Notes taken in class are often littered with doodles as a result from a wandering mind. The little drawings, albeit odd at times, are an art form because art is a conscious and or unconscious expression of the self that is realized. On a larger scale, graffiti artists use public property as their preferred canvass. One of the first documented signs of graffiti are of a caricature published in 1833 that includes children drawing pictures on a wall, wherein the kids were referred to as rascals – “Do your drawings somewhere else, rascals” (Sheon, 1976). A rascal, in the literal sense, is a mischievous unruly person. This term widely refers to graffiti artists in that their job description entails law-breaking actions: spray paint, stencil, or any marking that ranges from simple to elaborate on public property. This form of art dates back to primitive cave drawings and the days of Egypt where lifestyle and communication were preserved on walls; the Romans and Greeks contributed to the history of graffiti on the side of building and in pottery respectively (Corbett & Woodhead, 1955). Graffiti has thus evolved from the primitive days as popularity grew in New York where the Hip-Hop and B-Boy culture emerged from the Bronx. Presently enjoying a “second wave of popularity” the graffiti culture “has now become even more of a global community via the Internet and home-published magazines” (Rahn, 2002). This cultivates a more diverse following, allowing more exposure to art, the artist, and their message. Alongside the subcultures, gangs used graffiti to mark territory and gain street credibility. That gave root to the use of pseudonyms so that the public knew an identity, yet was untraceable to authorities.
Modern day calls for tools such as spray paint and markers as artists - Banksy of the UK and Senior X of Barcelona – focus on stencil-work, a branch within graffiti. Stencil graffiti refers to an “illegal, multi-vocal, visual urban discourse that alters the texture of street experience through incentive juxtaposition of mass-mediated and local imagery” (Kane, 2009). The use of stencils is made specifically for the purpose of easy, mass reproduction. A child can color in the stencil with a crayon and pass it on to the next child in a matter of seconds. The tools, paper and cardboard, are slightly altered when serving the purposes of graffiti, but the concept remains the same. The artist is able to create the stencil in privacy, which reduces the actual on-site paint time and the chances of being caught in the act. Once the stencil is created, a location is chosen, and a group or the artist will spray the piece onto the wall. This in-and-out style has been dubbed guerrilla art, playing off the concept of guerilla warfare which is composed of an “irregular band of armed mend, carrying on an irregular war, not being able, according to their character as a guerilla party, to carry on what the law terms as a regular war” (Dupuy, 1939). Guerilla art within the realm of stencil graffiti go hand in hand. Aforementioned, the artist Banksy prides himself of this guerilla-styled, stencil graffiti which are “produced quickly, inexpensively, and for an immediate purpose; they are meant not to decorate, or to effect artistic grandeur, but to inform and educate” (Chaffee, 1993). Not only is his work provocative, he is able to keep his identity intentionally anonymous despite years in the business so that viewers are able to focus on the art at present. To reinforce the mystery, he adopted a pseudonym in which he is referred.
Stencils have the “potential to be extremely powerful because they are completely open to the viewer’s interpretation” in contrast to a capitalist world where the “need for everything to have a fixed meaning within the market economy, the open sign of the stencil can be disorienting, confusing, or even liberatory… because the public is never encouraged to think critically, but instead simply absorb pre-defined meanings ” (Macphee, 2004). Banksy uses graffiti to employ visually stimulating images of social commentary and satire based on politics, culture, and ethics. In his book, Wall and Piece, Banksy claims: “The people who truly deface our neighborhoods 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 this fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back” (Banksy, 2006). In the world of superficiality - advertisements, billboards, and commercials – Banksy counters with art that provokes the viewer to reflect, if not act, on the problems prevalent today: obesity, terror, hope, etc. There is an “established code that resists the move away from their street-culture roots into the realms of popular culture, commercialization, and the Internet” that is abided by the mantra of ‘keeping it real’ and “any writer who appears to have ‘sold out’ is snubbed” (Rahn, 2002). By remaining true to his beliefs, Banksy remains a respected artist in the graffiti world despite using various modes of media to gain popularity. His most recent project includes the much-anticipated documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop, which made its debut at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Although Banksy regards graffiti as legitimate art, the fact of the matter is his choice of canvass – wall, building, a billboard – falls under the category of public property, considered by the government as defacement or vandalism. Home is in Bristol, UK, but he opts to leave a message in various parts of the world during his travels abroad, hitting cities that include Melbourne, New York City, and Berlin. In places like New York and Palestine where “graffiti writing on public property is illegal,” Banksy manages to transcend vandalism into valued art (Lachmann, 1988). The nature of the graffiti artist is the deviant, in which mainstream ideas are challenged under their terms in response to society’s use of urban space for “mainstream ideas, reproducing political and economic ideologies of the society in which they operate” (Appel, 2006). Graffiti art is a form of self-expression that ‘keeps it real’ to compensate for the large community that gives in to popular culture and trends. Sticklers of the law are steadfast in belief that the defacement of public property is a crime, “making [our] neighborhoods look squalid, damaging people’s property and when it’s racist or offensive, it causes fear and heartache” (EnCams, 2004). However, the streets were never clean to begin with because they have been tagged by adverts in a socially accepted way. “Every street is stained gray with car fumes, every brand is advertisement on giant billboards all over our landscape, every multinational has encrusted its logo in every part of our lives, [and] credit card stickers on shop windows outnumber our stickers” (Ganz & Macdonald, 2006). These are ways in which society stakes their territory and claim on consumers in a government approved, paid, legal fashion.
What sets Banksy’s graffiti aside from vandalism are his motivational factors – thought provoking, often satirical commentary on culture - and use of stencil art to create what he believes and consequently what viewers appreciate as art. His career opportunities – two documentaries, a display at MoMA, New York art galleries, and commissions – are determined “by the ways in which they are labeled by people outside their social milieus” (Lachmann, 1988). Laws and government, much like gender and class, are given power through social constructs and by citizens who uphold the accepted truth. Banksy is an anomaly, an exception to the rule, in that his art is acclaimed by the mass rather than rejected. Not only does his stencil graffiti follow an aesthetic criterion, but his “art form far outweighs the criticism of illegality, coherence, and non-standard presentation” (Stowers, 1997). The stenciled images are used to portray what society thinks but is not willing to voice. All it took for Banksy’s stencils to more widely transcend vandalism was for one person or many persons of status to deem his art as important. In this case, he was able to grab the attention of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, amongst a largely dispersed following. Consumers, arguably lemmings, give in to what is ‘cool’ and if a celebrity is willing to dish out massive amounts of money for a Banksy original art piece, consequently society’s belief will merge with what appears to be true: Banksy’s graffiti is art.
How then, are you supposed to sell an original if the original is a working part of a factory building…or the Berlin Wall? Auctioneers have been known to salvage art pieces, carving them out of walls and dealing with consequences later, to make profit. However, authenticity of auctioned Banksy pieces are often unverified unless confirmed by the artist himself or by a representative (Colleen-White, 2008). Auctioned pieces are often left up to the winning bidder to claim by undisclosed means. He is also known to be commissioned for an assorted amount of projects that include books, films, and exhibitions, some of which are paid. This begs the question - Is he a sell-out? Making a living off of graffiti is in a sense, a part of the norm in that he works and for his labor, gets paid. Yet most of his art is given away freely, and many consider the appearance of his art in a neighborhood as an act of public service (Taylor, 2005). But Banksy’s reason and motivation behind his art has never deterred or been compromised, thus ‘keeping it real’ to the graffiti code. Throughout his stencils, there is a focus on the satire of government, society, and media – all of which influence and echo the way people live. There are two reoccurring images, the rat and balloons, popularized by Banksy and most easily recognized by the majority that reflect his themes.