Witty, cheeky, subversive, whimsical, cynical, satirical, and topical. These are just a few words that describe the work of the global mystery man otherwise known as Banksy. In a time where a person’s celebrity is essentially equal to the amount of visibility and exposure they get, Banksy has managed to revolutionize not only what it means to be a celebrity, but what it means to be an artist.
Of course, as iconic as Banksy is, he’s just a part of the much larger phenomenon that is street art. The culture behind street art is rooted in the very fabric of almost every major city. It not only provides the city with a sense of style and character, but it also provides artists from various backgrounds a creative outlet to express themselves. Because of the lack of commercialization involved, street artists are able to express themselves without any outside interference, something very few creatives in any field are capable of doing. In a sense, street art has become one of the last bastions for pure expression.
This is where innovators like Banksy step in. Banksy has helped elevate this movement from expressionism to political activism. Of course for the modern street artist, these two things go hand in hand. A blank wall on some random city block is no longer just a blank wall, but a potential public forum for the disenfranchised to voice their opinions. Thanks to the overall anonymity attached to street art, it feels far more genuine than the kind of tribalism that most political commentators and analysts have devolved into.
As easy as it is to just talk about how innovative Banksy and his work has been, it would be better to show exactly why he’s considered one of the best street artists alive today.
Rage, the Flower Thrower
What this piece does, above all else, is perfectly encompass the humanity lost under all the politics and rhetoric in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was made in 2005, around the same time Israel had “officially” withdrew its army from inside the Gaza Strip. 13 years later after their “official” military withdrawal, the U.N., along with many human rights organizations, still consider Israel to be holding the Gaza Strip under military occupation.
A lot has happened between Israel and Gaza since 2005, resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent people and the views of both sides becoming more and more polarized. Images like the angry young man featured in this piece have become pretty commonplace whenever more news arrives from either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the media tends to portray the morality of those caught up in it with their own black and white filter. But underneath all that rage and resentment, is something far more complicated than “good guys vs. bad guys”, something far more human.
This angry young man isn’t just another protestor, he’s a person: he’s lived a life, has loved ones, has his own emotions, his own aspirations, his own mistakes, his own longings, his own anxieties, his own complexities. While the rest of the world might only see a young man about to toss a Molotov cocktail, there will always be a touch of humanity that can’t be filtered out with black and white lenses.
TL;DR – In this piece, Banksy manages to perfectly encapsulate that touch of humanity that gets buried under the plethora of political agendas and biased media coverage pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is Always Hope
Otherwise known as “Balloon Girl”, this piece is easily one of Banksy’s most iconic and recognizable works. The main motif of this piece is hope, with the balloon clearly symbolizing hope considering it’s the only thing in color. Children are often included in Banksy’s work in which he tends to play with the dichotomy between childhood innocence and the harsh realities of the world around them.
However, when it comes to this piece, it’s difficult to say what Banksy is trying to say about hope.
There has been much debate as to the actual meaning behind this piece, but the one thing that is certain is that without even reading the words, the image alone tells a story within seconds. The only problem is, what story do you believe it’s telling?
You could even say that this is Banksy’s own little social experiment: Do you see a young girl losing her balloon? Or do you see a young girl reaching for her balloon?
TL;DR – Banksy plays with the concept of hope in which he allows the person viewing this piece to decide what hope means to them.
Let Them Eat Crack
Location: New York
The phrase, “let them eat crack,” is a reference to the historically famous quote, “let them eat cake,” made by the former queen of France, Marie Antoinette. When Marie Antoinette made this quote, it was during the beginning of the French Revolution when the starving masses of France rose up against the French royal family, as well as the rest of the French aristocracy. After hearing about how her people were starving and begging for bread, she ignorantly believed that if there wasn’t enough bread to go around, then why didn’t they just eat cake instead? It’s funny how little some things change.
This very same kind of indifference and apathy that’s managed to seep into the modern-age is exactly what Banksy is mocking in this piece. At the time it was discovered on Wall Street, the impact of one of the worst recessions in U.S. history was being felt around the country. Meanwhile, the very same people who tanked our economy in the first place were sitting nice and pretty with all the money they had essentially stolen from the American public. Of course, not a single ounce of genuine empathy was given to the millions of people whose lives were turned upside down due to their insatiable greed.
Banksy’s use of rats in his work is fairly common, especially when it comes to criticizing corruption and societal norms. In this case, it’s a bit of both. The words “Wall Street” and “corruption” have become indistinguishable from one another. Yet, despite this widely accepted fact, we as a society just accept this. Despite our ever-evolving collective consciousness, we continue to vote in politicians who wish to give Wall Street more freedom to wreak havoc. Despite our patience being pushed well past the breaking point, we continue to ignore the elephant in the room.
For those of you who live in New York City and wish to see this piece for yourselves, unfortunately you can’t, it was painted over shortly after it was discovered.
TL;DR – Banksy is not only mocking Wall Street and the rest of the wealthy elite that sent the US into a recession in 2008 but is also comparing their apathetic attitude towards the working class that was commonplace among the French aristocracy during the French Revolution.
One Nation Under CCTV
Out of all of Banksy’s works, few have aged as well as this piece. This piece was made in plain view of a CCTV camera, despite the fact that it was made in a single night while also being one of Banksy’s largest pieces. Just to add a bit more irony to this, it was also made on the wall of a building used by the Royal Mail. Needless to say, it was painted over in 2009.
At the time this was made, it was critiquing the excessive amount of CCTV cameras in London as well as other over-reaching policies concerning surveillance at the time. But as time has passed, this piece has become far more relevant thanks to the revelations of the mass surveillance networks that encompasses the NSA, GCHQ, and many other government surveillance agencies. Whether they’re in the US or the UK, authoritative figures have no problem condemning Banksy’s art as “graffiti” or “vandalism”, yet they seem to have very little to say when it comes to the very same crimes pieces like this highlight.
TL;DR – This piece not only highlights Banksy’s tremendous skill as a street artist but was also way ahead of its time when it came to critiquing mass surveillance.
This hybrid of free creative expression and political activism isn’t necessarily unique only to street art, but it certainly carries a much stronger sense of unity compared to other mediums. Sure, we love watching people like John Oliver, Bill Maher, Trevor Noah, etc. blend comedy and topical issues. We love watching shows and movies that make political statements about certain policies. We love listening to music reference to complex social issues. But for the most part, the problem with all of these outlets is that there are always strings attached.
While I have no doubt that most of the actual artists and creatives in these fields are genuine when it comes to their work, the fact of the matter is that they all have bosses to answer to. The very same leviathans of the industry that keep their fingers on our collective pulse in order to figure out how to best exploit our dispositions towards certain issues. Because of this, it makes them come off not necessarily as disingenuous, but artificial.
What really sets street art culture apart from the rest, as a medium for free expression and political activism, is that it doesn’t have its finger on our pulse, it is that pulse. While other creatives feel as though they’re being manufactured to understand the will of the people, street artists actually are the will of the people. They don’t create in order to pay for rent or a mortgage, their forms of expression are actually how they genuinely feel.
So to Banksy and all those who embrace this movement, I only have one thing to say to you:
Hailing from Armonk, New York, James Kotroczo is currently attending SUNY Purchase majoring in social sciences as well as minoring in journalism.
With ambitions to become an established writer, he has had articles published on other media outlets such as 12up, Blasting News, The Globalist, and Salon. In addition to this, he also aspires to have his poetry and short stories published.