NEW YORK — The street artist known as Banksy is both a known and unknown commodity. Yes, a commodity, as crass as that may sound. The famously anonymous street artist has created hundreds of artworks on public buildings and structures while successfully guarding his or her identity – a serious feat in a world where social media abounds and millions carry camera-equipped smart phones in their pockets. The artist lets the art speak for itself. Still, that hasn’t stopped some from trying to commodify Bansky’s art, which has brought six-figure prices, even topping the million-dollar mark at auction.
A product of the British underground art scene, Banksy is known for biting sociopolitical commentary that is often satirical. The artist is well known for using dark humor and irony to address serious subjects such as the treatment of displaced people in Europe, war, military oppression in Palestine, human rights, and consumerism.
Banksy first appeared in the 1990s with stencil-based murals and street art installations featuring motifs such a rat or a child holding a heart-shape balloon. As the artist’s fame grew, admirers and profit-seekers started breaking apart or removing entire walls to obtain the art. The artist also sold editioned artworks for the wall in the late 1990s and early 2000s through then-gallery representative Steve Lazarides. Through these acts, Banksy has become a celebrity in the art world, with many sanctioned and unsanctioned works bringing big prices in the marketplace. So many people have ripped off the artist by selling knockoffs that Banksy created an agency, Pest Control Office Limited, to manage the artist’s image, vet works, and publicly sell a small selection of them.
During a trademark dispute with a greeting card company, Banksy launched a London pop-up shop titled Gross Domestic Product that sold artworks for a few weeks in 2019, including an ironic one that referenced artists’ cult of celebrity and the big money of the art world. The art print, Banksquiat, was labeled with a tag noting it was an homage to the late New York graffiti pioneer Jean-Michel Basquiat. The artist ultimately lost the trademark case, however.
Political commentary figures heavily into the artist’s subject matter, as in Slave Labour (Bunting Boy), an aerosol spray paint on concrete work embellished with plastic flags. Bansky created this image in May 2012 on an outside wall of a London discount chain store. It is thought that Bansky created it to protest children being exploited in sweatshops, forced to make souvenirs for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and for the Diamond Jubilee celebration later that year. The child in the artwork is working away at a sewing machine, stitching Union Jack bunting. “One of the most publicized and poignant examples of Banksy’s social commentary, Slave Labour helped bring international attention to the exploitation of youth,” according to Julien’s Auctions, which sold it in November 2018 for $600,000 plus the buyer’s premium.
Banksy’s humor extends to the artist’s own career. Banksy’s verified Instagram account, which has more than 10 million followers, features a short bio that simply reads, “overrated graffiti artist.” Banksy is also responsible for what may have been the most powerful public comment on the commercialization of art: the notorious October 2018 auction at Sotheby’s London. Just after a Banksy artwork, Girl With a Balloon, sold for $1.4 million at the auction, a paper shredder that the artist had hidden in the frame activated and shredded the artwork as shocked auction-goers watched. The stunt made headlines worldwide and, paradoxically, might have had the effect of making the elusive artist’s pieces even more valuable. As for the fate of the spectacularly ruined Girl With a Balloon, a week of negotiations following the sale ended in an agreement that left it in the possession of the winning bidder. That person gained not only a unique piece of art, but a great story to share at parties.
Banksy continues to be a hot ticket. An exhibition, Banksy: Genius or Vandal, designed as an immersive experience along the lines of the Van Gogh shows touring the country, will open in New York City in August 2021. It has already traveled to 15 cities around the world. The artist has not authorized the exhibit.
Graffiti has been around for centuries and is seen as reflecting the voice of everyday people. In its current form as contemporary street art, it challenges society to look at itself and question the status quo. While generations of urban street artists have literally made their mark on the world and continue to do so, none are as iconic and well known as Banksy, elusive as the artist may be.