Hearing the word “graffiti” usually brings to mind the illegible spray painted scrawling that is a well-known blight to any urban area. Most people consider it to be an inescapable and negative addition to most city spaces. Despite its longstanding and often deserved, negative reputation; many talented artists have contributed to the evolution of graffiti. Today, it is possible to enjoy graffiti recast as breathtakingly beautiful pieces of art and thought-provoking statements in most major cities around the world. In recognition of the talent and innovation needed to create such work, much of what was previously considered mere graffiti is now referred to as “street art”.
Long considered to be an inescapable and negative addition to city life, graffiti is often easily dismissed and overlooked due to its ubiquity. Despite this, there is no denying the fact that it is protest art in its purest form. The act of illegally painting or drawing something on a public space is an act against the establishment. It is also seen as a way for the people to symbolically reclaim an area and personalize a public space. But at its roots, graffiti is a statement about the impermanent and transitory nature of life; most graffiti is quickly covered by other graffiti artists or removed by the city. Yet regardless of the knowledge that their work will likely not last for long, street artists put time, effort and thought into their creations.
While unattractive and seemingly pointless graffiti will always exist, many street artists use their public canvas as a tool to make statements about society. One of the most recognized artists is Banksy who has achieved great acclaim and is known globally for his subversive pieces that take aim at many unappealing and unavoidable aspects of our world today.
Banksy began his graffiti career as a freehand artist in the early 90s in his hometown of Bristol, England, where he ran with a group of other graffitists as part of the Bristol underground scene. As his style developed, he began using stencils as part of his work to speed up the process and avoid being caught by the police. Today, Banksy is known as the preeminent stencil graffiti artist and his style is easily recognizable as it combines sardonic stenciled images and anti-establishment statements.
Throughout his career Banksy has created street art, staged art exhibitions, written books and pulled pranks, all with the goal of making a statement about the status quo. Despite all these acts that seem to be focused on gaining fame, Banksy has persisted in his desire to remain outside of the spotlight. He refuses to reveal his true identity and goes to great lengths to avoid publicity for himself, instead choosing to let his art speak for him. He is not represented by any of the galleries that sell his work and provides copies of many of his pieces on his website which are available to be downloaded and reproduced without cost.
In the past when selling his work, Banksy went to great lengths to provide it at affordable prices. In 2013, he set up a stall in New York’s Central Park and sold authentic, autographed original pieces for $60 each. As he did so without publicity or recognition, most people were unaware of what they were buying. The pieces on offer were estimated to be worth more than $20,000 each. This one-off was clearly a way for Banksy to make a statement on the function of the art world which drives up prices based on exclusivity and fame as Banksy has previously expressed disgust with the manufactured worth of modern art. Yet acts like this also aid in preserving Banksy’s mystique and allow him to maintain his role as an uncompromising artist who believes in the purity of his message.
As Banksy has gained fame, the transitory nature of his work has faded; what was once considered vandalism and quickly whitewashed over is now considered “art” that must be preserved at all costs. Many of Banksy’s earlier pieces are no longer in existence, yet his newer works are not easily viewed either. In April of this year, a London hotel exhibited ten of his works under the title “Stealing Banksy?” and auctioned off nine of them. What is notable is that all of the artworks were taken from public places. Although Banksy publicly condemned the exhibition and sale, the auction house countered that the pieces were all illegally painted and the building owners requested removal of the pieces in fear of facing complications resulting from the possession of such potentially valuable artwork on said buildings. His most recent piece which appeared just a few weeks ago in Bristol has already been removed by a local youth club which hopes to sell the work at auction and use the money for funding. These instances are becoming commonplace as numerous pieces by Banksy have been removed from public spaces and then put up for auction, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.
Considering Banksy’s stance on art and value and marketing, he must enjoy putting public officials in the uncomfortable position of trying to preserve pieces that were once considered illegal acts of vandalism. Yet it seems ironic that through his gain in fame, his work has now become a part of the system that it has tried to subvert. As viewed by its supporters, graffiti has traditionally been regarded as art for the people. But when that art is seized by those in power and resold for huge sums of money and will be in future privately displayed, then it no longer exists for its original purpose. Additionally, by removing Banksy’s pieces from their original locations, the messages that they conveyed lose meaning as well.
It seems clear that if Banksy continues to produce public street art, he will become just a cog in the well-oiled machinery of modern consumerist culture. Considering this conundrum, it begs the question: What should Banksy do next? It also makes one wonder, if he does continue is he not culpable for perpetrating the same actions that he claims to stand against? What social responsibility does an artist have when he takes a stand against the establishment? Is it right that Banksy has profited from his art when its message contradicts his actions?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, through his art Banksy has compelled people to question many aspects of society, and he has done so with humor and style. Although Banksy may not have envisioned the current controversy he is embroiled in, it is of benefit to all of us as it forces us to consider the role of graffiti in the world of art and as a part of our community. And if nothing else, viewing one of Banksy’s pieces may make us consider one small aspect of our world from a new point of view. If a single piece of graffiti can do even that, then it should be called art.