Banksy: A Dichotomy of Fame and Anonymity

Art Wise

“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” said the creator of a painting titled ‘Girl With Balloon’, that self-destroyed seconds after being sold for a whopping GBP 1.04 million at a Sotheby’s auction in London, in October 2018. The artist behind this stunt, who aptly quoted Picasso to explain what happened, was Banksy - an anonymous street artist and pop culture icon from Bristol, England, whose identity is shrouded in mystery.

Following the stunt, that left attendees at the auction and people around the world bemused, Banksy posted a video on his website explaining how he had built a shredder into the painting years ago, in case it ever went up for auction. The half-shredded painting was eventually retitled ‘Love Is in The Bin’, with the buyer of the original agreeing to purchase the shredded painting at the same price!

Perhaps the most intriguing artist of our times, Banksy rose to prominence for his controversial yet thought-provoking street graffiti, the illegal nature of which, he claims, is the reason behind his anonymity. Though he has been active since the 1980s, he created a buzz only in the 1990s, when he started using stencils to cut his painting time to half. His breakthrough exhibition came in 2003; titled ‘Turf War’ and staged in a former warehouse, it garnered attention for controversial depictions of political figures, such as the Queen disguised as a chimpanzee, and Churchill with a mohawk.

With his mysterious ways increasing the fascination with his art, that features in cities the world over, here are 11 incredible facts about this amazing artist.

1. In 2015, Banksy organised an art project titled ‘Dismaland Bemusement Park’, featuring works from 58 artists, and open to the public for 36 days. A spoof on Disneyland, he called it a "family theme park unsuitable for children." Contrary to Disneyland, a visit to this park would haunt a child’s dreams forever. Housed at a derelict building in Somerset, England, it was complete with exhibits ranging from bizarre to creepy, featuring migrant boats, Guy Fawkes masks, the iconic image of the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki and black balloons which read “I am an imbecile.”

2. Banksy does not have a Facebook or Twitter account. His official online presence is limited to a website and an Instagram account which focus solely on his work, continuing to keep his identity a secret.

3. In 2004, he pulled a stunt where he tossed fake £10 notes into the crowd, which had ‘Banksy of England’ written on them instead of ‘Bank of England’, featuring a portrait of Princess Diana instead of the Queen of England.

4. Banksy does not charge people to see his art. All his works can be accessed for free by the public. However, several hoax exhibitions have sprouted around the world, in places like Amsterdam and Moscow, that charge visitors to see his work without his knowledge or involvement. Banksy is not represented by any commercial art galleries; he only sells his work at pop-up stalls for as little as $60.

5. He has been nominated for an Oscar for his documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. Banksy was also awarded Art’s Greatest Briton prize, but he does not attend any award ceremonies owing to his anonymity.

6. Not one to shy away from bold political statements, Banksy established The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, which houses some of his and other artists’ most provocative politically themed artworks and is a sardonic take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The window of each room of the hotel offers a view of the separation wall that Israel built along the West Bank to protect itself from terrorist attacks from Palestine. A shop in the hotel sells paints, stencils and other supplies that visitors can use to create graffiti on the wall, most of which supports tearing down the wall.

7. If imitation is the best form of flattery, Banksy sure has received a lot of it. The shredding of the canvas at the 2018 Sotheby’s auction became so iconic, that it not only inspired memes, but also got a lot of top brands like Perrier, McDonald’s and Ikea incorporating it into their advertisements. A manager at Adobe even created a Photoshop template for anyone to “Banksy anything!”

8. Banksy’s works have been bought by celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Christina Aguilera and Damien Hirst, and yet he is unfazed by it as he believes that commercial success is a street artist’s biggest failure.

9. While Banksy mostly remains unavailable to the general public, one person found a way to send a letter to the elusive artist from a prison in Turkey. Zehra Dogan, an artist and journalist from Turkey was imprisoned for creating a painting depicting the destruction of a Kurdish town by Turkish forces, and Banksy painted a mural in New York City in protest of her imprisonment. She sent a handwritten letter to Banksy expressing her gratitude for his solidarity and describing the horrific conditions of the prison.

10. Though he is anonymous, books authored by Banksy give us glimpses into his ideas and beliefs, and feature pictures of his works from around the world. Some of the titles written by him are Existencilism and Wall and Piece.

11. A number of people claim to have spotted Banksy at work, but none of these sightings have been confirmed, and his fans also fiercely defend his anonymity. Some believe his name is Robin Gunningham and therefore tout him as the Robin Hood of Art, while researchers at Queen Mary University of London have used “geographic profiling” to track him. Since Banksy counts musical group Massive Attack as one of his influences, some people believed he is Massive Attack’s member Robert Del Naja himself; a claim Banksy has denied.

    Despite being criticised for pulling stunts through his art and being called a glorified vandal, Banksy has never failed to create a buzz, and has been lauded for his political activism. His graffiti focuses on themes that are anti-war, anti-capitalism and anti-establishment. Youth around the world recognise him in the same league as other notable British celebrities such as The Beatles, David Beckham, William Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling. The term ‘Banksy’ has even turned into a verb after the stunt involving the self-destroying painting at the Sotheby’s auction! And so, even after three decades of provoking discussion and pulling stunts, Banksy continues to make the world await his next creation with equal anticipation.

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