Banksy: The Elusive Street Graffiti Artist

Girl with Balloon is one of Banksy's famous works of art.
Girl with Balloon is one of Banksy’s famous works of art.

What is art? Over the years, people have attempted answer this question, with each person providing a different answer. History has taught people that art appears in many forms and styles, from cave paintings and realism to impressionism and abstract. Art can even serve a purpose, from preserving a culture to making a statement. For the elusive street artist known as Banksy, he creates art using satire and relies upon a dark sense of humor to send a message.

You Have Beautiful Eyes appeared at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
You Have Beautiful Eyes is among a few of Banksy’s own work to appear in a museum. This particular piece appeared at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Banksy is known for his provocative artwork displayed all over the world. He’s known for his political and social overtones in his art pieces. Although his identity remains unknown, it is believed by many that Banksy was born in Bristol, England possibly in 1974. According to Will Ellsworth-Jones, Bristol during the 1980s was “working-class, run-down, and unwelcoming to strangers.” The article “Banksy” states that a camaraderie with DryBreadZ Crew, a Bristol graffiti group, marks the beginning of Banksy’s artistic career (“Banksy”). As Banksy’s signature style came into fruition, the article “Banksy” declares that during the 1990s, Banksy “began using stencils predominately.” While Banksy began his artistic career as a providential artist, his artwork started to appear throughout England. Banksy pulled an elaborate stunt when he was able to successfully leave his own painting in several museums, including the Modern Museum of Art in New York and British Museum in England.

banksy west bank guard
Girl and a Soldier is one of the nine art pieces created on the West Bank.

After a series of art pieces painted on a concrete wall in the West Bank, Banksy became internationally renowned (Ellsworth-Jones). According to an article published by the BBC, Banksy painted nine images on the Palestinian side of the barrier. On one of the paintings, Banksy creates an image of escape, portraying two young boys carrying buckets and the wall stripped off to reveal an island. With this piece, Banksy brings attention to the wall. For Banksy, the wall prohibits children access from the beautiful island. In another image known as Girl and a Soldier, the art piece shows a young girl frisking a West Bank guard. The meaning of the painting reveals the end of innocence for children. For children living in the West Bank, they have become immune to the political conflict. By having the soldier get searched by the little girl, Banksy reveals shows a reversal of roles.

Banksy Kissing Coppers
The Kissing Coppers is one of Banksy’s more popular pieces.

Throughout his artistic career, Banksy has attracted attention from many, including artists, celebrities, and those who believe his artwork vandalizes property. Banksy has stirred controversy, with many of his pieces deemed scandalous. One of his scandalous pieces was created while he was residing in New York City.

In October 2013, Banksy announced that he would soon move to New York City, creating one piece every day. The HBO documentary, Banksy Takes New York, chronicles Banksy’s stay. Unlike Exit Through the Gift Shop, this documentary is in no way associated with Banksy, meaning that the film was neither produced nor directed by Banksy. Instead, the film functions as “a reflection of what New Yorkers experienced that month” (Banksy Takes New York).

Crazy Horse Banksy
Crazy Horse Riding through the Lower East Side to a WikiLeaks Soundtrack

On October 9th, Banksy revealed one of his most memorable, albeit controversial pieces. Banksy spray-painted horses wearing goggles and people onto an abandoned car and van. In addition, the piece was accompanied with audio, the sounds of gunshots firing and soldiers communicating through the radio. Banksy’s piece was inspired by a video released by Wikileaks, depicting U.S. soldiers in Iraq accidentally shooting and brutally murdering innocent civilians and children (Banksy Takes New York).

Banksy makes a statement of the meat industry
Banksy makes a statement of the meat industry.

Another popular display that appeared during Banksy’s New York residency features plush bleating lambs in a truck. This piece is known as The Sirens of the Lambs, and is an attack by Banksy upon the meat industry.”

In Boston, Banksy presented a piece with the words “Follow your Dreams,” with a painter standing nearby. Written across the words “Follow your Dreams” is the word “Cancelled.” The exact location of this particular artwork is in the low-income area of Chinatown in Boston, Massachusetts.

Banksy's Guantanamo Bay detainee display attracted some unwanted attention at Disneyland.
Banksy’s Guantanamo Bay detainee display attracted some unwanted attention at Disneyland.

Since the artwork is located in a low-income area, the piece provides a profound meaning, allowing Banksy to comment on class. Another memorable event occurred in Disneyland in 2006. In the documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy placed a life-sized replica of a Guantanamo Bay detainee near the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. According to a report by BBC news, a spokesperson argued that Banksy’s purpose “was to highlight the plight of terror suspects at the controversial detention centre at Cuba” (“Artist Banksy Targets Disneyland”).

Banksy naked man
The Naked Man was painted on the side of a sexual health clinic. Sadly, the mural was later vandalized.

Apart from raising controversy, Banksy’s artwork also can be playful. A canvas painting known as Dorothy Police Search depicts the character Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz getting her basket searched by a police officer. Another popular piece,The Naked Man, raised headlines, causing people to vote in favor to keep the mural. In the end, the City Council of Bristol approved and ruled in favor to keep the piece. The Naked Man depicts three people: a woman, her husband looking out the window, unaware of the naked man dangling from the window with one hand. It appears the naked man is having an affair with the woman, and her husband angrily searches for her lover.

Over the years, Banksy’s identity has come under question, where fans of his work speculate the artist’s true identity. In a New York Times article, Michiko Kakutani states that Banksy chooses to live an obscure life due to “the illegal nature of graffiti…[and] that authenticating a street piece could be like ‘a signed confession’:” however, Kakutani argues that because Banksy “maintain[s] his anonymity,” he relies on his anonymity “as another tool in his arsenal…to burnish his own mystique” (Kakutani).

One Nation Under CCTV Banksy
Unfortunately, this piece has been removed. In this piece, Banksy argues against CCTV cameras that surveil the public; however, the brilliant Banksy created this piece a few feet away from a CCTV camera.

In Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy argues that street art is not “all about the money.” Aside from depicting well-known street artists and capturing the street art movement, the documentary film also sheds light into how consumerism ruins art. For example, Banksy explains that most artists undergo a process of steps: starting out small and gradually finding and building their signature style. Banksy, however, argues that his friend and aspiring artist Thierry Guetta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash) lacks his own artistic style, producing pieces that are inspired by several of the street artists he met. Finally, Guetta has Banksy and Shepard Fairey, a fellow street artist, provide a quote to promote Guetta’s gallery and also create publicity: if Banksy and Shepard Fairey approve of Mr. Brainwash, then he must be a good artist.

A brilliant and provocative artist, Banksy challenges social norms. Banksy uses irony and satire to make a statement. In addition, Banksy sheds light onto important and serious issues, as seen in his Crazy Horse Riding through the Lower East Side to a WikiLeaks Soundtrack installation. Most people, however, feel his art serves as vandalism, where his installations disrupt order and his artwork either destroys public property or causes controversy. Yet Banksy appears to be aware of world events and social injustice. He skillfully creates intellectually stimulating works of art that provide his audience with a fresh and controversial look at those events and injustices. It is through his art that inspires people to take drastic action.

Works Cited

“Artist Banksy Targets Disneyland.” BBC News. BBC, 11 Sept. 2006. Web.

“Banksy.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web.

Banksy Does New York. Dir. Chris Moukarbel. Home Box Office (HBO), 2014.

Ellsworth-Jones, Will. “The Story Behind Banksy.” Smithsonian.

Exit Through the Gift Shop. Dir. Banksy. Oscilloscope, 2010.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Stalking a Most Prolific Phantom.” Rev. of Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, by Will Ellsworth-Jones. The New York Times 17 Feb. 2013. Web.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Jacque Venus Tobias

    Amanda, thanks for creating this piece on street art. The works you selected are very interesting, and I always appreciate learning more about other artists. Great job.

  2. Banksy was once cool, subversive and political. He or They once reminded me of early British punk – the group Crass in particular. I was a great admirer of Crass in the early 80s and their political stance.

    Since He/They have become “popular” though the Banksy edge has been greatly dulled.

    Saw the film “Exit through the Gift Shop ” and didn’t think much of it. Bunch of slick hipster “irony” and lack of real talent passing as some kind of subversive style. The film was shit as a generational statement. I feel sorry for the “lost” youth of today with no real political convictions or ideas.

    • cwinegargarrett

      I agree with your statement, KayKay, about the edge being greatly dulled by popularity. What was once provocative has become commercialized and too popular, which is a shame. Perhaps “Banksy” is not one person, but a collective of people that have shifted throughout time into a more materialistic and money-centered organization.

  3. What’s the deal with “Mr. Brainwash”.

  4. Banksy is great, “Exit through the the Gift Shop” an unusually interesting and amusing picture. He’s darling of the media now, but he’s still important. Graffiti as something more than teen arts decoratifs- hats off and more power to him.

  5. I LOVE his work but, Id never Vote him into Office!!!

  6. ‘Banksy’
    very appropriate name.

  7. DClarke

    Fantastic. You really have a great knowledge of the artist and his work. It was very informative and I love learning something new about an artists, especially when they are so elusive!

  8. i feel a little awkward involving myself in a discussion on art because, frankly, i know bugger all about it. But as a layman’s opinion, got to say used to find his work held a real fascination

  9. Michell

    Banksy work reminds me of a 16 year old wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

  10. Hold on was Banksy not engaging in a criminal act when he stenciled the walls?

  11. I admire Banksy’s work, he is a genius.

  12. I’m sick of Banksy… He reminds in some strange way of the “punk” band Greenday – the apparent political substance is entirely superficial and faddish.

  13. Rigoberto

    You’ve got to respect Banksy for making a rather lucrative career.

  14. Ester Maier

    But is it art?

  15. Miss Oakes

    As an American I would like personally say thanksy to banksy


    Banksy’s awesome. All artists are far better than ravenously greedy politicians.

  17. YsabelGo

    I’ve seen the Girl with the Balloon image before. but I never knew who was the artist. Thanks for showing his work!

  18. If Banksy is this righteous artist who hates capitalism and refuses to sign his work so people can’t sell it, how is he worth 20 million?????

  19. Lacroix

    It’s good, it’s free, it’s reproducible and it’s impermanent. What’s not to like?

    • It’s boring, repetitive and like hearing the same joke a thousand times over, except because it is in public spaces you can’t ignore it. And worst of all his imitators cover every urban experience in the same childish banality. In short it has the artistic integrity of a dog marking territory. No care for others space just his own publicity.

  20. Vandalism later being vandalized can’t be considered sad.

  21. Munjeera

    I found your neutral tone interesting. What do you think of Banksy? Do you agree or disagree with his or her methods? Do you think Banksy is setting out to accomplish what he or she wants?

    Please respond.

  22. Some of you Folks try to ‘dig’ deep when fact Banksy is riding the Surface. He knows most people read at an 9th Grade level, period. he’s a Messanger, thats all!

  23. Great points on Banksy! I’ve seen a number of anonymous “copy” examples, riding the fame of his ideas.

  24. Interesting points on Banksy’s work! You could have gone deeper in your research, but the article is still solid and informative. Banksy keeps inspiring and fascinating! It would be interesting to look at how we are fascinated by mysterious artists, and how Banksy plays with his identity and chooses to hide himself – is that a way to go against society’s codes about artists and always showing off our image or is it more of a marketing/publicity tool?

  25. I really love your inclusion of the two cops kissing. I’d be interested in reading more interpretative work on the piece itself. Knowing the context would help me situate the piece in both time and space. Thank you for sharing.

  26. Banksy’s role in contemporary art cannot be disputed: he is an advocate for social justice in the purest sense, despite his medium being one of controversy. As a whole, his works are thoughtful and creative with clear messages broadcasted throughout the world. Isn’t that the aim of artwork, to inspire us not with a fixed outlook to agree upon, but to inspire the viewer with more questions than answers about what they’re seeing and why they see it?

  27. Banksy is one of my favorite street artists who talks about topics that people usually ignore and refuse to talk about but make them trendy where people want to physically have his work rather than care for the meaning behind it after. I love his messages even when people rather try to collect his work instead of embracing it.

  28. His pieces have messages and some are graphic, this has the possibility of making people uncomfortable or offended. He wants his messages to be seen and to be heard and if he needs to get graphic to do this then it might be the best approach. You don’t typically get remembered for playing nice.

  29. Banksy is definitely one of the many artists who helped to draw a line between “street art” and “graffiti.” Despite this dichotomy between graffiti and street art, I always ponder though if neither art form should be considered more culturally valid than the other.

  30. I admire Banksy’s work mainly because he takes a simple idea and transforms it into a statement that provokes even the ‘man in the street’.

  31. I admire Banksy and the messages he works into his art. My fear is in how popular he is becoming. People have over the year made him into a household name and instead of causing social change he’s just seen as a good artist. Instead of making the change he hopes for he is becoming absorbed in mainstream art by the same people he wishes to change. Street art has become too “cool” to make a difference at the moment. Until people take the ideas more seriously and not as a money making system like Mr. Brainwash it’ll never have the same impact.

  32. cwinegargarrett

    My biggest issue with the work of Banksy lately is the work being brought into the world of museums. Having any of these pieces brought into such a stiff environment of elitist entitlement is so entirely ironic in regards to the controversial foundation of Banksy, it is totally shocking, and not in a fantastic art way. It’s sad. It reminds me of any historical art that was once shocking and simply became a new catalyst for those with money to buy their way into the world. My biggest question related to Banksy is: what’s next? What can possibly be more shocking than anything that has already been done?

  33. Valeria Sharivker

    Everyone has seen Banksy’s work at least once, but it is always interesting to learn more in depth information and analysis. Good piece.

  34. it is very interesting for me to see how can Art especially,Graffiti art can effect peoples lives.True sometime the art work can vandalize a view. For example, by sharing Banksy’s point of view of about his own artic background and having the capability of taking a simple idea and transforming it into a message that could provoke a person’s sense of humor is unique and interesting to learn from.

  35. It is very interesting for me to see how Graffiti art can effect peoples lives.For example, sometime the art work can vandalize a view that are illustrated based on Banksy’s artistic background by having the capability of taking a simple idea and being able to transforming it as his approach
    and provoking person’s sense of humor is unique and interesting to learn from.

  36. I have been a fan since I heard of him. Which was only last year. Some of these images I haven’t heard of before. I love that he makes messages in low income areas. Ithe feels more like he is their with the people and in full support to help social needs.

  37. Banksy is a true artist and his social commentaries are always on point.

  38. I love Banksy and am always a little shocked when I encounter people who have not heard of him. I think the whole point of art is to perform out of the box, I understand why people think it is vandalism, but it is more art than anything else. The world is his canvas, as it should be everyone’s.

  39. Jen Marler

    Thank you for a comprehensive overview! I love Banksy’s work, though feel it is overplayed in the media, at times. I would like to see more focus on some of the other artists featured in “Exit Through The Gift Shop”. The beauty of his art, I feel, is the transience of all graffiti. It seems paradoxical when it becomes a collector’s item.

    One of my favorite Banksy’s stories is that he installed himself on a sidewalk in Central Park, surrounded by collection of his own images for sale & was largely ignored (passers by assuming that these were cheap reproductions). His anonymity propels the intrigue surrounding his work.

  40. I feel like in the art world graffiti was looked down upon for a long time, but recently it has gained a lot of attention for its message rather than the actual art itself.

  41. Banksy is one the greatest and most creative artist to have come through our generation. He uses places and world issues to create an image for what he believes in. He not only inspires many people but he changes peoples ideas of what is right and wrong.

  42. Recently, Banksy has been credited with the “Dismaland” exhibit: It’s an interesting piece parodying (obviously) Disneyland.

    Still, over the last few years, I’ve been a bit skeptical about Banksy’s work; from the “Girl and a Soldier” piece to “Exit through the Gift Shop,” I have conflicting view of the artist’s work. Is s/he a sophist, offering counterpoints to social, cultural, and political issues of the day? Perhaps. However, more and more, the artist’s work seems to “preach to the choir,” so to speak. The works seems focused on producing aesthetic commentaries from a particular point of view, but I don’t know that those works are so much ‘subversive’ as they are ‘the other side of the coin’ in an argument. In other words, these works seem to be the “con” view to the dominant “pro” view.

    For example, the “Pier Pressure” ( work seems to uphold the view that offshore drilling is environmentally unsound (and I agree); however, does the project really offer anything new to the pro/con debates surround the issue? If it does, I don’t see it. I see “Dismaland” in a similar way, as well as the “Girl and a Soldier” and “CCTV” pieces.

  43. Lauren Gutierrez

    I like Banksy’s work because socially and politically it has the ability to inspire action. The fact that he remains anonymous only further emphasizes that his goal isn’t to become famous himself, or to “trouser all the cash” as he’s said before, but to make meaningful art. In the film “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, the point was to draw the line between artists like himself or Shepard Fairey and others like Mr. Brainwash who appropriated their art then commercialized it, thereby making it meaningless. It’s interesting to see what’s to come of contemporary art because it is so subjective.

  44. Banksy seems to pave the way for the Guerilla advertising movement. He basically created advertisements with his works. You never knew when his work would be painted over or washed away. I love how he combines the fine art world with the world of advertising.

  45. Very strangely worded article… I found the writing to be verbose, and often tautologous. Sometimes you attempt to explicate Banksy’s work in agonising detail, even when the art mentioned is featured in an image. Do you take the audience for fools? Banksy’s work loses it’s meaning when you attempt to extract meaning from it. It’s like explaining a joke to someone and expecting them to laugh. Also, most of Banksy’s work is implicit and you suggest a finite explanation to it. Overall poorly written article.

  46. One positive that I can see from the artist is that he draws humans that look like humans with realistic proportions.

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