Banksy is the pseudonym of the most high-profile graffiti painter in contemporary Street Art. Although there are no concrete biographical facts to go by, it is believed he was born in the outskirts of Bristol in 1974, later moving into the city where he spent his adolescence. A recent study by Queen Mary University in London identified the artist as Robin Gunningham and confirmed he grew up in Bristol.
According to the illustrator and graphic designer Tristan Manco, one of the most ardent researchers into urban art, the controversial Banksy was an apprentice butcher before getting into graffiti during the 80's "aerosol boom". In the 90's, he was a gang member of Bristol’s DryBreadZ crew, aka DBZ, at which time his fame began to spread like wildfire, mainly due to his tit-for-tat overpainting war with the top graffiti artist of the day, King Robbo, whose work along Regent's Canal in Camden Banksy took the liberty of "revamping" repeatedly until, on learning of the late Robbo's comatose condition, he put an end to their feud and paid his rival a series of heartfelt tributes.
Robbo inc, availible at streetartlondon.co.uk
On the 12th of July 2008, the Mail on Sunday announced it had discovered his real identity, revealing his name as Robin Gunningham, which the actual Mr Gunningham has always denied when questioned. According to other sources, his real name might be Robert Banks or Robin Banks although the latter would appear to be a play on the words "robbing banks".
Whatever the case may be, mystery still surrounds him. According to Will Simpson, secretary of the Bristol Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls football club, the artist accompanied them on a 2001 tour of Mexico in which he played matches against the Zapatista Liberty Fighters. There exist photographs of him painting a wall mural in honour of their cause, his pixelated face well-hidden under a handkerchief and no other discernible clues to his identity whatsoever. Those photos were published in the book 'Freedom Through Football: The Story Of The Easton Cowboys & Cowgirls'.
Banksy painting a mural in Mexico, availible at www.12ozprophet.com
In his book 'Wall And Street', Banksy remembers his early days as a street artist spraying the paint directly onto the wall. This technique required time, however, which posed a risk as graffiti was neither art nor legal at that time. He, therefore, began handcutting and using cardboard stencils and carspray to speed up the process and which had the added bonus of making his murals look far more 'accomplished'.
The term 'Street Art' encompasses all forms of artistic expression whose setting is outdoors, urban and, ostensibly, illegal. At the start, these paintings or texts left on walls, buildings and train carriages were given the name graffiti. Their origins can be traced back to the Afro-American and Latino ghettos of 60's New York as a reaction to the conditions and oppression they were living in. The earliest graffiti artists shared cultural tastes in music, dance and fashion and it was here that hip-hop was born. Later on, more artistic techniques came to be used, namely stencilling, wheat-pasted poster art, templates, installations, sculpture and sticker art.
The messages implicit therein were invariably politically or socially critical, as are Banksy's: "A wall is a very large weapon. It's one of the most unpleasant things you can hit someone with."
Few images illustrate this idea better than his "Maid In London" mural where a uniformed maid sweeps rubbish behind a wall as if to say: what we don't want to see, we hide from view.
Maid in London, availible at academics.skidmore.edu
Banksy began by painting rats all over the streets of Bristol which served as his instrument of ridicule against 'The System'. Influenced by, among others, the punk band Crass and the Ad Jammers movement which focused on deforming and transforming publicity images and thereby their message, Banksy's work has always sought out a social or moral criticism, in the guise of irony or satire, in the form of writing, stencilling or graffiti.
But if anyone was ever Banksy's inspiration or influence, it was Blek le Rat, a prolific Parisian graffiti artist of the early 80's. It was from him that he copied the stencil and aerosol technique as a means of expressing his criticisms and complaints: "Every time I think I've painted something vaguely original, I find out Blek already did it, better, 20 years earlier."
If graffiti changed anything – It would be illegal, availible at news.fitzrovia.org.uk
After those initial rat-taking-photos-of-passers-by or rat-listening-to-music graffitis came more work that continued to criticise social hypocrisies, only now they were also appearing on postboxes, doorways and drains. His 1988 "Naked" can still be seen on the façade of Park Street Clinic and it's not alone: a whole series of creations decorated first Bristol and then London, well-known examples being the two policemen kissing, the MonaLisa with bazuka rifle or the fleeing natives chased by a supermarket trolley.
Mona Lisa With Bazooka Rocket, availible at nohaycomolodeuno.blogspot.com.es
By then, he was already collaborating with an agent, Steve Lazarides, a former photographer who had documented Banksy's first teenage forays into graffiti art and with whom he shared the running of his website where both of them added photographs of each and every new creation and thanks to which there is still a record of those that have since been erased, demolished or painted over. Lazarides confesses to having helped organise the infamous stunts which involved infiltrating the world's most famous museums and dislaying Banksy art clandestinely, as happened at London's Natural History Museum with a dissected rat pinned inside a frame. And that was not all. In the British Museum, for instance, they managed to hang an apparent landscape painting that on closer inspection revealed a hunt scene with a supermarket trolley. New York’s MOMA unwittingly displayed his portrait of a lady in period costume wearing a gasmask. "Art will be neither beauty nor novelty. It will be effective and it will be troubling," according to the artist.
His work reached another level after being installed surreptitiously and viewed in four New York museums (the Metropolitan, Brooklyn, Natural History and Modern Art) and also when his street art started being seen across the world in other large cities like Melbourne and París. Come the year 2000, he decided to organise a solo exhibition and did so on the Severnshed, a floating restaurant, thereby distinguishing himself from all other street artists. Then, in 2003, came another exhibition, this time in London while later, in 2005 and 2007, two of the most important and striking creations of his career ~ the Gaza and West Bank murals.
Banksy, availible at prospectornow.com
Banksy, who considered it "the world's largest open-air prison", covered the 'Wall Of Shame' on the West Bank with al fresco paintings that spelled out his opposition. Pictures of little girls clutching balloons in an attempt to escape, glimpses of blue sky and idyllic landscapes seen through holes and cracks are a cry for attention against its construction and existence. The repercussions were such that, even today, there is an alternative sightseeing tour to visit them.
Girl and Soldier by Banksy, availible at http://www.stencilrevolution.com/
By this point, Banksy's works could be found all over the world, everywhere from Los Angeles to Barcelona. Amongst them, imitations of Miguelangelo's "David" wearing a bullet-proof vest and Van Gogh's "Sunflowers", completely withered. In 2006 he painted an emaciated, malnourished black child wearing that crown associated with a very well-known fast-food chain.
One successful show that stands out is his 'Banksy Versus Bristol Museum' in 2009 which involved closing the building to the public for three days while secret, large-scale preparations were made. The irony of this all being financed by those who had previously censored him was not lost on Banksy who remarked: "This is the first exhibition I've ever held where the donors' money has been used to display my work rather than erase it."
Availible at www.plataformadeartecontemporaneo.com
One of the main bones of contention between his followers and detractors is the extortionate price paid for some of his work. For such an anti-establishment and stern critic of capitalism, it seems to some rather ironic that his works are amongst the most expensive on the market. For this reason, some street artists accuse him of having "sold out" to the powers that be. Banksy, who once said that "Commercial success is a disaster for graffiti artists", saw his set of portraits of Kate Moss in the style of Warhol's "Marilyn Monroe" sell for $80,000 at Sothesby's in 2006. And then again in April 2007, his "Space Girl & Bird" (spray paint on steel) sold for half a million dollars. A few months later, Bonham's sold ten of his works for a total of half a million pounds sterling (€700,000). And the bids show no sign of stopping there. Nevertheless, in 2013, Banksy decided to open a pop-up street stall near Central Park selling original, signed canvasses for $60 each. Oddly, only eight of them were ever bought.
Kate Moss, availible at www.banksy-prints.com
During his New York tour that same year, Banksy carried out an illegal exhibition called "Better Out Than In" whereby he created a different artwork every day somewhere on the city streets. He tweeted: "Looking forward to getting my hands dirty tonight!" And he most certainly did, using graffiti, sculpture and even video to get his characteristically sarcastic humour across.
Never far from controversy, there are many who have denigrated his work: some calling it vandalism; others pure hypocrisy for criticising capitalism whilst working for large corporations like Puma and MTV. For others, take for example Gareth Williams, head of Urban Art at Bonham's in London: "The most incredible thing about the Banksy phenomenon is not his meteoric rise, nor the high prices collectors pay, but the fact that the very establishment he satirises has welcomed him with open arms."
Rat Photographer,availible at www.whatsonyourwall.com
And so to the controversy surrounding his 2010 documentary entitled "Exit Through The Gift Shop". Many were hoping for all to be revealed about their mysterious artist but hoping was as far as they got. The documentary was nominated for an Oscar, as well as an Independent Spirit Award and a BAFTA, and got excellent newspaper reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Sun Times to name but two. In it, Banksy introduces us to Thierry Guetta, a French man living in Los Angeles, whose unique obsession is filming the artist on video. The two meet and Banksy decides to turn the camera instead on Guetta, persuading him to infiltrate the Urban Art world with the alias Mr. Brainwash and turning him into a celebrity in his own right.
Clips from "Exit Through The Gift Shop" (Thierry, Banksy: Can marketing create an artist?)
And this is where the controversy took off. Is what the documentary says about Mr. Brainwash fact or fiction? Is he an actor or for real? For many, it was just an elaborate montage of Banksy's to show what has become of street art, namely just another consumer product, an investment opportunity seized upon by the upper classes and Thierry Guetta or Mr. Brainwash was nothing other than the alter-ego of Banksy himself. And to thicken the plot further, the artist Ron English confirmed that Thierry Guetta was totally real and that Banksy himself had explained in conversation his motives for making the film ~ to ridicule Guetta for his egoism in refusing to share hundreds of hours worth of filming the artist in action.
Girl with a pierced Eardrum found at Banksy.co.uk
In October 2014, Banksy created a new graffiti 'portrait' of "Girl With A Pierced Eardrum", a parody of Vermeer's" Girl with a Pearl Earring" in which he exchanged the jewel for a security alarm on the front wall of a recording studio in Hanover Place, Bristol. The work got a lot of media attention, especially because it was done back in the artist’s hometown and shortly after the rumours of his alleged arrest started to circulate. 24 hours later, however, the work was ruined by black paint in a clear act of vandalism and antagonism towards its author. And nor was this the first, last or only time Banksy's work would be damaged: his "Art Buff" in Kent, for one instance, was vandalised with a crude penis. Due to the prominence he has achieved over the last few years, however, some of his public artworks are now protected behind sheets of clear perspex, allowing them to be protected or restored more easily.
One of Banksy's murals before being cut into 3 pieces and moved to an exhibition. Found at banksy.co.uk
One of the most recent exhibitions on the artist, set up by The Sincura Group under the title "The Stealing Banksy", took place in London in 2014, exhibiting 7 street artworks that were then to be auctioned afterwards. Not for the first time, Banksy vociferously rejected the whole project despite the organisers assuring him of the building owners' consent. He is quoted as calling it "simply disgusting that anyone can take art off walls without permission."
Banksy's Dismaland. Published in Flickr by Peter Gasston
In August 2015, Banksy inaugurated the temporary, theme-park-styled installation "Dismaland" in collaboration with 58 other artists. When this closed its doors, the construction team moved what they dismantled to a refugee camp in Calais and built various housing units and a playground funfair for refugee families. After the recent, forced evacuation of the camp, the official Dismaland website (http://www.dismaland.co.uk/) says simply: "Dismaland Calais has now closed".
Son Of A Syrian Immigrant. Found at Banksy.co.uk
That December, a new Banksy painting entitled "The Son of a Syrian Immigrant" appeared on a camp wall, picturing the late billionaire Apple founder Steve Jobs with a bag of belongings slung over his shoulder. It is a clear attack on the conditions endured by Syrian migrants in the infamous "Jungle” camp at the French port.
Found at banksy.co.uk
His criticism of the situation continued into January of this year when his first interactive artwork appeared. On a wooden board placed outside the French Embassy in Knightsbridge, he painted Cosette, the little girl from the "Les Misérables" poster, with a ripped French flag behind her, tears rolling down her cheeks and a billowing canister of teargas below. A scannable QR code at the bottom of the picture links to a Youtube video showing police firing teargas whilst raiding the camp in Calais, on 5th January 2016. Photos of the picture went viral and 42 hours later, thieves attempted to steal it which meant the Metropolitan police were forced to intervene and safeguard it.
In February, the portion of wall in question was completely covered over by Cheval Property Management Limited who own the land the building stands on. They confirmed this as a temporary measure, however, until such time as the "future plans for the work are decided".
From 13th January til 29th February 2016, Banksy's works were on show for the first time in Istambul in the exhibition "The Art of Banksy" with the patronage of the Turkish Ministry of Culture. The exhibition, coinciding with the inauguration of the Global Karaköy gallery, took a group of 80 experts almost a year to set up, taking it upon themselves to track down, requisition and catalogue the artist's last 15 years of work. "Banksy has done a huge amount of artwork, the majority of which has never been seen by many people. I've managed to get hold of it thanks to collectors who made a massive effort to reveal the pieces and their whereabouts," said Steve Lazarides, the exhibition's curator, who also confirmed it as the most extensive ever undertaken of the work of the elusive Banksy.
Visitors to the exhibition were able to enjoy it in singular fashion as it included detailed replicas of both the streets of London and Banksy's studio workshop, allowing them to access more closely and experience more vividly the context of the graffiti's creation and the poetic, critical and humorous energy of this mysterious and much-talked-about artist.
The artist in his studio
Whatever might or might not be going on around him, it's undeniable that Banksy is the most sought-after, controversial and admired artist in his field. He doesn't need publicity, nor does he seek approval because his creations speak for themselves and provoke reflection in those who view them. Too many of his pictures have disappeared, like, for instance, nearly all of those to do with the 2012 London Olympics. People have tried to thwart him by ruining his work, destroying and damaging it or stealing it to sell on at exhorbitant prices. Many others, however, find his work and words inspiring, aspire to follow in his footsteps and imitate his unmistakable style.
Banksy vs Bristol Museum
Picture Gallery: Banksy - Works, click on the photos to see them full sized
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)