Perhaps more than anyone other graffiti artist, Banksy has come to embody acceptance of his chosen form as art and graffiti’s unwillingness to fit into the way we usually consume art. Banksy’s work rebels against the usual means of looking at art, as graffiti has since the beginning, but also continues to work against how we purchase art as well. All quite the lisrt of accomplishments for someone who may not even exist.
Banksy is the pseudonym of a person (or persons) whose identity (or identities) is a closely guarded secret, we are unsure who he (or she) may be. He operates in secret across the globe, usually working with what must be large stencils and a vast network of resources. Some estimate Banksy’s operations in his hometown of Bristol, England would have to include a vast warehouse, but exactly where this warehouse is, and whose name is on the rental agreement, is still one of the artist’s many guarded secrets.
Work attributed to Banksy began in the 90s in Bristol, where the artist is presumed to have grown up. His graffiti, like many in the underground England scene at that time, relies heavily on stencils, probably for how quickly they can be applied. His art touches on themes of anti-government and anti-establishment, especially on the subject of war, a frequent target in his work. He also uses images of monkeys and other animals to undermine authority figures, as well as a healthy dose of humour, for a distinct look, voice, and aesthetic that can be quickly be seen as “Banksy.”
Another distinctive feature of Banksy’s art is how it speads over just a single wall, often using multiple surfaces, including ceilings and floors, to move the boundaries of graffiti. Since graffiti is technically vandalism, Banksy’s insistence on using multiple surfaces defies the legal issues surrounding his art form, and creates more challenges for those needing to clean it up.
But for all his use of monkeys and humour, how Banksy sells and distributes his art is equally mischievous, perhaps best illustrated in his recent trip to New York. He apparently set up an art stand in Central Park to sell originals of his art for as little as $5, not revealing whose art it really was. Those who bought the pieces didn’t know until the stand had long disappeared that the art was Banksy’s and would have easily sold for a hundred times the price. Much like Andy Warhol, a man whom Banksy has imitated on occasion, Banksy pushes not only the boundaries of what is considered art, but also how we consume it. If Warhol can sell a painting of a Campbell’s soup can for thousands of dollars, why can’t Banksy sell original pieces for hundreds times less than their estimated value? Graffiti, at its core, is about displaying art, both in places that are difficult to regulate, but also difficult to monetize. Banksy’s mischievous marketing and art distribution avoids many of the usual means of making money as an artist.
Still, Banksy’s carefully guarded identity is a testament to his ability to stay secret (even with an Oscar nomination under his belt for Exit Through the Gift Shop), but also to the respect he has even within his own community. During his trip to New York, many local graffiti artists professed to know him (reports also suggest The Daily Mail has his name on file, but refuses to release it), but no one has yet broken his secret. To do so would probably ruin the man from Bristol who’s changed graffiti forever, but no one so far has decided to cash in on such a valuable secret. Until then, Banksy remains a secret, despite being everywhere.