Banksy and the Art of Public Discourse
“I love graffiti. I love the word. Some people get hung up over it, but I think they’re fighting a losing battle. Graffiti equals amazing to me. Every other type of art compared to graffiti is a step down—no two ways about it. If you operate outside of graffiti, you operate at a lower level. Other art has less to offer people, it means less, and it’s weaker. I make normal paintings if I have ideas that are too complex or offensive to go out on the street, but if I ever stopped being a graffiti writer I would be gutted. It would feel like being a basket weaver rather than being a proper artist.” (Swindle Magazine)
“I like the idea vandalism has contributed to the local economy,” his (Banksy) message said.” In Britain, they always complain about graffiti costs the taxpayer millions of pounds, but that’s a load of rubbish. Graffiti is free. It’s painting things grey again that costs all the money.” [Purported message from Banksy regarding the sale of his art in Bethlehem. (TIM BUTCHER)]
The core of this article is Banksy’s use of public space for political discourse and, in particular, his use of the Wall that separates Palestinians from Israelis.
The paper will also discuss how and should public space be appropriated and used as a forum to generate discussion about issues important to communities and nations.
Banksy has used graffiti art in Britain for many years to express his views on the police, freedom, Iraq, class, and other issues.
Banksy, the British anarchist artist/graffiti artist, has built his reputation on two foundations: 1) his talent, and 2) the secrecy surrounding his identity. He has been able to avoid detection for over two decades. Stories about his identity have surfaced from time but have never been substantiated. In 2006, the BBC online identified him as Robert or Robin Banks, a man with no formal art education. Last year he was “outed” by The Daily Mail in London. The newspaper said his name was Robin Gunningham and that he was a “former public schoolboy from middle-class suburbia.” The article describes a relatively dull and normal upbringing that could have applied to anyone, including such revelations as Gunningham was a gifted artist and was “nomadic.” A caveat is given: “there is, of course, the possibility that the trail we have been following is a red herring.”
Banksy has said many times that he has no interest in ever revealing his identity. He said in Swindle magazine, “I figure there are enough self-appointed assholes trying to get their ugly little faces in front of you as it is.” However, it is almost unbelievable in this media age that someone could remain anonymous for so long. It is even more improbable in England, where surveillance video is everywhere, that somewhere along the way has not seen and taken a picture of him.
The fact of the matter is, whoever he is, Banksy is very talented and has been creating serious art in the form of graffiti since the 1980s. His graffiti art is selling for millions of dollars.
Writing about Banksy has its disadvantages. For the most part, academics have ignored him, or he has ignored them more to the point. No one knows who he is, so there is a distinct possibility that he does not really exist. There is only trace evidence (“his” work–do we even really know he is a “he”?) of his existence. Most accounts of his activities are chronicled in newspapers with a vested interest in promoting the news that sells. His dealers/agents have a vested interest in perpetuating the mystery (or could this be part of his/her persona—the unknowingness?). The unknowingness, the anonymity, deliberately or not, is part of Banksy’s persona.
Nevertheless, writing about Banksy also has its advantages. If no one knows who the artist is or where the artist is or very much about him, it frees an author to speculate on his motives creatively.
We can also hypothesize that Banksy is a woman. It would be a perfect cover. Banksy usually speaks through his agent or representative. Even if they “know” the person purporting to be Banksy, that person may be a shill. Although there is a photo of “Banksy” painting on the Wall in Israel, his/her face is covered. It could have been one of Banksy’s fellow artists who are as talented as she/he is. They could paint, and if arrested by Israeli police, Banksy’s identity would still be safe.
Traditionally, modern graffiti artists use spaces that are in transition or are in a pre-transition. Often these are in more impoverished neighborhoods that we see eventually transition to a more affluent and desirable neighborhood. Once a neighborhood starts to change for the “better,” contesting of space begins because contesting it is about the money. Then the arguments begin to be about who has the right to be represented in public spaces. What are the goals of graffiti writers? Is at least part of it about this controversy?
Graffiti has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It has been found in Pompeii, the pyramids, ancient cave drawings, and on the walls of catacombs by early Christians resisting persecution, to the cities of today (Rahn 2002, 167). Duchamp is an early defiler and defacer in the style of Banksy and others. Duchamp created “Rectified Readymade,” in which he added a small mustache and the letters LHOOQ which roughly translated means, “She’s got a hot ass” (Varnedoe, Gopnik 1990, 77).
According to Varnedde and Gopnik, graffiti went through an artistic re-examination during the Surrealist movement of the 1920s and 1930s. They were interested in graffiti’s unconscious motivations and the use of the grotesque (See Figure 3). Brassai as well had an appreciation for graffiti. Brassai was informed, “by his belief that graffiti writings were akin to cave art, as well as by a familiar Surrealist association between the glamorously ‘dangerous’ mysteries of urban lowlife and the marvels of the deeper psyche” (Varnedde and Gopnik 1990). (see photo on the right, Atlanta, GA graffiti, Burgamy, 2006)
Vagrants and hobos of the 1930s used signs and symbols to communicate with each other. The writing gave out practical information about finding shelter and food without being discovered by the train company security. Graffiti helped them make sense of their relationships within the ‘community’ of hobos. (Rahn 2002, 167) Graffiti writers share this sense of community. They use appropriated surfaces to communicate to one another, share a bond, mark territory, and thumb their noses at authority.
In describing where graffiti artists’ venture, Reisner wrote, “the atmosphere is secret, confining, subterranean and conspiratorial…. In circumstances like these, a man is likely to assert himself graphically, a silent means of inscription” (Reisner 1971, 26).
During my experience in Atlanta and surrounding communities photographing and interviewing graffiti artists, I learned that most of their graffiti is in places the average person would not venture, such as in rail and auto underpasses, and viaducts. In Atlanta, most people are familiar with the Krog Street tunnel, which has long been a favorite venue for graffiti writers. It was considered a safe area for many years, and the artists could paint and draw at will. Two years ago, it was rumored (but never confirmed) that it was now verboten, and anyone caught would be prosecuted. The tunnel’s turnover has slowed considerably and would give credence to law enforcement taking a renewed interest in taking legal action.
There are a few graffiti artists who deliberately seek out virtually inaccessible places. In Atlanta, Dose, Born, and Hense are some of the tags seen on the tops of buildings or a towering Coca Cola billboard. The more inaccessible the “spatial conquest,” the more the respect afforded the artist. A Philadelphia graffiti artist named Cornbread sprayed his name on the wings of a TWA jet. “The conquest of territory even in fantasy is always an act performed for an audience. Locations have meaning; to claim access to an inaccessible location is to claim primacy for oneself” (Ley, Cybriwsky 1991, 493).
The idea of public space, where politics, commerce, and play intermingles, is an old one. The Greek agora was such a place where many different political opinions and diverse social perspectives could be encountered (Young 119). However, even given this ideal description, the reality was that these places were exclusionary. The people in these spaces were homogenous and were people of power and prestige. Citizenship was a right granted to a select few and denied many others, including women and slaves (Mitchell 1995, 116-121).
In many democracies, the right to public space comes with many rules and regulations. Spaces that were once open to the underprivileged, the homeless, and the disaffected are usually in the uncontested transitional areas. Only when space becomes a commodity, useful to commerce, that space becomes contested. Then marginal people who occupy the space become undesirables or criminals, so measures have to be taken by instruments of the state. Control is exercised by closing public spaces by declaring them havens for the homeless and drug users (Mitchell 1995, 117).
It is in these contested spaces where graffiti writers will express themselves and articulate their feelings. Cabbagetown in Atlanta has been going through the cycle of gentrification. As property values go up, marginalized groups that include graffiti, writers use the area to express themselves and mark the territory with their art. One graffiti artist, Cape, said, “I don’t care if it flies for 24 minutes or 24 hours, I did it and its mine.” Graffiti is a way of defending turf, expressing the self, that takes place the world over. It is the politics of self-expression and self-preservation standing against an inevitable onslaught of commercialization.
Since Banksy is an anarchist/performance artist/graffiti artist, he has challenged the notion of public space and what activities are appropriate in public places. Retaking/reclaiming public space has been an ongoing contestation with graffiti artists vs. major cities. Banksy, in his art and politics, has been using public spaces to express dissent. His imagery is highly political, pointed, funny, and satirical. In specific, his art is, among other things, art as anti-war, anti-surveillance, anti-establishment, and anti-capitalist. He receives worldwide attention wherever he paints, but the work on the Separation Wall distinguished itself.
Construction of the fence, called Separation Wall, or Segregation Wall (Banksy 2006, 136) began in 2000 and continues to this day. The Wall is a 25-foot tall barrier that stretches over 700km or 434 miles. It has been and continues to be built by the Israeli government. This barrier is meant to provide Israel security from suicide bombers and other terrorist acts coming from Palestinian jihadists. It was initially intended to prevent the passage of motor vehicles. However, in 2001 Premier Ariel Sharon came under tremendous pressure from citizens in Israel. Suicide bombing was increasing, and people were demanding protection. The Israeli cabinet approved construction, and in 2002 the building of the Separation Wall began. (Usher 2005, 33) At over 30 feet high, the Wall is three times higher than the Berlin Wall. To give some perspective, the Wall would stretch from Panama City Beach, FL to Chattanooga, TN (Usher 2005, 25).
The Separation Wall has been the subject of much controversy. The UN has declared it illegal and ordered it dismantled (Usher 2005, 35). Israel continues to cite it as a primary deterrent against suicide bombers. It has essentially made the people of Palestine prisoners in an open prison (Usher 2005, 25).
In an interview with Swindle magazine, Banksy said:
The murals you did in Palestine, I would assume, involved personal risk. You’re there, and you could definitely get some people pissed off and put yourself in jeopardy.
Banksy: Every graffiti writer should go there. They’re building the biggest Wall in the world. I painted on the Palestinian side, and a lot of them weren’t sure about what I was doing. They didn’t understand why I wasn’t just writing “down with Israel” in big letters and painting pictures of the Israeli prime minister hanging from a rope. And maybe they had a point. The guy that I stayed with got five days with the “dirty bag” for waving a Palestinian flag out a window. The dirty bag is when Israeli security services get a sack, wipe their shit on it, and put the bag over your head while your hands are tied behind your back. I spat out my falafel as he was explaining that to me, but he just goes, “That’s nothing. My cousin got it for two weeks without a break.” It’s difficult to come home and hear people complaining about reruns on TV after that. It’s very hard for the locals to paint illegally over there. We certainly weren’t doing it under the cloak of darkness; you’d get shot. We were out in the middle of the day, making it very clear we were tourists. Twice, we had serious trouble with the army, but one time the Palestinian border patrol pulled up in an armored truck. The Israeli government makes a big fuss about how they own the Wall, despite building it right through the farmland of Palestinians who have been there for generations, so the Palestinian border police don’t give a shit if you paint it or not. They parked between the road and us, gave us water, and just watched. It’s probably the only time I’m ever going to paint whilst being covered by a cop from a roof-mounted submachine gun.
Did they realize that it favored the Palestinian perspective?
Banksy: I have sympathy for both sides in that conflict, and I did receive quite a bit of support from regular Israelis, but if the Israeli government had known we were going over there to do a sustained painting attack on their Wall, there’s no way that we’d have been tolerated. They’re very paranoid. They don’t want the Wall to be an issue in the West. On the Israeli side of the Wall, they bank it up with soil and plant flowers so you don’t even know it’s there. On the Palestinian side, it’s just a fucking huge mass of concrete (Swindle Magazine).
The Separation Wall is one in a “long” line of contested wall space. The Great Wall of China, The Berlin Wall, and the Wall under construction between the United States and Mexico are additional examples of contested spaces.
The Berlin Wall was covered in graffiti on the Westside and barren on the communist Eastern side. The blank gray East Berlin side was a telling picture as to who had access to the space. The Wall between Mexico and the United States is an ugly metal wall topped in many places by barbed wire. The Mexican/US border fence is a fence that only suits the right-leaning politicians and their constituents. It is a space that will continually be contested, not only by Mexican immigrants but by citizens in the US who oppose this method of controlling the border.
Banksy states in his Swindle interview that on the Israeli side, they plant flowers while the Palestinian side is “just a fucking huge mass of concrete.” Banksy has appropriated that “mass of concrete” and changed parts of it to create a vision or dream of opening the Wall or no wall. Images of someone pulling an imaginary curtain aside and seeing through a cartoon living room with windows (see figure 1) opening to a natural green forest and a snow-white covered mountain in the background. That scene is a real fantasy but conjures a different place on the other side. A place of openness and freedom can be found and experienced, not on the other side of the Wall but without the Wall.
Painting on the Separation Wall does not always have the desired effect, no matter how great the intentions. The barrier makes those inside it cynical and contentious. They are rightfully more than a little suspicious and skeptical. Banksy had a conversation with a gentleman on the inside of the Wall. Old Man: “You paint the Wall. You make it look beautiful.” Banksy: “Thanks.” Old Man: “We don’t want it to be beautiful. We hate this wall, go home” (Banksy 2006, 142).
Banksy made one of his several trips to Palestine in 2007. He brought with him four other graffiti artists: Blu from Italy, Sam3 from Spain, an associate Paul Insect and another artist from Britain, Gee Vaucher. For several days they painted the Wall and met with other artists. They rented a former fast-food restaurant in Manger Square, where they sold art by westerners and Palestinians. The art for sale could only be purchased on-site, encouraging much-needed tourism in the area The sale netted over one million dollars which was donated to local charities (Kennard 2008, 39).
These are positive ways to make a political point of view. A painting or sculpture in a gallery is more academic than practical. The Palestinians see the gray Wall every day. Its meaning is quite clear. However, through Banksy and others’ painting and stenciling, the world sees the Wall from a new perspective. I had read about the Wall and only acknowledged it as a benign safety measure to protect Israel from terrorists. Its meaning to the people of Palestine was off my radar of consciousness. Through his art, I now see the Separation/Segregation Wall in a different, more insightful way. I can contemplate its size and dimensions and grayness as if there was a wall running between Decatur and Atlanta. It is the most straightforward approach to a difficult problem. Unwilling to compromise and consider real solutions, the problem was “solved” by a remedy as old as the Great Wall of China.
The conclusion to the core issue of Banksy’s methods of public discourse on the Wall is that his techniques and imagery are quite different—and even more effective and affecting–than the images and words he has used in other places and spaces. Banksy uses his art to criticize the Separation/Segregation Wall, not directly but indirectly. He does not attack the Israelis. His images are not as political or bitingly satirical as the works he has done in England.
Banksy remains in the tradition of previous graffiti artists who stand up for the rights of the marginalized by laying claim to and attempting to “own” public space. He has taken the art form to a new, more inclusive level, particularly in his graffiti on the Separation/Segregation Wall. Like Jonathan Swift, Banksy is a master of satire and wielding a sharp sword. His images cut straight to the political chase, whether its parliament, the police, war, or starving African children with an “I Hate Mondays” T-shirt. (see image on left, Banksy, I Hate Mondays)
When art makes the transition from being purely aesthetic (evoking a “beautiful” or emotional experience) to directly responding to or protesting current circumstances via contested content, there often begins a discussion about what constitutes “art.” This question is always in the background where graffiti is concerned. Interestingly, Banksy’s work on the Wall is a subtle critique. His images gain power from subtlety and are emotionally evocative. He emphasizes the West Bank as a prison, and his drawings are the dreams and hopes of the Palestinians trapped inside.
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November 18, 2009
Contemporary Art 4700/Susan Richmond
Banksy and the Art of Public Discourse