One can say that Banksy doesn’t actually qualify as an artist, and is more of a global phenomenon. He’s an anonymous graffiti superhero whose identity is endlessly debated by armchair conspiracy theorists.
Banksy’s career has been marked by experimentation, risk, and a daring playfulness. His stencil-heavy motifs—of rats, cops, and kids with balloons—have simply become part of a shared cultural vocabulary. While it’s exceedingly difficult to narrow down a handful of works that define his aesthetic, we present below a selection of 10 projects that capture the artist’s hugely influential practice (in no particular order, rather than chronologically).
Girl with Balloon (2002)
Girl with Balloon (also, Balloon Girl or Girl and Balloon) is a 2002-started London series of stencil murals by Banksy, depicting a young girl with her hand extended toward a red heart-shaped balloon carried away by the wind. The first work was on Waterloo Bridge, and other murals were around London, though none remain there. Banksy has several times used variants of this design to support social campaigns: in 2005 about the West Bank barrier, in 2014 about the Syrian refugee crisis, and also about the 2017 UK election. A 2017 Samsung poll ranked Girl with Balloon as the United Kingdom’s number one favourite artwork. In 2018, a framed copy of the work spontaneously shredded during an auction, by way of a mechanical device Banksy had hidden in the frame (but more about that ahead).
Love is in the Air (Flower Thrower) (2003)
Banksy first executed this artwork in Jerusalem in 2003, painting it on the city’s West Bank barrier wall that separates Israel from its Occupied Territories. The image—which has been endlessly replicated since—depicts a protestor, sometimes referred to as “the masked thug,” caught in the act of hurling…a bouquet of colourful flowers, not a Molotov cocktail. (It could be considered a contemporary update on the classic 1967 photo Flower Power, in which protestors stuffed tiny flowers into soldiers’ gun barrels.) This is one of many artworks that Banksy has executed in favour of Palestinian rights, and his advocacy continues to stir controversy.
One of Banksy’s most harrowing motifs is an image of Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald happily skipping along while flanking a naked, crying young girl. The figure here is a familiar one—even if many viewers might not immediately place her as the subject of a 1972 photograph from the Vietnam War. Artists have long conscripted pop icons to make subversive or satirical points, and this mash-up between apparent innocence and utter horror is what gives Napalm its charge. It’s also what sets Banksy apart from an artist like KAWS, who also incorporates kid-friendly figures like Elmo or Spongebob Squarepants in his work, but not with a political point of view.
Mobile Lovers (2014)
Banksy’s Mobile Lovers appeared in Bristol, United Kingdom, in April 2014. It was created on a wall owned by Broad Plains Boys Club on Clement Street. The artwork depicts an embracing couple being hypnotised by their mobile phones. Photographs of the artwork were first uploaded to Banksy’s website before it has been spotted by the public. This sent art lovers from across the country in search of the British artist’s brand-new piece. It was finally discovered 24-hours later.
“This is a theme park like no other,” stated the ironic promo spot for Banksy’s most notorious installation. Launched in 2015, Dismaland was a faux-family-friendly destination on the British seaside. Modelled, of course, on Disneyland, Banksy’s iteration was purposefully bleak, aggressive rather than escapist. One catalyst was the work of painter Jeff Gillette, who has long used ironic Disney imagery to highlight the bitter failings of the modern world. The theme park also gave Banksy a chance to play curator, inviting friends and peers—including Damien Hirst, and a former member of the notorious art collective The KLF—to install their own works on the site. A hulking riff on Cinderella’s Castle dominated the site, and a remote-control boat game incorporated graphic imagery from the ongoing refugee crisis. “People brought their kids,” one helpful commentator reflected on Yelp. “Don’t take your kids, really.”
The Son of a Migrant From Syria (2015)
Sprayed on a wall in the Calais refugee camp called “the Jungle”, intended to address negative attitudes towards the thousands of people living there, lies The Son of a Migrant From Syria. The work depicts the late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, with a black bin bag thrown over one shoulder and an original Apple computer in his hand. The work is a pointed reference to Jobs’s background as the son of a Syrian migrant who went to America after the second world war. In a rare statement accompanying the work, Banksy said:
“We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7bn a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.”
The graffiti is one of a series of works Banksy has created in response to the refugee crisis.
Basquiat being “stopped-and-frisked” outside the Barbican Centre (2017)
Banksy’s samplings from the art-historical canon are rare but astute. For a 2018 piece in Paris, for instance, he pilfered a motif from Jacques-Louis David’s painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800–01). And at the Barbican Centre in 2017, he threw up this biting mural, showing a man and his dog, borrowed from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 work Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump. The figure, its arms in the air, is being dispassionately frisked by two cops wearing bulletproof vests. In the original painting, the figure’s posture reads as a sort of anguished shrug. Here, the composition becomes a commentary on police overreach—perhaps reflecting on how the authorities treat graffiti artists.
Love Is In The Bin (2018)
Banksy has been recycling the motif of a Girl with Balloon regularly since the early 2000s. Compared to most of Banksy’s oeuvre, it’s non-confrontational and almost saccharine. That might be why, when a 2006 version of Girl with Balloon came up for auction at Sotheby’s in 2018, Banksy decided to subvert the work with a live stunt that shocked audiences. The painting, installed in a suspiciously bulky and ornate frame, hammered at $1.3 million with fees—at which point it infamously “self-destructed,” dropping into a shredding device that sliced up a good half of the canvas. Critics had plenty of questions. Was Sotheby’s in on the prank? Was Banksy’s assertion that the shredder “malfunctioned” disingenuous? Why is the destroyed piece—now retitled by the artist as Love is in the Bin—more valuable than the original? How long did it take for McDonald’s to use the whole thing in an advertisement? While it’s true that serious art-world people were mostly bemused by the affair, Love is in the Bin simply proved what an unstoppable cultural force Banksy is.
Game Changer (2020)
A new Banksy artwork paying tribute to National Health Service workers turned up at Southampton General Hospital in England, in May 2020. The painting, titled Game Changer (2020), was delivered to the hospital along with a note that read:
“Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if its only black and white.”
The painting, a departure for the street artist who is better known for his prints and wall tags, depicts a young boy playing with a toy nurse bedecked in a face mask, fluttering cape, and Red Cross emblem (the only colour in the artwork). In the background, Batman and Spider-Man figurines have been discarded in a wastebasket. According to a spokesperson for Banksy, the work will be on view in a hallway near the hospital’s emergency department until this fall, when it will head to auction to raise funds for the NHS.
It’s Not Their Problem, It’s Mine (2020)
Banksy’s latest work, which he shared online in early June 2020, is a tribute to Black Lives Matter. The new painting depicts the American flag catching fire from a memorial candle next to a framed portrait of a black silhouette.
“At first I thought I should just shut up and listen to black people about this issue,” the elusive street artist wrote on Instagram. “But why would I do that? It’s not their problem, it’s mine. People of colour are being failed by the system. The white system. Like a broken pipe flooding the apartment of the people living downstairs… This is a white problem. And if white people don’t fix it, someone will have to come upstairs and kick the door in.”
Both the artwork and the accompanying message come in response to protests taking place across the US in recent weeks in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, as well as other instances of police brutality against black Americans.
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