An anonymous street artist who honed his talents on the streets of Bristol, Banksy went from tagging underpasses to one of the world’s most famous artists in a matter of years. Originally renowned for his stencil-based graffiti, Banksy has been embraced by the art establishment as one of their own - whether he likes it or not.
As little is known about the reclusive artist and he’s made a conscious decision to avoid the limelight, we’ll be telling his story through some of his most famous artworks, focusing primarily on the artistic themes and ideas that have emerged and evolved over the course of his career. We’re going to start with the artwork that announced his arrival on the national art scene, Girl with Balloon.
Girl with Balloon (2002)
Girl with Balloon was a series of stencilled artworks that first appeared in 2002. Sprayed around London, most famously on Waterloo Bridge in South Bank, these images introduced Banksy’s work to a more mainstream audience, transforming him from a lesser-known artist on the graffiti scene to a promising, young artistic talent with name recognition.
The image, often altered to reflect topical issues, has been reused by Banksy on several occasions and reappears in a number of different artworks. Despite coming early on in the Banksy story, it’s often the image most associated with the artist and remains remarkably popular. In 2017, a nationwide poll showed that Girl with Balloon was the UK public’s favourite artwork.
Pulp Fiction (2002)
Appearing at roughly the same time as Girl with Balloon, Pulp Fiction was a far larger piece painted near Old Street tube station in London. Featuring John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson as their iconic characters from the cult-classic Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction, Banksy substituted the two men’s guns for bananas.
Less politically cutting than later works - to the extent that there are questions as to whether the artwork actually contains a political message or not - it does include several artistic “signatures” that would reappear in future works. For instance, the piece is finished in a largely monochrome colour palette, with the exception of the bananas, which are picked out in a vivid yellow. A similar colour-contrast had already been successfully employed on Girl with Balloon and would be used again over the coming years.
In 2007, after five years in place, Transport for London removed the artwork, arguing that it contributed to "a general atmosphere of neglect and social decay which in turn encourages crime." The removal would spark a debate as to what extent street art counted as “real art” and whether Banksy’s artworks should be protected.
Turf War (2003)
Making the most of his success in 2002, Banksy held his first major exhibition in a warehouse in London’s East End. Secretive and short, the show featured animals prominently, establishing a theme that would reemerge regularly in his work over the next few years. Unlike future works, however, many of the animals in Turf War were alive and not simply artistic representations. Live sheep were painted with prison stripes, pigs were made up to resemble policemen and, most infamously, a cow was covered with Andy Warhol portraits.
It wasn’t all livestock, though. The exhibition also included several works that would become emblematic of Banksy’s work during this period. A punk reimagining of Winston Churchill, the placarded chimp and the urinating Coldstream guard all featured in Turf War’s brief but brilliant run.
The exhibition wasn’t without its controversy, with animal rights activists protesting the painting of animals and one chaining themself to the cow enclosure. Despite this, the event is now lauded as one of the most important exhibitions of the decade and offered us a thrilling insight into the artist’s key preoccupations. Most notably a strong distrust of the police, authority and surveillance state, a fascination with pop art’s fetishisation of celebrity and image, and animals as a recurring reference and artistic tool.
Crimewatch UK Has Ruined the Countryside for All of Us (2003)
While Banksy’s preference for anonymity might have originally stemmed from necessity, it also allowed him to play with the idea of the artist as a secretive, Robin Hood-like figure that lived outside the law. Though street art enthusiasts had long argued that their art form is just as legitimate as any other, many critics and observers often looked down on it as crude, childish vandalism. This allowed Banksy to play the outsider, the rebel and the revolutionary and to challenge societal norms and the stuffy and stifling world of “traditional” art.
In the autumn of 2003, a disguised Banksy entered the Tate Modern in London, rode the elevator to the second floor and made his way to room seven. There, with no one watching him, he quickly hung one of his own paintings and a small title card on the wall of the gallery. The title card revealed that the painting was named Crimewatch UK Has Ruined the Countryside for All of Us. It featured an oil rendering of an idyllic countryside scene, over which Banksy had stencilled police tape.
Described as a statement on modern “moral hysteria” and the media’s manipulation of public fear, the painting became more famous for the way it was displayed than its subject matter. The artist’s prank was discovered after a matter of hours, when the adhesive sticking the painting to the wall gave way and it came crashing down to the ground.
Crimewatch UK… played on the idea of graffiti as an act that typically involves trespassing and creating artwork in spaces that aren’t technically yours to use. In one sense, it can be seen as Banksy figuratively and literally stepping from the street to the gallery, straddling the line between “low” and “high” art and trying to knock down the barrier that separates them.
Interestingly, much of the discussion surrounding the artwork focuses on the act of sneakily hanging the painting in the Tate, rather than the contents of the painting itself. This is one of the first instances in which we see Banksy realise the power of performative art. His later works place an increasing focus on the value of artistic process, performance and action, relegating the actual image to secondary importance and, in some cases, even suggesting that the image itself is worthless. But more on that later!
Kissing Coppers (2004)
Appearing in 2004, on the side of the Prince Albert pub in Brighton, Kissing Coppers would certainly make a top five of Banksy’s best-known artworks. As a graffiti artist who made his name on the streets, Banksy has always been aware of the importance of location and context. Kissing Coppers demonstrated that he continued to value and be informed by these elements as his career developed.
Regarded as the LGBTQ+ capital of the UK, Brighton is home to the country’s most famous pride parade and celebration, making it an apt location for an artwork that centres on sexual identity. While there are several ways to interpret the work, the most popular seems to be that Kissing Coppers is a statement in favour of the normalisation and public acceptance of homosexuality. In 2019, The Other Art Fair in London chose the piece as Britain’s most iconic artwork.
Israeli Security Barrier (2005)
In 2005, Banksy artwork began appearing on the Israeli security barrier - a 708 km structure that’s often referred to as the West Bank Wall. Separating Palestinian and Israeli territories, this politically contentious barrier was erected by the Israeli government in what it described as an attempt to prevent terrorist acts. However, the wall is commonly criticised as a means of modern apartheid.
One such critic is Banksy. His artworks on the barrier generally take aim at the segregation it imposes, the way the wall overwhelmingly impacts Palestinian communities and the violence associated with the structure. Children feature heavily in the works, emphasising the impact the wall has on families and all those innocent individuals who never played a role in the previous generations’ conflicts. Similarly, it criticises the militarisation of life in the West Bank and Gaza, where military checkpoints are commonplace and many residents are subject to the whims of soldiers and armed forces.
Kate Moss Portraits (2006)
Banksy’s Kate Moss portraits marked the point at which the artist began enjoying financial success as well as critical acclaim. Consisting of six silk-screen prints, the series featured portraits of Kate Moss in the style of Andy Warhol’s colourful Marilyn Monroe paintings.
Sold for £54,500, almost double the expected price, the sale also symbolised the start of Banksy’s tricky struggle with commercial success. Having critiqued the establishment for so long, he was quickly becoming a part of the mainstream art world and his paintings were fetching thousands at auction. The artist’s relationship with the establishment and the perceived value of his works would become a major theme throughout much of his future output.
London Olympics (2012)
Banksy’s next important piece of work was the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. However, we’re going to stick to his paintwork and skip ahead to the stencils he produced around the time of the London Olympics.
While there was a great deal of excitement surrounding the 2012 Olympic Games, there were also questions as to whether the event was worth the cost. Though the rumblings of discontent were gradually drowned out by general giddiness in the lead up to the games, Banksy continued to make his criticisms clear by unveiling a series of artworks around London.
These pieces included Going for Mould, Hackney Welcomes the Olympics, and Child Labour, most of which featured images of athletes that had been altered to make a point about the games. Many of the works centred on whether such large public expenditure could be justified in the wake of the worst economic crisis in a generation, when large swathes of London and the UK were still living in poverty. Others focused on the role sports washing and patriotism have to play in diverting the public’s attention from the ills that afflict our political and economic systems.
Dismaland (2015) and Walled Off Hotel (2017)
Towards the middle of the decade, Banksy began working on larger projects that contained a performative, spatial or interactive element. In 2015, he created Dismaland, “a sinister twist on Disneyland” that critiqued the Disneyfication of culture and contrasted its bubblegum-happiness with the grim reality of life in modern Britain. Held in a disused lido in Weston-super-Mare, it attracted large crowds to the seaside town and, once over, all materials used in the exhibition were donated to the Calais migrant camp to be used for construction purposes.
In 2017, Banksy returned to Palestine to open the Walled Off Hotel - a hotel in Bethlehem that overlooks the West Bank Wall and the militarised border. Designed to critique the political situation in the West Bank, the hotel was designed by Banksy in conjunction with several other artists and is thought to have welcomed more than 150,000 visitors since opening.
Canvas of Girl with Balloon (2018)
In 2018, Banksy surprised, thrilled and outraged the established art world when he sold an original Girl with Balloon print for £1.04 million at Sotheby’s auction house in London. However, it wasn’t the price tag that had people excited. Just moments after the sale was confirmed, the print passed through a shredder hidden within the frame, destroying most of the painting in the process.
The prank caught the attention of the press and Banksy was once again centre stage. Justifying the act by arguing that destruction can be an act of creation, it seems that Banksy may also have been making a pointed dig at the art establishment and some individuals’ ability and willingness to pay ridiculously large sums for paintings. After the shredding, the sale was fully finalised and experts believe the value of the artwork increased by approximately 50% due to the damage sustained.
Anything we’ve missed?
As an artist, Banksy continues to evolve and adapt to his role as an established and successful artist whose artworks now sell for millions. Though this commercial success might seem to contradict or undermine much of the political messaging that underpins his previous work, it’s an artistic tension that Banksy’s willing to embrace and play with - as demonstrated by the destruction of Canvas of Girl with Balloon.
As his projects continue to grow in scope and scale, we’re sure we’ll see more innovative and imaginative work from the king of street art. Whether that’s traditional stencil work or large-scale installations, like Dismaland, remains to be seen.
If you think we’ve missed out any of Banksy’s most important pieces, let us know. We’d love to hear from readers as to what Banksy artworks hit the spot and which fall short, so get in touch!