Banksy: the VIP Street Artist

In recent times certain works of graffiti have come to be appreciated as art, due to their aesthetic quality and ability to project political or social messages. Despite this elevated status, graffiti is still perceived by some as vandalism. Whilst many struggle to break away from such reproof, Banksy has established himself as a household name as a graffiti artist. His recent work, “Girl with a Pierced Eardrum, was defaced with a paint bomb in October of last year. Some have speculated that this was his own publicity stunt, used to bring further attention to the piece, whilst others suggest it was the product of his rivals.  Is it a meeting between two different forms of vandalism? Or is it an artwork being vandalised? Does its authenticity affect the nature of the paint bomb?

Regardless of the answer, the paint bomb could be viewed as a comment on how we value art today. Banksy’s parody of Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” is an ironic reference to the work of the great master, implying that Banksy’s art has become as famous as that of the renowned 17th century Dutch artist. In spite of this, without popular support, 20 years ago his graffiti would have been considered vandalism rather than art. Banksy’s status as an artist is evident in the hoards of people visiting his artwork in exhibitions and the streets all over England. His exhibition at Sotheby’s S2 gallery, named “Banksy: The Unauthorised Retrospective,” attracted over 18,000 visitors. When he exhibited some of his work at the Bristol Museum, it attracted more than 250,000 people in 4 months. However it is not only frequent gallery-goers who enjoy his work, nor are his admirers solely made up of fellow lovers of graffiti. Banksy has a wide audience. His work attracts people of all generations, and those who didn’t make it to the exhibitions were probably following Google Maps to find the sites of his mysterious works. So, whether an attempt to deface Banksy’s art or to regenerate its enigmatic status, the paint bomb reveals the same development in contemporary art; even vandals can become artists once they achieve fame.

People will rarely go in search for pieces by lesser-known graffiti artists, let alone buy merchandise or attend an exhibition as they might with Banksy

Girl with a Pierced Eardrum by Banksy. Photo by Sophie Reeve
Girl with a Pierced Eardrum by Banksy. Photo by Sophie Reeve

As fame is an integral aspect of Banksy’s art, it is worth considering how it is generated. Initially, Banksy chose to stay anonymous because he did not want to be charged with vandalism. However, this anonymity had the opposite effect – the air of mystery surrounding his identity creating public intrigue. Of course Banksy did not just create a name for himself through this anonymity. The artist’s elusive pieces have gained popularity today as a result of the fast-paced nature of our society, which is more responsive to images than it is to words. The “Mobile Lovers” sketch, for example, illustrates a couple embracing as they look over each other’s shoulders at their phones. This kind of work appeals to the masses because it represents current affairs, and inspires reflection and contemplation. The door of the Youth Club on which it was sprayed is located in a significant location and the scale of the figures are life-sized, which enhances the emotional effect of the piece. It is also evident that Banksy’s fame has ensured his work attracts attention wherever he chooses to place it, his notoriety making his work recognisable in even the most obscure areas. Posting images of his work on his official website, he is able to create a game of hide and seek with his audience, feeding them clues to the location of his latest works.

So why is it that other graffiti artists do not reap the same rewards as Banksy? Colombian graffiti artist “Stinkfish,” a talented contemporary of Banksy, is the mastermind behind “Memtomori” in Stokes Croft. Although this is undeniably an eye-catching and thought-provoking piece of art, “Stinkfish” and other less renowned graffiti artists are struggling to make ends meet, while their contemporary appears to have hit the jackpot. It would appear that the value of other graffiti artists’ work lies merely in their skill; while anyone can see that they are just as artistically talented as Banksy, few people bother to truly explore the meaning behind their works. People will rarely go in search for pieces by lesser-known graffiti artists, let alone buy merchandise or attend an exhibition as they might with Banksy. Whether the work of an enigmatic artist or innovative vandal, Banksy’s art permeates both fields with ease. Whatever the reason for his prominence, it is unlikely that any other graffiti artist will be able to live up to the legend that he has become, although the reasons behind his fame and his status as an graffiti artist are inseparable; it might just be another example of the “Chicken or the Egg” question.

*Correction was made on “Stinkfish” from Bristol based to Colombian graffiti artist.