Pseudonymous artist Banksy is as much an enigma in the United Kingdom, believed to be his home country, as anywhere. Despite the British media’s endless speculation over the artist’s true identity, he remains an enigma.
In a 2003 interview published in The Guardian, British writer and journalist Simon Hattenstone described Banksy as being white, scruffy, and 28 years old, commenting that the artist had a silver tooth and wore jeans, a T-shirt, a silver chain, and a silver earring. From what little is known about him, Banksy is believed to have not only started his career as a street artist at 14 after having been expelled from school, but also spent time in prison for petty crime.
As Simon Hattenstone explained, anonymity is vital to Banksy since graffiti is illegal in the UK. Banksy is believed to have spent much of the 1990s in Easton, Bristol, before relocating to London around 2000.
Banksy’s masterpieces often focus on the weighty topics of capitalist greed and government oppression. Having taken the world by storm at a young age in the 1990s, he is perhaps best known for his characteristic stenciling technique. Subjects commonly portrayed in his striking pieces include the royal family, children, policemen, apes, and rats. Banksy’s works are typically publicly displayed on very visible surfaces. He is also notorious for the subversion of classic images and use of copyrighted material.
In addition to his career as a street artist, Banksy has ventured into films, making his directorial debut with Exit Through the Gift Shop. Described by one critic as a wonderful, often hilarious film, the satire about street art was nominated for an Academy Award.
According to some accounts, Banksy started his career as a graffiti artist following his expulsion from school, painting on walls in Bristol with reckless abandon. He credits French street artist Blek le Rat as a source of inspiration in his early days, not only aligning with the Bristolian artist’s political leanings, but also inspiring his use of stencils. Banksy also picked up new ideas from many other graffiti artists of the day. Since the early 1990s, he has been a very active member of the graffiti scene, initially partnering with a Bristolian graffiti crew known as the DryBreadZ Crew, or DBZ for short. Later, he partnered with Inkie, another legendary street artist.
Banksy started experimenting with stencils at 18, following a close shave with the police. As he and his graffiti crew fled from the scene, he found himself stuck behind a garbage truck. Seeing stencil letters on the truck, he was inspired, having found a faster way to paint, reducing the risk of getting caught vandalizing public spaces by police.
With such an unconventional pedigree, the subversive, secretive artist subsequently turned the art world on its head. His trajectory from “bombing” walls in Bristol to respected artist commanding hundreds of thousands of dollars per painting has been breathtaking. When Time magazine featured the graffiti master, painter, filmmaker, and activist in its 2010 “100 Most Influential People” list, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Lady Gaga, Steve Jobs, and Barack Obama, despite his rather inauspicious beginnings. Over the years, Banksy has left his calling card on walls far and wide, including in Barcelona, Detroit, Paris, San Francisco, and Vienna. Moreover, he has evolved from a street artist to a revered canvas artist and conceptual sculptor.
In order to authenticate his artwork while continuing to protect his anonymity, Banksy established an organization called Pest Control. Concealed behind an email address, he continues to control his own narrative. His last known interview remains The Guardian piece with Simon Hattenstone, which dates back almost two decades.
Banksy’s most famous works include Napalm, depicting the girl from the renowned 1972 Vietnam War photograph. Naked and crying, she is flanked by Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse, skipping obliviously by her side. The depiction is arguably Banksy’s most unforgiving, unashamedly confronting its audience with the harrowing contrast between innocence and the utter horror of human cruelty.
Despite the seriousness of his messages, Banksy has also been known to temper his social commentary with humor. In 2013, he staged a pop-up in New York City’s Central Park, selling original stencil paintings for $60 apiece. As was subsequently pointed out, with the sidewalks of Manhattan “littered with people selling Banksy rip-offs,” it is perhaps unsurprising that most people walked past without batting an eye.
Since the early 2000s, Banksy has recycled his iconic Girl with Balloon motif several times. The composition is simple, with a young girl gesturing toward a heart-shaped balloon that is floating away. In 2018, a rendition came up for auction at Sotheby’s. After the hammer fell, the audience watched in astonishment as the bottom half of the piece dropped into a device built into the frame and was shredded. Subsequently retitled Love is in the Bin, the piece actually increased in value, demonstrating what a powerful cultural force Banksy has become.