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If Walls Could Talk. 10 Banksy's Works about War, Church, Art and Tolerance

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His works inspire admiration and provoke outrage. With his success comes not only following of his style but also envy and accusations of being a talentless sell-out. Anyway, there is no denying that Banksy’s name has force in the world of contemporary art, and that he brought street art to a whole new level. In the end, Banksy was selected to receive an award for Greatest Living Briton for a reason. And yet, the artist continues to keep his true identity a secret. We won’t question who Banksy is. What’s more important and interesting is what he tells about his art and how he does it.
Since his very first work, Banksy has focused on serious, sensitive, acute, and sometimes even concealed issues. The title of his first piece is The Mild Mild West and it depicts a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot policemen. It was created in 1997 in response to the highly publicized violent police reaction to several underground raves at the time. And later on, all Banksy’s works kept tackling serious social issues — from military conflicts to worshipping pop idols.

Banksy justified his vandalism of public space, as being a direct response to what he called «brandalism," or, «any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not… The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back."

Over time, Banksy has gained more and more popularity and his art was sold for extremely high prices, with pieces being purchased by collectors and celebrities alike for millions of dollars. However, the artist himself isn’t really delighted with it, saying that «commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist». Even 20 years later, he continues to believe that «When graffiti isn’t criminal, it loses most of its innocence».

It’s almost impossible to squeeze all of the artist’s works into one article. We chose the top ten outstanding works by Banksy, moving beyond pure street art.
The owner of the Prince Albert pub in Trafalgar Street near Brighton told how shocked he was when a Banksy emissary sought permission on behalf of the street artist to put the work on the pub: «My first thought was, 'oh no'. I thought we’d get in loads of trouble for it.» Who wouldn’t worry? This image, depicting two police officers in full, typical British uniforms kissing, made a big fuss. However, soon after the work’s creation, a group of uniformed officers appeared in front of the pub to view the piece and proceeded to take pictures.

The piece can be read in many ways. In one respect, Banksy is advocating for tolerance and a sexual-identity accepting society (since 2004 there have been major changes in this regard). But some critics believe that here the artist simply makes fun of his old «enemies», who used to remove his art. Others read the work more positively, as showing a human side to the police force, and emphasizing the strong bonds that exist on the police force between partners and teammates.
This mural was created in May 2008 on Leake Street, London, as part of the Cans Festival, organised by Banksy. It sends a completely unambiguous message, depicting a maintenance worker in an orange vest in the act of pressure washing art off of a wall. With this work, Banksy is drawing a parallel between the ancient, prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux, and modern-day street art, thus questioning the value placed on certain works of art, and the label of «vandalism» assigned to others.
The giant mural featuring a rat in a necktie and a briefcase full of money took up most of the side of a building in the SoHo neighbourhood in New York City and was created with permission from the city government. Having equipped the rat with the attributes of a typical Wall Street representative, the artist explicitly demonstrates his attitude to the business elite. He was commenting on the disdain and contempt with which the «ruling class» treats people in the middle and lower classes. Banksy used a quote «If they have no bread, let them eat cake», which is attributed to Marie Antoinette (although historians say it’s a myth), and replaced the word «cake» with «crack» — the name of a cheap drug.

Banksy used rats in his art multiple times, but it is noteworthy that in his other works this animal carries a completely different message. Most people associate these nocturnal creatures with disease and infestation. Rats are also a sign of resistance, tenacity, intelligence, and survival, as they live in constant conflict with men, under threat of extermination, much like street artists who constantly struggle to evade the authorities and erasure by government anti-graffiti programs. Banksy once said, «If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model. They exist without permission, they have no respect for the hierarchy of society, and they have sex fifty times a day».
One of Banksy’s favourite creative techniques is the use of recognizable, or even cult images in an unexpected context, or the combination of several such images in one provocative scene. Again, Banksy has taken a pre-existing image — in this case an iconic photograph from Vietnam in 1972, of a girl — Kim Phuc — fleeing from a napalm attack on her village. The original photograph with children running and crying was taken by Nick Ut and has developed into a short hand for the atrocities of war. Banksy has isolated the image of the girl and flanked her with Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald — two family-friendly faces of American capitalism. The girl’s horror-stricken face is juxtaposed against the big, bright smiles of two characters holding her hands which gives the image a very twisted and sinister feel. In this image, Banksy shows his viewers what hides behind the fun and carefree facade of American culture. The artist, known for preaching down military conflicts, said, «The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.»
In 2012, London hosted the Summer Olympics. Of course, Banksy could not stay away from this historic event. He was far from being the only artist who «decorated» the streets of the British capital before the Olympics, but, unlike many of his colleagues, Banksy managed not to get caught by the police. The artist created several satirical works about the Olympics all around the city. Among them there was a missile-tossing javelin thrower and the masked thief about to steal the red ring from the Olympic symbol. Yet the most shocking and discussed image was that of a boy at a sewing machine assembling a bunting of Union Jack patches. The piece was widely interpreted to be a critique of child labour. Later the piece disappeared from the wall in mysterious circumstances and was put up for auction valued at $500−700 thousand.
In order to create this work, Banksy did the impossible: he managed to erect three stories of scaffolding under the cover of darkness to create the entire artwork in one night. The mural was situated (which is especially ironic) in the line of sight of a CCTV camera. Depicting a child painting the phrase «ONE NATION UNDER CCTV» while being watched by a police officer and a dog, Banksy raises the question that has recently become a controversial issue both in the UK and abroad. The artist aims to criticize the excessive surveillance (both from CCTV cameras in public spaces, as well as in other forms such as online).

This work on Newman Street in London was painted on the wall of a building used by the Royal Mail, however, it didn’t last long. The Westminster City Council stated in October 2008 that the work would be painted over, regardless of the celebrity status of the artist, as it was illegal graffiti. The council stated that Banksy «has no more right to paint graffiti than a child». The work was eventually painted over in April 2009.

However, frequent removal of the majority of Banksy’s works adds to the excitement and fanaticism that surrounds the artist’s work. Banksy biographer Will Ellsworth-Jones wrote in 2013 that Banksy «is an artist who has got people running around the city desperate to see his work before it gets painted over».
Despite of the obvious tone of ridicule, this masterfully executed replica of the iconic Impressionist painting Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lillies by Claude Monet (with a couple of small details added) draws attention to very serious issues. Adding two discarded shopping carts and a traffic cone to Monet's pond, Banksy critiques contemporary society’s disregard for nature in favour of consumerism. Banksy’s message is that society is focused on material goods, making us by more than is necessary and produce excessive waste.

Even the title of Banksy’s work has subverted the meaning of the original. In the catch phrase Show me the Money, the last word is a play on Monet, which can be read as a critique of the commercialization of art.
In 2011, Banksy showed up on the streets of Los Angeles, where he brought his documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which was nominated for an Oscar. The sassy, intoxicated Mickey Mouse appeared on a CBS billboard. The children’s idol and the symbol of happiness is depicted gripping a blonde (who was originally present in the poster) in one hand and a martini in the other. Mickey’s companion Minnie is also part of the piece, having a vacant look and holding a cocaine straw in her hand. It was up just two days before CBS representatives removed the work.
This mural, depicting two young boys playing with buckets and shovels, like children creating sandcastles on a beach with a tropical beach paradise in the background, may seem sweet and touching. It’s just Banksy stencilled this work onto the Israeli-Palestinian West Bank barrier wall with quite a few guns pointed at him during the work’s creation. However, Banksy questioned, «How illegal is it to vandalize a wall if the wall itself has been deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice?» The artist created on the barrier wall nine murals including a dove with a bulletproof vest. When painting these murals, Banksy had a conversation with a Palestinian man who told him, «You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful,» to which Banksy replied, «Thanks.» The Palestinian man then said, «We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.»
In December 2011, just before Christmas, Banksy literally «entrenched upon the holy» — the Catholic Church. A sculpture, which appears to be a replica of an 18th century stone bust priest with a pixelated face, went on display at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery and instantly became the talk of the town.

The title of this work, containing Banksy’s traditional wordplay, reminds viewers of the most shameful page in the history of the Catholic Church — the child sexual abuse scandal. In English, the phrase 'cardinal sin' is used to denote the deadly sins along with the more traditional phrase 'mortal sin'. The removal of the priest’s face disguises the identity of the subject which is the same technique used to protect the identity of victims.

Commenting this piece for BBC in 2011, Banksy said, «At this time of year it’s easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity — the lies, the corruption, the abuse.»

Title illustration: Blank Walls are Criminal by Banksy.

Author: Evgeniia Sidelnikova.
Artists mentioned in the article
Banksy
Biography • Artworks
Claude Monet
Biography • Artworks
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