One of the simplest forms of graffiti is “tagging” — writing a name or nickname on a wall, train car or other publicly visible surface. For the British street artist and cultural prankster known only as Banksy, tagging expanded to a form of branding. His trademark images become recognizable, and collectible.
How much Banksy himself has benefited from this appreciation in value is unknown, as is nearly everything else about him. But the semi-underground figure is not profiting from, and in fact has barely acknowledged, “The Art of Banksy,” an international touring exhibition currently installed in the former Bed, Bath and Beyond space in downtown Washington D.C.’s Gallery Place complex. According to the show’s organizers, all of the more than 100 pieces on display were bought from the artist by private collectors and none was taken from the street.
Included are one or more variations on such recurring Banksy motifs as the Grim Reaper with a smiley face instead of a skull, a bomb thrower who clutches a flower bouquet in place of an explosive and a girl holding a heart-shaped balloon. A version of that last image sold at auction for $1.4 million in 2018 — and became more valuable on the spot as it was immediately cut into ribbons by a shredder concealed in the picture frame. On resale, it sold for more than $25 million last year.
“The Art of Banksy” is unauthorized, but it’s not a cheap knockoff. It’s artfully staged, well-documented and comprehensive, and is likely to amuse and surprise viewers, even ones who’ve followed the clandestine artist’s career. But the show does clash with what we know of Banksy’s anti-authority, anti-capitalist values, if only by charging $35 and up for admission.
While the artworks on exhibit lack the context and immediacy the originals would have, that’s due as much as to Banksy himself as to the show. The artist has made multiple versions of his best-known images and sold them as silk-screened prints, posters, postcards and T-shirts. Often, this was done for a cause: “The Art of Banksy” includes a 2002 poster made for Greenpeace and a 2011 poster and T-shirt sold to support protesters arrested in Bristol, the southwestern British city that’s generally considered the artist’s hometown.
Banksy was likely born in the early 1970s and emerged as a graffiti artist around 1990, in the same period that such Bristol trip-hop musicians as Massive Attack were becoming prominent. (Some have suggested that Massive Attack’s Robert “3D” Del Naja actually is Banksy, although stronger evidence points to someone else.) The artist has designed album covers and other materials for musicians, and “The Art of Banksy” features a soundtrack of mostly British (but some American) indie pop and rock.
Typically, a Banksy artwork is a streamlined montage, usually made with stencils, that ironically contrasts a traditional image with some aspect of banal consumer culture: Aboriginal hunters stalk a herd of shopping carts; Jesus on the cross holds shopping bags; and biblical mourners lament around a sign that says, “Sale Ends Today.” Banksy often invokes everyday British life, with references to the Tesco supermarket chain and mockeries of Parliament and the royal family. One of the more elaborate stunts illustrated in this show was the widespread distribution in 2004 of counterfeit 10-pound notes on which Queen Elizabeth’s face had been replaced by Princess Diana’s. (The fake currency was issued by, of course, “the Banksy of England.”)
Inevitably, American pop culture also features in Banksy’s work. Curiously for someone who’s probably not old enough to remember the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War is a recurring theme. The artist often depicts U.S. military helicopters — one of them outfitted with a pink bow — and remakes Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Vietnamese napalm victim Phan Thi Kim Phuc so that the girl is flanked by Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald.
Banksy also pays homage to the American who first brought silk-screened images into art museums, Andy Warhol, with prints of soup cans (Tesco’s, not Campbell’s) and a portrait of model Kate Moss in the style of one of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroes.
Warhol, of course, embraced and exalted celebrity. Banksy does not, whether because of his beginnings as a graffiti tagger or because he still engages in stunts of dubious legality. But, as “The Art of Banksy” demonstrates, fame is ravenous. The artist may be able to keep his given name a secret, but just about everything else about him is beyond his control.