Who is Banksy?
If you don’t know much about him, it’s likely you’ve still heard the pseudonym of Banksy. The words “subversive”, “political” and “controversial” often appear in any text involving the mysterious street artist. Despite intense speculation, Banksy’s identity remains elusive, although he’s thought to be British and born in the 1970s.
Banksy has completely captivated public fascination in more recent years. He was listed in Time Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2010, among others like Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and Lady Gaga. So, why exactly is he important both within the art world and beyond?
What We Know About Banksy
His art career began in the early 1990s as part of a Bristol, England graffiti gang called DryBreadZ Crew. His early work can be solidly classified as graffiti, which is defined as illegal tagging of buildings. An artist with a global reputation whose work can be seen on walls from post-hurricane Louisiana to the Palestinian West Bank, he somehow has evaded attempts to identify him. In fact, even though he’s captured our interest, many of his fans want him to remain anonymous so he can keep working in the same shadowy ad subversive manner.
Techniques and Artwork
His work has evolved from graffiti to encompass works on canvas, film, sculpture and more. However, throughout all his work, Banksy encapsulates dark humor, social and political commentary (often in the form of critique) and themes of human condition in his work.
While Banksy’s reputation has evolved over the decades, his technique is distinctive—he uses stencils, and the overall aesthetic of his street artwork is consistent.
Banksy achieved widespread recognition—meaning beyond the underground graffiti scene—in the early 2000s. His 2010 documentary titled Exit Through the Gift Shop was nominated for an Academy Award and debuted at Sundance Film Festival. He’s also published some of his work and cheeky writing in a book, Wall, and Piece.
There are many, many examples of powerful and touching Banksy works. He often uses double entendres to make a concept especially hard-hitting. Take, for example, Season’s Greetings, in which a small child appears to be dancing in the snow. Once you turn the corner, you realize there is a trash bin on fire, and the “snow” is ash. This was a comment on pollution of the town it is painted in, Port Talbot. The residents of this small Wales town have suffered from breathing issues due to the air pollution caused by a massive nearby steel plant.
No matter what you think of Banksy, it’s indisputable that he’s captured the world’s attention, hearts, and frustration.
Themes in his Artwork
His work often employs political themes, capitalism, hypocrisy greed, and idiosyncrasies of Western society. He does this by depicting a variety of subjects: animals like rats and apes, civil servants like policeman, as well as children and the British royal family. He’s weighed in on political events like Brexit—he often focuses on British events and society.
He advocates a direct connection between himself and the audience. This is, in part, why he forgoes most of the formal art practices that most other contemporary artists employ to sell their work, and simply paints directly outside.
Banksy also critiques the art world in a very loud and unapologetic way.
In 2018, he made headlines after one of his artworks went up for auction—Balloon Girl—and subsequently shredded itself once the gavel went down declaring the sale. When the artwork shredded, it was given a new title: Love is in the Bin.This is one among many slights he’s made to the art world—meaning the world of auctions, exhibitions, fancy dinners and receptions, and expensive sales.
'The Banksy Effect’
Banksy’s influence goes beyond just making the occasional anti-capitalist sentiment. He’s made tangible waves in the art market—ironically enough—through his work.
Journalist Max Foster coined the term "the Banksy Effect” to describe the rise of street art as “high” and expensive art. Banksy's fame has literally transformed vandalism to coveted fine art.
Banksy's worldwide fame has transformed his artwork from acts of vandalism to sought-after high art pieces. For example, in 2021, Banksy sold a piece at auction for $20 million, with all proceeds going directly to Britain’s National Health Service amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
From a Bristol illegal street artist to a painter of global fame, Banksy is a one-named celebrity everyone knows by now—some love him, some love to hate him, but we certainly all know him and recognize his signature stencil style and satirical commentary.