“Graffiti is not the lowest form of art” – Banksy
In one of the worldâs largest cities, where advertisers pay thousands of pounds for the right to put their product on a billboard or on the side of a traditional red double-decker bus; where millions of people pass through public transport stations â hives of advertisements â every day, scarcely noticing whatâs around them on their trudging race to work; where young people are becoming more self-absorbed and less interested in the greater world around them; there is one mysterious character who has become a cult figure thanks to his inspired, insightful and honest – yet illegal – artworks around the streets of London.
That character is Banksy – call him an artist, call him a vandal, call him a political and cultural subversive or call him a terrorist; but thereâs no denying that Banksy is a London â indeed British – underground institution.
His âgraffitiâ artworks range from simple yet sophisticated stencil work, Ad-busters-style pieces (what Banksy calls âbrandalismâ), clever slogans and social commentary, to complete artworks, including the âglimpse-of-freedomâ pieces done on the government-built wall around Palestinian territories in Israel.
Banksy is also known for this art gallery and museum stunts of sticking fake historic and modified art amongst the traditional pieces and seeing how long it takes for staff and security to notice.
Several of these stunt pieces have since been accepted to the galleryâs permanent collection.
âGraffiti is not the lowest form of art,â Banksy declares.
âDespite having to creep about at night and lie to your mum, itâs actually the most honest art form available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on some of the best walls a town has to offer, and nobody is put off by the price of admission,â he says.
And that indeed is the beauty of Banksyâs work â it is on the streets; for the people.
A âletter to the editorâ once published in the satirical ‘Private Eye’ magazine, said: âWhen I spot a Banksy, surreptitiously peeping out of an alley or boldly emblazoned on a wall, I find it hard to contain myself. They feel personal, as if they are just for me, and they feel public as if they are a gift for everyone. They make me smile and feel optimistic about the possibilities of shared dreams and common ownership.â
Common ownership is a theme Banksy explores both personally with all his work, as well as publicly, such as the âdesignated graffiti areaâ stencil campaign he has undertaken in many public places, not only around Britain, but in America as well.
âThe people who run our cities donât understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit,â Banksy says.
âThey say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic of the decline of society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the mind of three types of people – politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers,â he says.
âThe people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but youâre never allowed to answer back.
âWell, they started this fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.â
While Banksy is outspoken in his artistic statement, and audacious in its placement, he is forced to keep his identity secret to ensure the continuance of his work and his personal freedom.
It has been speculated â although not confirmed by his publisher or PR agent â that Banksy is in fact one Robert Banks from the south-west English city of Bristol, and aged in his 30s. What is acknowledged, however, is that British police have more than one open warrant for Banksyâs arrest.
âNobody ever listened to me until they didnât know who I was,â Banksy has been quoted as saying.
It is undoubtedly his outlaw attitude and the subversive message in his activity which perpetuates Banksyâs cult status in todayâs social environment of ever-increasing wariness of government and the kind of multi-national corporations that can afford to advertise on the mega-billboards of London. And whatâs most telling is the obvious respect for âa Banksyâ on the streets. In countless run-down neighbourhoods, on construction site walls, urban fixtures and abandoned buildings other spray-can artists leave a respectful distance around Banksyâs art when adding their own piece.
Because when weâre talking about Banksyâs âgraffitiâ, weâre not talking about the old-school name-in-big-bubble-writing âtaggingâ; weâre talking truly sophisticated and intelligent art work.
âThe time of getting fame for your name on its own, is over. Artwork that is only about wanting to be famous will never make you famous. Any fame is a by-product of making something that means something,â Banksy says.
âYou donât go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.â
Recurring themes in Banksyâs work include the latent intelligence and power of creatures such as monkeys and rats; police, military and other authority figures in compromising positions, or in traditional combative poses but with fruit or flowers instead of weapons, or with a yellow smiley face; and children in gas masks or with bombs â all hinting at the possibility of a different, better place.
âI like to think I have the guts to stand up anonymously in a western democracy and call for things no-one else believes in â like peace and justice and freedom,â Banksy says.
âImagine a city where graffiti wasnât illegal, a city where everybody could draw wherever they liked, where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop wasnât boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business,â Banksy muses.
âImagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall â itâs wet.â