Last semester, I wrote a ten-page research paper on Banksy. I can tell you more than you’d want to know about his persona, his techniques, his themes, and what little we’ve surmised about his origins. But what strings all of that together can be summed up in a single sentence: Banksy is cool because everything he does is illegal.
Banksy is the pseudonym of an increasingly notorious British graffiti artist, who works with a team of friends and public relations mediators–all sworn to grave secrecy–to protect his identity in order to evade arrest. This makes it nearly impossibly to lay out an accurate timeline of his life, and we can only attempt to discern formative events and influences directly from his art. Theories abound (Banksy is Robert Banks, Robin Gunningham, more than one person), helped along by questionable photographic “evidence” and propagated by the Internet. It’s lucky he’s working in the digital age; technology ensconces the real Banksy in a shroud of conflicting anecdotes, each harder to verify than the last. Through this static, though, we’ve interpreted themes in his art as well as our most trustworthy source–covert interviews with the enigma himself–to arrive at the conclusion that he was born in the mid- to late 1970’s in Bristol, England.
Banksy is famous primarily for his stencil work, which is distinctive both stylistically and ideologically. Stencils are an ideal medium for graffiti artists: they’re cheap, requiring only a utility knife and some spare cardboard (easily nicked from various establishments’ dumpsters) to make. They create wonderfully stark lines, which make for striking images that can be replicated in perpetuity. Most importantly, they’re fast enough to use that you’ll have plenty of time to run away from the cops afterwards. Banksy’s are done mainly in black-and-white, sparingly and pointedly colored so as to direct your eye to the most important aspect of the piece.
Alright, let’s return to our overarching theme here for a moment: legality and rebellion. Banksy’s intent, seen through both the content of his work and the very medium itself, is to bypass the institutional and socioeconomic barriers between the average person and art (its creation and patronage). He uses recurring characters to speak for those who are underrepresented: placard-toting rats that symbolize England’s working class, children growing up in a world that seems to promise better things than it can provide. He distorts iconic images to express messages of anti-authoritarianism, anti-consumerism, and anti-violence: mitigating the power of law enforcement officials by degrading them, subverting the original intent of film sequences. Even the location and materials speak to the drive for free and accessible expression: no one can charge you for looking at a painting on the side of a building, and as long as you’re cunning enough, it’s free to paint your message there in the first place.
Possibly the most exemplary method Banksy uses to this end is a practice now known as “art terrorism.” Banksy, disguised with a false nose and fake facial hair, installs his provocative reinterpretations of art and artifacts in prestigious museums without their consent. If there’s a more a direct way of saying “screw you and your snobbery,” I can’t think of it.
Now, it’s important to understand that Banksy most likely grew up under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. Thatcher deconstructed the welfare state as Britain knew it and cut spending in an effort to create a prosperous “classless society” based on free-market capitalism. Unfortunately, her tactics backfired, causing unemployment to skyrocket and alienating England’s poor. If our suspicions are right about Banksy’s upbringing, there’s almost no way he didn’t see people he cared about—a parent, older siblings if he had them, family friends—lose their jobs or suffer from wage cuts. Even worse, the government made no attempt to sympathize with the working class’s concerns; strikes were common and often met with police brutality. To add insult to injury, Thatcher’s crew insisted—and politicians as recent as Tony Blair have done the same—that all Englishmen had become middle class. It’s as if the government meant to provoke the working class’s resentment. Banksy is a product of a seemingly indifferent, borderline antagonistic government, and thus a member of a politically jaded generation.
Banksy is cool because everything he does is illegal. Not because he’s an overgrown juvenile delinquent or an ersatz rebel, but because he irreverently and unabashedly dodges the need for approval from artistic establishments and succeeds in using caustic wit to draw his embittered peers into current events.