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Banksy’s Street Art: Reasons for Popularity Essay


Introduction

Street art is a popular form of contemporary art involving artists of various backgrounds, races and cultures in big cities all over the world. The question whether it should be considered a crime is still debated over. For legal reasons, street artists have to maintain anonymity. Street art is believed to be a form of political participation. According to Cedar Lewisohn, street art has to be judged by the same standards as the other art but these standards are unclear and hardly suitable for anonymous and illegally created artworks. One of the most known street artists is Banksy, whose real personality is covered. Banksy’s heritage includes graffiti, stencil images, art exhibitions, a movie, four books and at least seven cases of interventions into famous museums. The art of Banksy bears a political, particularly anti-capitalist and anti-war, message. To my opinion, Banksy is a good artist: his works provoke debates and make people reflect on the essential problems of politics and society.

Street Art as a Phenomenon

Street art is among the genres that are currently gaining popularity. Street art can be defined as the illegal establishment of artworks in public places so that anyone can see and assess them. Despite the fact that street art is often associated with spray graffiti and stenciling, it also includes “stickers, wheatpastes, laser projections, flash mobbing, guerilla gardening, yarn bombing, street installations and a host of other forms”1. Clearly, graffiti and stencil art are the most known and widespread forms of street art. These forms are believed to be the work of disadvantaged social classes but, in fact, street artists can be of any social background, as well as race, gender and religion2. Additionally, street art is most often considered a crime. It should be mentioned that the thinkers and public speakers, who put that label on street art, have a vague understanding of the concepts of “harm,” “offender,” “injury,” etc3. Legally speaking, it is still a question whether street art can be named a crime4. Street art exists in every big city in the world; there are cities, which are especially famous for their street art, such as New York, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Chicago or San Francisco.

Street art is believed to be political in nature. Alison Young mentions the following aspects of street art’s political nature. First, street artists are motivated by generosity: they do not require a reward for their art, it is a gift to the viewers. Second, street artists promote democracy, proclaiming that any person can become an artist5.

To reach out to their (potential) viewers, protect themselves and post their works that can be wiped out any time, some street artists create anonymous pages online6. Studying the heritage of street artists is a complicated task due to its illegal (and punishable) nature and the anonymity of the artists7.

In his book “Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution,” Cedar Lewisohn expressed a view that street art has to be assessed according to the common artistic standards8, i.e. if a poorly drawn picture is placed on a wall, it does not mean it is art. To my opinion, this statement is questionable. First of all, it does not look like all the viewers share some “common artistic standards.” If we speak about the canons of classic art, they apply to some graffiti pieces while they do not apply to the works of eminent non-street artists. We appreciate the works of cubist or futurist artists, even though they may look as “bad art” to us, since we know (or pretend to), what intentions the author had while creating this particular curved line or screaming face. In the case of street art, we do not know the intention, the names, the biographies but this does not make street art less valuable or valid.

Banksy and His Art

One of the most eminent street artists in the world is Banksy, a provocative British graffitist, left-wing activist and film director. However, his personality is still not uncovered; his real name is unknown. According to an investigation held by “Mail on Sunday” in 2008, he may be a former pupil of Bristol Cathedral School9. Kriston Capps believes that Banksy is a woman and Chris Healey thinks that Banksy is a team of seven artists10. Even his agent Steve Lazarides does not know anything about Banksy’s true identity. Tristan Manco, a friend of Banksy’s, claims that “Banksy, born in 1974, grew up in Bristol, U.K., son of a photocopier engineer, who was apprenticed to a butcher at a young age” in his book “Stencil Graffiti.”11. In fact, nothing can be said for sure. As The Guardian put it, “has retained an ageless, mildly subversive appeal, despite becoming an established part of the art market, holding exhibitions and featuring in auctions”12.

The disguise, under which Banksy is working, is not surprising. First of all, Banksy protests against the existing power structure and being an “Anonymous” is a widespread pattern among political protesters; take, for example, Subcomandante Marcos, who keeps wearing a mask. The other explanation, a much more simple one, is that, if revealed, Banksy will have to face serious problems with the law of the UK, France and the United States. His art is considered vandalism (which, legally speaking, it is) and the policemen are eager to get him arrested. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, has personally expressed his disapproval of Banksy’s actions13. The third possible reason for hiding is Banksy’s critique of the cult of genius that prevails in the art world14. However, if it were true, he would not have been signing his works.

Banksy started his “career” with working as a common graffiti artist. In the 1980-s, his art was clearly graffiti, or even vandalism, until the first half of the 1990-s. He was part of Bristol’s DryBreadZ Crew and Bristol underground scene. He moved to London by 1999. In the 90-s, he became acquainted with Steve Lazarides, a photographer, who would later become his agent. At that time, Banksy rarely used stencils, starting to use them frequently around 2000 to save more time while working. According to himself, the idea of stenciling came to his mind while he was hiding from the police under a lorry; he then noticed a stenciled serial number and decided to employ this technique. His paintings usually present no more than two tones: a light background along with a black spray15. After beginning to use stencils, he has become an eminent street artist in London and Bristol.

Banksy’s first image to become popular was the 1997 “The Mild Mild West,” a huge painting on the wall of an abandoned building. It depicts a cute smiling teddy bear, who is about to throw a Molotov cocktail at three riot policemen while somehow still looking cuddly. The artist put his signature on the bottom and the title of the picture on the top of the painting. This work is the one people of Bristol are especially fond of16.

The first “exhibition” held by Banksy took place in 2001, in a tunnel near a pub, where he and his friends created some images in 25 minutes. In 2003, his famous “Turf War” exhibition was launched in London17. Banksy also performed a series of the so-called museum interventions, when he entered at least seven museums in London, New York and Paris and hung his art on the walls among the exhibited works without permission18. He defined these interventions as a form of “brandalism,” i.e. a deliberate act of substituting well-known images to turn them into something provocative19.

The messages of Banksy’s works are mostly anti-capitalist and anti-war. However, some of his images are considered racist. For instance, his 2014 work created in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, depicts five protesting pigeons with placates saying “Migrants not welcome”, “Go back to Africa” and “Keep off our worms.” Apparently, the words on the placates are addressed to a little green swallow. The work was removed by the city council for being “inappropriate”20. To my opinion, this was clearly a mistake. When you look at the painting, you see five big, scary birds, looking even bigger and scarier with their placates, oppressing a tiny swallow, which clearly presents no danger. Considering Banksy’s usual leftist stance, I believe this to be a damnation of racism, meant to show racist individuals that it is they that look like a threat, not immigrants.

It is interesting that Banksy especially favored the image of rats; he often depicted them in London, for instance, in such works as “Microphone Rat,” “Cutting Rats,” “Umbrella Rat,” etc.21

Banksy’s art represents the spirit of rebellion; he’s often called “guerilla artist” or even “art terrorist.” For him, it is essential to be illegal; despite having held several exhibitions of his works, Banksy prefers displaying them on buildings, cars, national monuments, museums (not being invited), i.e. everywhere, where it is forbidden. Most of his works are illegally painted in public places22.

Therefore, a serious problem of Banksy’s art is that it can turn out to be a forgery, for it is hard to attribute properly graffiti made in public places. Banksy has a special block-like signature but it does not guarantee authenticity. Some street artists, for instance, his fans, may copy his signature to make us believe their art is created by Banksy. The only way to somehow reveal the truth is to ask the artist himself, i.e. to check the paintings Banksy claims to be his in his four books23.

For Banksy, street art is more than vandalism; it is a means of expression for those, who are oppressed and suffer from poverty. As states, he perceives this form of art “as a way of linking criminality to beautification and enhancement of the urban environment.”24. As Banksy himself offered,

Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw wherever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colors and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a living breathing thing that belonged to everybody, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet25.

His attitude to this problem is reflected in his 2008 painting “Street Cleaner”: a man in a uniform wipes out the unique paintings created by cavemen. The reference to graffiti-removal is obvious: city authorities do not understand the value of the paintings (no matter, cave ones or graffiti) and order to clean them out.

Banksy’s art and his behavior keep provoking ardent discussion on ownership, the definition of art, copyright, vandalism, law and order, etc. Now the question is whether Banksy can be considered a good artist. According to the mayor of New York City, he is not an artist at all26. As Charly Brooker states in an article in The Guardian, “his work looks dazzlingly clever to idiots”27. Banksy vulgarizes the wide-known pop images to make himself look “cool,” and Brooker criticizes him for using the pattern of “America… um… war… er… Disney… and stuff,” which people are already fed up with28. While he may be not wrong, there is another side of the coin.

We are used to the fact that art is linked to the concepts of exclusivity, a limited amount of items, controlled sales and, finally, a known and identified genius, who creates it. Not a single one of this components is present in the case of Banksy. Hundreds of paintings on the street walls, being removed by the authorities every day and an unknown person (persons?) behind this. Nevertheless, it may be time to review our canons of art. As Banksy believes, art is not when you paint or when you benefit from your paintings but when you receive a public reaction, when you make people reflect on the things you show them. In my opinion, Banksy is a good artist, for his art does make a huge (thank the location on the streets) amount of people reflect on vital problems of politics and society. However vandalistic he may be, this is the way, in which Banksy fulfils his duty as a citizen and a member of society.

Conclusion

Street art is a popular contemporary form of expression existing in big cities. City authorities consider it a crime and because of that, the artists have to be anonymous or use nicknames. Street art can be a form of political activism. As Cedar Lewisohn believes, street art should be judged by the artistic standards. I disagree since these standards are vague and are not suited to apply to the works of anonymous artists. Among the most popular street artists is Banksy, who has created lots of graffiti and stencil images, wrote four books about his experience and filmed a movie. Banksy delivers anti-capitalist and anti-war messages to his viewers. As I am convinced, Banksy can be named a good artist: he manages to make hundreds of people reflect on the Important problems of society and politics.

Bibliography

Alpaslan, Zeynep. “Is Street Art a Crime? An Attempt at Examining Street Art Using Criminology.” Advances in Applied Sociology 2, no.1 (2012): 53-58.

Antony, Andrew. Guardian (London, UK). 2014. Web.

Baker, Lindsay. The Telegraph (London, UK). 2008. Web.

Banksy. Exitstencilism: Black Book. London: Weapons of Mass Distraction, 2002.

Barbour, Kim. “Hiding in Plain Sight: Street Artists Online.” PLATFORM: Journal of Media and Communication 5, no. 1 (2013): 86-96.

Branscome, Eva. “The True Counterfeits of Banksy: Radical Walls of Complicity and Subversion.” Architectural Design 81, no. 5, (2011): 114-21.

Brooker, Charlie. The Guardian (London, UK). 2006. Web.

Bull, Martin. Banksy Locations & Tours: A Collection of Graffiti Locations and Photographs. Oakland: PM Press, 2009.

Capps, Kriston. “Why Banksy Is (Probably) a Woman.” Citylab (London, UK). 2014. Web.

Conklin, Tiffany Renée. “Street Art, Ideology, and Public Space.” Master’s thesis, Portland State University, 2012.

Ellsworth-Jones, Will. (Washington, D.C.). 2013. Web.

Gough, P. Banksy: The Bristol Legacy. Bristol: Sansom and Company, 2012.

Johnston, Chris. The Guardian (London, UK). 2014. Web.

Lewisohn, Cedar. Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution. Mustang: Tate, 2008.

Merrill, Samuel. “Keeping It Real? Subcultural Graffiti, Street Art, Heritage And Authenticity.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 21, no. 4 (2015): 369-389.

Pereira, Sandrine. Graffiti. Translated by Translate-A-Book. Santa Rosa: Silverback Books, 2005.

Stephens, Sarah. “Fun with Vandalism: The Illegal Street Art of Shepard Fairey and Banksy.” Master’s thesis, University of Illinois, 2002.

Wang, Emily. Harvard Political Review (Cambridge, Massachusetts). 2013. Web.

Young, Alison. Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Footnotes

  1. Alpaslan, Zeynep. “Is Street Art a Crime? An Attempt at Examining Street Art Using Criminology.” Advances in Applied Sociology 2, no.1 (2012): 53-58.
  2. Antony, Andrew. “Banksy: the artist who’s driven to the wall.” Guardian (London, UK). 2014. Web.
  3. Baker, Lindsay. “Banksy: Off The Wall.” The Telegraph (London, UK). 2008. Web.
  4. Banksy. Exitstencilism: Black Book. London: Weapons of Mass Distraction, 2002.
  5. Barbour, Kim. “Hiding in Plain Sight: Street Artists Online.” PLATFORM: Journal of Media and Communication 5, no. 1 (2013): 86-96.
  6. Branscome, Eva. “The True Counterfeits of Banksy: Radical Walls of Complicity and Subversion.” Architectural Design 81, no. 5, (2011): 114-21.
  7. Brooker, Charlie. “Supposing… Subversive genius Banksy is actually rubbish.” The Guardian (London, UK). 2006. Web.
  8. Bull, Martin. Banksy Locations & Tours: A Collection of Graffiti Locations and Photographs. Oakland: PM Press, 2009.
  9. Capps, Kriston. “Why Banksy Is (Probably) a Woman.” Citylab (London, UK). 2014. Web.
  10. Conklin, Tiffany Renée. “Street Art, Ideology, and Public Space.” Master’s thesis, Portland State University, 2012.
  11. Ellsworth-Jones, Will. The Story Behind Banksy. Smithsonian Magazine (Washington, D.C.). 2013. Web.
  12. Gough, P. Banksy: The Bristol Legacy. Bristol: Sansom and Company, 2012.
  13. Johnston, Chris. “Council removes Banksy artwork after complaints of racism.” The Guardian (London, UK). 2014. Web.
  14. Lewisohn, Cedar. Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution. Mustang: Tate, 2008.
  15. Merrill, Samuel. “Keeping It Real? Subcultural Graffiti, Street Art, Heritage And Authenticity.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 21, no. 4 (2015): 369-389.
  16. Pereira, Sandrine. Graffiti. Translated by Translate-A-Book. Santa Rosa: Silverback Books, 2005.
  17. Stephens, Sarah. “Fun with Vandalism: The Illegal Street Art of Shepard Fairey and Banksy.” Master’s thesis, University of Illinois, 2002.
  18. Wang, Emily. “The Rise of Banksy.” Harvard Political Review (Cambridge, Massachusetts). 2013. Web.
  19. Young, Alison. Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2014.
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"Banksy's Street Art: Reasons for Popularity." IvyPanda, 11 June 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/banksys-street-art-reasons-for-popularity/.

1. IvyPanda. "Banksy's Street Art: Reasons for Popularity." June 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/banksys-street-art-reasons-for-popularity/.


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IvyPanda. "Banksy's Street Art: Reasons for Popularity." June 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/banksys-street-art-reasons-for-popularity/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Banksy's Street Art: Reasons for Popularity." June 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/banksys-street-art-reasons-for-popularity/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Banksy's Street Art: Reasons for Popularity'. 11 June.

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