While ultimately subjective, the term art refers to any of the conscious decorative forms of communication that are practiced throughout the world. Webster's Online Dictionary defines art as: "The products of human creativity", "The creation of beautiful or significant things", "A superior skill that you can learn by study and practice and observation" and "Photographs or other visual representations in a printed publication". Banksy's body of work shines as a dynamic example of all of those things. His design and use of stencils stands as a strong counterbalance against the closed-minded view of many that Graffiti is without artistic merit, or that it is innately synonymous with vandalism simply because it is primarily executed using spray paint and markers instead of sculpting tools or a paintbrush. He refuses to let his work be policed by Hip Hop or fine art purists who try to limit him by labeling him and balking at the price tags attached to his pieces. Graffiti as a socio-political tool and art form has existed for centuries, and works by masters such as Banksy should definitely be appreciated and respected as modern fine art.
Many Graffiti artists also practice stenciling, and by 2000 Banksy had specialized in the art and began exhibiting his works (Collins 2). Evidence of artistic stenciling has been found that dates back almost 30,000 years (Jacobs), but modern stenciling refers to the process in which lettering or a design is cut into a sheet of acetate or card so that ink or paint applied to the sheet will reproduce the image on the surface beneath. Banksy’s pieces are often satirical, and they feature bold and humorous images occasionally combined with slogans. The majority of his work expresses an anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-establishment or pro-freedom stance. Subjects include animals, policemen, soldiers, children, politicians, the environment and the elderly. His unique combination of Hip Hop infused graffiti flavor and a distinctive stenciling technique has made him a relatively wealthy worldwide phenom in creative circles, but not without his fair share of detractors.
An October 2007 story on the BBC website featured a segment revealing that the Tower Hamlets Council in London had decided to treat all Banksy works as vandalism and that they should be removed (BBC News). Peter Gibson, a spokesperson for Keep Britain Tidy, asserted that “Banksy's work is simple vandalism”, saying “The political purpose behind his 'vandalism' is reminiscent of the Ad Jammers or subvertising movement, who deface corporate advertising to change the intended message and hijack the advert. (Howe)” Banksy has also come under fire by those who seem to consider him a sell-out because of unsubstantiated reports of corporate commissions for companies like the shoe giant Puma (Shtikman), word that he may have charged organizations such as Greenpeace for charity work (maxpc), and the fact that his works routinely reach the six figure price range (Knelman). He has also found himself in the crosshairs of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) for his decision to completely paint a full sized live elephant and keep it on display in his Barely Legal gallery exhibition in Los Angeles last year (Black). Still, the largest resistance that he faces is the incredible effect that the sight of a spray paint can has on otherwise logical human beings. There are many people in politics, law enforcement, media, education, and even art circles that look at a canvas or wall mural differently once they find out it was done by spraying the paint on the target surface instead of using a traditional brush to render the image.
Regardless of the incredible amount of technical skill and creativity that is required to do a piece (“piece” is short for masterpiece, and is a full Graffiti Art mural usually rendered in spray paint), the prejudice against Hip Hop and its elements will not allow many to see beyond what they consider to be vandalism. Graffiti is the name for images or lettering scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in any manner on property, and there are clear examples going back to Ancient Egypt (Fildes), Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire (Von Joel). The Mayan site of Tikal in Guatemala contains ancient examples (Coe 59), and Viking examples can be found in Rome and in Ireland (Streets). Raphael, Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio and Filippino Lippi visited the ruins of Nero's Domus Aurea, and left their name before returning with what would become the elaborate and ornamental grottesche (or grotesque) style of decoration (Guest). Even the rendering of frescoes and murals involves leaving images and writing on wall surfaces. The modern Graffiti movement has always been multi-tiered. Bombers cover the environment with personal signatures called tags and throw-ups (a name usually painted very quickly with two or three colors or outlined on a surface with one color). Other Graffiti artists gravitate towards doing more complex and elaborate pieces, although many attempt to do both. Since its inception, Graffiti has been acknowledged (at least by an enlightened minority) as an art movement, and many artists' lives revolve around it daily. Modern Graffiti art has been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide, yet artists like Banksy still don’t get the respect or appreciation that they deserve for their contribution to (or campaign against) pop culture. Still, it was encouraging to see Graffiti art celebrated at Brooklyn Museum as a contemporary art form that began in New York's outer boroughs and reached great heights in the early '80s with the work of Lee, Crash, Daze, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Johnson).
Much of Banksy's artwork can be seen around the streets of London and surrounding suburbs, though his work is sprinkled throughout the world. He has painted on Israel's controversial West Bank barrier (Jones), painted in areas controlled by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas, Mexico (Socialist), and placed subverted artworks in the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York (Kennedy). Yes, there is a fine line between Graffiti Art and vandalism. Yes, some of Banksy’s works are blatant and extreme. Yes, art is subjective, yet he clearly meets the defined criteria. With all of the award winning, culturally accepted, big business commercial graffiti (generally referred to as advertising) that we are all subjected to everyday, his work is dynamic, thought provoking, refreshing and fun. The graphic skill, sense of aesthetics, creativity and technical prowess displayed by the true artists in this modern movement should put an end to any questions about the artistic merit of Graffiti masters such as Banksy.
BBC News. "Artist Banksy 'captured in photo'"
Oct. 31, 2007
Black, Neu. "Featured Artist - Banksy"
Oct. 18, 2006
Chaundy, Bob. "Banksy"
Sept. 15, 2006
Coe, William R. "Tikal: A Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins", Pg.59
Collins, Lauren. “Banksy Was Here”, Pg. 2
May 14, 2007
Fildes, Alan. "Graffiti in the Temples of Ancient Egypt"
Nov. 19, 2007
Guest House In Italy. "Rome - Domus Aurea"
Howe, Jeff. "Art Attack"
Jacobs, James Q. “The Dawn of Prehistoric Art”
Johnson, Ken. "When Aerosol Outlaws Became Insiders: Graffiti Art at the Brooklyn Museum"
June 30, 2006
Jones, Sam. "Spray can prankster tackles Israel's security barrier"
Aug. 5, 2005
Kennedy, Randy "Need Talent to Exhibit in Museums? Not This Prankster"
Mar. 24, 2005
Knelman, Joshua. "Graffiti goes six-figure legit"
Aug. 6, 2007
maxpc.co.uk. "The alternative marketeers NO.2: The stenciller"
Pryor, Fiona. "On the Trail of Artist Banksy"
Feb. 8, 2007
Shtikman. "Banksy, Pictures on Walls & Puma Snuggling Up?"
Sept. 19, 2006
Socialist Worker Online. "Street art 5: Banksy and guerrilla art"
Streets Of Dublin. "Ancient Graffiti"
Von Joel, Mike. "Urbane Guerillas: Street Art, Graffiti & Other Vandalism"
Oct. 18, 2006