“Think outside the box, collapse the box, and take a sharp knife to it.”
My artist son, Jon, have me a coffee table art book of Banksy’s graffiti. It was riveting–but am I supposed to relish such vandalism? What I saw disturbed me because Banksy so often speaks truth with alarming clarity and delightful humor, perhaps like a jester mocking a king. There is rebellion in so much of the youth culture today that echoes the rebellion during my youth in the 1960s. Rebellion can be without cause, yet so much of Banksy’s rebellion challenges the forces that dehumanize us. My rebellious act is to put Banksy’s book on my coffee table and Banksy’s chapter in Blessed Are the Peacemakers.
The “separation barrier,” between Israel and Palestine is a grim grey concrete wall 20 feet high in places, all built by Israel on Palestinian land. In places graffiti art has appeared: a girl holding balloons floating up over the wall, a ladder painted to the top, a hole with a beautiful beach scene. Children grace many of the pictures forcing the viewer to think about the impact of this massive wall upon the young ones trapped inside. The wall has become a canvas for the notorious graffiti artist known as Banksy.
Who is Banksy? Nobody knows, or at least those who do know aren’t telling. Banksy, the pseudonym for the elusive artist, has never been photographed except when his face has been blurred or when he’s captured from behind while wearing a hooding sweatshirt doing his work. He’s been interviewed a few times by telephone, but is it really Banksy? It’s hard to prove anything as he has eluded all efforts to catch him or stop him.
Banksy is from Bristol, England. Some say he was born in 1974, others 1975. He rose to prominence during the Bristol underground scene that exploded with graffiti in the late1980s. Banksy says he wasn’t good with an aerosol can and was too slow to avoid detection, so he began to paint with stencils. His work has appeared on walls and streets in Bristol and London as well as France, Australia, Palestine, New Orleans and Los Angeles. He has smuggled work into art museums, some of which was removed immediately while other works were left on exhibition walls undetected for weeks. He has slipped into animal enclosures in zoos, painting messages “from” the animals. He said, allegedly, “Think outside the box, collapse the box, and take a sharp knife to it.”
Some of Banksy’s work is humorous and silly, while some is subversive. Banksy’s most pointed work exhibits an anarchistic philosophy, skewering huge corporations, authority and the materialism of Western culture. One of his trademark characters is an anarchist rat who is involved in all sorts of mischief challenging the assumptions and views of the establishment. His own identity is perhaps revealed in the masked figure seeming to hurl a Molotov cocktail, except he has a bouquet of flowers in his hand.
Banksy has especially targeted superpower militarism with his artistic wit. He often reverses power roles, such as in a scene where he painted a soldier, gun set aside, being frisked by a girl in a pink pinafore. He juxtaposes pastoral scenes with hulking menacing military machinery. In London he painted a huge picture of Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta from a famous scene in the movie Pulp Fiction holding bananas instead of guns. One of his frequently used stencils is of a helicopter armed with bombs. The stencil has appeared on “Wrong War” signs and on street signs that say “Americans Working Overhead.” Another wall graffiti showed one soldier protecting another as he painted a large peace symbol.
He is also an advocate for the hungry. As a family sits around a feast at their dining room table in one of his paintings they are watched by a starving child. Another picture depicts a squatting starving child with an empty bowl and a “Burger King” crown.
Many critics say that what he does is vandalism, but Banksy challenges the very assumptions undergirding private property. His wit and social commentary have brought him many supporters. When the City of Bristol planned to remove one humorous painting of a naked man hanging onto a window sill outside while an angry man was confronting the woman inside, neighbors banded together to get the city to let it remain as community art. Vexing as his guerilla art is to many government and business authorities, it has become so popular that exhibitions have been arranged with art museums, never knowing what he will come up with. Banksy slipped into the British Museum in London to hang a primitive style painting of a human hunting wildlife while pushing a shopping cart. The British Museum has added the picture to their permanent collection. Some of his work has sold for tens of thousands of pounds, something that draws further Banksy satire. In the best tradition of prophetic artists Banksy can make people laugh one moment and squirm the next. He can poke holes in the pride, arrogance and hypocrisy of much of the dominant culture in the world, even as he draws holes in the “separation barrier.”
UPDATE, November 2, 2017
Banksy organized a street “tea party” in the occupied West Bank of Palestine to apologize for the British Balfour Declaration which established the groundwork for the British enablement for the creation of the state of Israel. An actor dressed as Queen Elizabeth hosted the party and unveiled a new work from Banksy in with “Er….Sorry” was chiseled into the concrete Separation Barrier between Israel and Palestine.
In 2015 Banksy stenciled a painting on a street in Calais, France titled “We Are Not All in the Same Boat.” It depicts Syrian refugees adrift with a yacht in the background. Banksy rifts off the painting “The Raft of the Medusa” by French Romantic artist Theodore Gericault.