a prisoner ‘escaping’ on a real
prison wall with a ‘rope’ of paper and writing. It seems
to point to an artist who believes in education over
punishment. He even opened a temporary theme park,
‘Dismaland’, in Weston-super-Mare in September 2015.
To continue the anti-establishment note, it is worth
pointing out that whilst Banksy works are hugely valuable,
the artist himself resents this monetisation. Most notably,
one of Banksy’s photos sold for over £1m at Sotheby’s
auction house in 2018, only to shred itself moments later.
By its very nature, much of Banksy’s original work was
affixed to public walls or spaces. Questions quickly arose
over who owned these works and what could be done
with them. Chunks of walls and sides of mobile homes
have been sold and protected to preserve a Banksy piece
attached to them. Earlier this year a piece depicting a
young girl hula-hooping with a deflated bike tyre was
removed from a wall in Nottingham, purchased for a
‘six-figure sum’ by a gallery owner. This was particularly
criticised by the art world at the time; some argued it was
a site-specific work, linked and reinforced by its location
in Nottingham, the home of Raleigh and general bicycle
production in the UK.
Copycats of Banksy do exist. Copyright law is, unfortunately,
little use to a person who refuses to disclose their identity.
To combat this, he has created a representative and
authentication body, Pest Control, which manages his art
credits. Some think the artist is a copycat himself, being
inspired to a large degree, in style at least, by Blek le Rat, a
famous French graffiti artist dubbed the ‘Father of stencil
Rare interviews given with a paper bag obscuring his face,
cryptic press releases and social media posts have been
pored over by code-breakers and cypher specialists, both
amateur and professional. The artist’s moniker itself has
been subject to Dan Brown levels of symbological and
textual deconstruction. None of these efforts to unmask
the artist have yet succeeded, although some popular
theories abound. Several purport that the collaborations
Banksy engages with are not collaborations at all, but
merely a convenient way to hide in plain sight. For
example, in 2010 he filmed a documentary of and with
filmmaker-turned-street artist Thierry Guetta. Some
maintain that Guetta is in fact Banksy himself. Likewise,
having often collaborated with the graffiti artist 3D, some
maintain they are one and the same.
Never one to kill a buzz, you suspect that even if his identity
were guessed correctly, the intractable silence would
continue. He is determinedly unique in that way. Named
in Time magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People in
2010, adored across the world and proudly subversive,
the influence of Banksy, elusive and anonymised as he is,