Banksy - Biography and Legacy

British Graffiti Artist, Political Activist, and Film Director

Born: c. 1965 - 1974 - Bristol, England

Biography of Banksy


Very little is known of Banksy's youth, as he continues to keep his true identity a secret. It is reported that he played (as goalkeeper) with the Easton Cowboys football club during the 1990s and early 2000s. According to Will Simpson, another long-time member of the Easton Cowboys, Banksy went on tour with the team to Mexico in 2001 and painted a number of murals in the communities they played in, including one painting that was "raffled off to raise money for water projects in Chiapas in southwestern Mexico."

According to investigation of several alleged former schoolmates and associates, along with indication by the geographic locations of Banksy's work, the artist is believed to be Robin Gunningham, a former student at the public Bristol Cathedral School. There has also been speculation that rather than being a single person, Banksy is a team of seven artists.

Education and Early training

Because of his anonymity, not much can be surmised about Banksy's education or training in art. Yet, from very early on in his career we find a creative proficiency with using original imagery to develop his own unique voice - one that combined controversial and humorous visuals to create anti-war, anti-capitalism, and anti-establishment messages.

In the early 1990s, Banksy began working as a freehand graffiti artist with the DryBreadZ Crew (DBZ) in his hometown of Bristol. Around 1994, he turned to stencil art, inspired by fellow street artist 3D who later became a founding member of the band Massive Attack. Stencils are traditionally hand drawn or printed onto sheets of acetate or card stock, and then cut out by hand. The stencils are then affixed to a surface, such as a wall, and spray-painted. When the stencil is removed, the image remains. This first signature tool allowed Banksy to execute pieces on the fly. Like many street artists, he adopted common recurring motifs such as apes, policemen, soldiers, rioters, children, and the elderly to mark his stamp in public spaces, which quickly began to garner a following. By proliferating these iconic-stenciled images around Bristol and London, he rapidly gained the attention of the street art community and the general public.

Banksy's first known mural, <i>The Mild Mild West</i> (1997), depicting a teddy bear lobbing a Molotov cocktail at three police officers

A prototypical street artist, Banksy justified his vandalism of public space, and his use of the city as canvas, as being a direct response to what he called "Brandalism," or, "any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not...The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl 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."

Banksy's signature rat image, which acts as a self-portrait of the devious, nocturnally active artist

Banksy also frequently used rats in his art, as did his predecessor, the street artist Blek le Rat, who once stated, "I began to spray some small rats in the streets of Paris because rats are the only wild animals living in cities, and only rats will survive when the human race disappears and dies out." In Banksy's work, these nocturnal creatures (to most people associated with disease and infestation) can be understood as a sort of pseudonym or self-portrait of the artist who completes his illegal works under the cover of darkness.

Banksy said, "If you feel dirty, insignificant, or unloved, then rats are a good role model. They exist without permission, they have no respect for the hierarchy of society, and they have sex 50 times a day." The word "rat" also serves as an anagram of "art," although Banksy has admitted that he painted rats for several years before someone made him aware of this fact. Rats also happen to be rare vermin that resist deep hatred by humans, and have the survival skills to get by – somewhat like Street Artists that evade authority and operate often under the cover of darkness.

In the 1990s he met Bristol photographer Steve Lazarides, who began photographing Banksy and his work, and then went on to become his agent until 2009. Lazarides recently stated, "When I first met this scruffy, grumpy guy back in 1997, I would have never guessed that 20 years on he would be the most famous artist of his generation, and that his work would be studied on school curriculums." He also says, "I worked with him [Banksy] for 11 glorious years, during which time we broke every rule in the art rule book along with a fair few laws. He has since gone on to become a global superstar and has retained his ability to shock and make people chuckle."

After Banksy's professional relationship with Lazarides ended, he created his own organization, Pest Control, which acts as sole representative and contact liaison for his work, in charge of verifying authorship of his pieces and issuing documents of provenance to buyers.

Mature Period

In the early 2000s, Banksy evolved from stenciling the streets to creating prankster projects, staging public interventions within well-established art institutions, and organizing exhibitions in addition to continuing with his unsanctioned public works, all the while retaining his carefully cloaked invisibility within the public eye. Much of these efforts poked fun at art as commodity, or made specific statements on the way we are force-fed popular culture through mainstream mass distribution, and challenged our common culpability in consuming marketing, political, or media messages as truth.

In the early 2000s, Banksy began holding exhibitions and performing interventions within well-established art institutions, in addition to continuing with his unsanctioned public interventions. For example, he produced 100,000 fake British £10 bills, putting in a photo of Diana, Princess of Wales, and updating text to "Banksy of England".

In March 2005, he surreptitiously placed modified versions of artworks (such as a Warhol-esque painting of a discount soup can) in the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn.

In August/September of 2006, Banksy placed approximately 500 copies of Paris Hilton's debut CD, Paris, in 48 record stores around the UK, modified with his own cover art (Photoshopped to show Hilton topless). Other versions featured: Paris with her Chihuahua, Paris with Tinkerbell's head replacing her own, or Paris stepping out of a luxury car amongst a group of homeless people, which included the caption "90% of success is just showing up." Music tracks were given titles such as "Why Am I Famous?" "What Have I Done?" and "What Am I For?" Members of the public purchased many copies of the guerilla CD before stores were able to remove them. The purchased copies went on to be sold for as much as £750 on online auction websites.

In September 2006, Banksy dressed an inflatable doll in an orange jumpsuit, black hood, and handcuffs in resemblance of a Guantanamo Bay detainment camp prisoner. He then placed the doll below the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, where it remained for 90 minutes before the ride was shut down and the figure removed. By placing a harsh symbol of political reality within a noted escapist environment, Banksy was remarking on our propensity for keeping our eyes wide shut.

The “elephant in the room” at Banksy's 2006 <i>Barely Legal</i> exhibition in LA

At his Barely Legal exhibition of 2006 in Los Angeles, which drew a celebrity crowd including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Banksy rented a live 38-year old female Indian elephant named Tai, painted in the same red and gold floral pattern as the wallpaper behind it. This “elephant in the room” was meant as a reminder of our ongoing ignorance of poverty around the world. Due to rights activists complaints, the elephant was not painted for the final day of the show, even though her handlers said that she had done "many, many movies [and is] used to makeup,” meaning that painting her was not a form of mistreatment.

In London, over the weekend of May 3-5, 2008, Banksy hosted an exhibition titled The Cans Festival (a play on words of the famous French film festival Cannes). Stencil artists from around the world (including Faile from Brooklyn, Bandit from the Netherlands, Run Don't Walk from Argentina, and James Dodd from Australia) were invited to paint their original artwork, as long as it did not cover or interfere with anyone else's. It took place in a road tunnel formerly used by Eurostar underneath the London Waterloo station. The location was kept secret while the works were completed, and only then revealed to the public. Eurostar agreed to leave the works intact for at least six months following the event.

In August 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina and the associated levee failure disaster, Banksy produced a series of work in New Orleans, Louisiana, mostly on buildings that had yet to be repaired. He said, "Three years after Katrina I wanted to make a statement about the state of the cleanup operation." He also painted on the rebuilt levee wall, which according to him offered "the best painting surface in the state of Louisiana."

On June 13, 2009, the Banksy vs. Bristol Museum exhibition opened at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. The show featured more than 100 artworks (78 of which were new works), including animatronics, sculptures, and installations. The show drew over 8,500 visitors on the first weekend, and over 300,000 over the course of twelve weeks.

In December 2009, Banksy marked the end of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference by painting four murals on global warming. One included the phrase, "I don't believe in global warming," submerged in water.

At the London Zoo, Banksy climbed into the penguin enclosure and painted "We're bored of fish" in 7-foot-high letters. He also left the message "I want out. This place is too cold. Keeper smells. Boring, boring, boring." in the elephant enclosure.

In 2010, Banksy's oeuvre expanded into filmmaking after he employed aspiring street artist Thierry Guetta as an assistant and documentarian on several visits to Los Angeles. He encouraged Guetta to pursue making art, which he did, closely following Banksy's example to ultimately become the branded graffiti artist Mr. Brainwash. This journey became the focus of Banksy's 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which was nominated for an Oscar. Banksy released a statement about the nomination saying: "This is a big surprise... I don't agree with the concept of award ceremonies, but I'm prepared to make an exception for the ones I'm nominated for. The last time there was a naked man covered in gold paint in my house, it was me."

From August 21 through September 27, 2015, Banksy opened Dismaland in Weston-super Mare, United Kingdom. The large-scale group show, which included artists Damien Hirst and Jenny Holzer, was a dark and twisted take on Disneyland. The temporary theme park featured a gloomy castle and an overturned Cinderella's carriage.

A lso in 2015, Banksy created several murals in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, which were located in the area of Calais, France’s “jungle”—a site heavily packed with migrants attempting to enter the country. One of these murals ironically depicted Apple founder Steve Jobs, because as the artist described, “We're often led to believe migration is a drain on the country's resources, but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world's most profitable company, it pays over $7bn a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.”

2017 saw Banksy collaborating with artists Sami Musa and Dominique Petrin to design the Walled Off Hotel, a real space of lodging in Bethlehem that the artist financed to mark the 100th anniversary of British control in Palestine. Also, housing an art gallery, the hotel was tightly surrounded by a wall that each of the bedrooms directly faced, rather than the prototypical vacation views. Although Banksy’s work shows a clear predilection for views in support of social justice, pieces created in this geographical area, have come under criticism by people and organizations such as because of their one-sided, sometimes borderline anti-semitic, messages.

In 2018, Banksy returned to New York City after a five-year absence for a graffiti spree that titillated the public with a spray of fresh works. Some works, such as a trademark rat running around a large clock face, were torn down quickly but others such as a portrait of imprisoned Kurdish artist Zehra Dogan on the Bowery Wall became adopted works into the fabric of the city.

The end of 2018 would bring to light a stroke of artistic genius from Banksy, in an unforgettable pre-strategized prank that rocked the art world’s stuffy foundation. One of Banksy’s prior works Balloon Girl was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for 1.04 million pounds, yet just as the gavel sound confirmed the piece was sold, an alarm sounded from inside the picture frame and the piece started to pass through a shredder that had been buried inside. The antic would go down in history as presenting the first piece of artwork, created guerilla-style, in the midst of an auction.

Work titled <i>Season's Greetings</i>, stencilled onto a garage in Port Talbot, Wales

The event would also represent an evolution in Banksy’s nearly two decades long career where the artist’s strict anonymity had become concretely replaced by a worldwide recognition so vast, it would inevitably change the future course of his works. No longer abetted by the street art underground’s codas of secrecy, Banksy had become undeniably familiar, accepted, easily recognized, and sought after by the public at large. This became blindingly clear in 2018, when he painted the mural Season’s Greetings on a garage in Wales. The two-sided piece depicted a child tasting snowflakes which were revealed to be smoke and embers from a fire. The town was immediately abuzz about the possibility of the work being done by Banksy, the garage owner expressed fear and anxiety over the responsibility of protecting the piece from vandalism, and eventually a plastic screen and security guards were funded to cover the work.

This new reality has manifested in an emerging visibility by Banksy, of which he remains unseen yet engages on social media applications such as Instagram with his public; it is a place fans and collectors follow now to confirm authorship of Banksy’s works as he actively posts new pieces and claims creation.

His art continues to tantalize the status quo and shed light on our societal woes. Staying ever relevant within the arena of current events, Banksy recognized healthcare workers on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 by creating, dedicating, and donating a painting to the University Hospital of Southampton.

The Legacy of Banksy

Via a recent stunt, this Banksy image has become immensely popular. This photo is of the stencil work in South Bank, London

On May 21, 2007 Banksy was selected to receive an award for Greatest Living Briton. Along with other artists like Shepard Fairey, Zevs, D*Face, and Ron English, he is credited with transforming graffiti from the typical "bubble writing" style of the 1980s to the "narrative-driven street art" of today. This contemporary street art varies significantly in aesthetic and materials, from Banksy's stencils, to Swoon's wheat paste posters, to Zevs' "liquidated logos" technique, to Space Invader's tile art. Other street artists, such as his protégé Mr. Brainwash, have adopted Banksy's particular style of instantly recognizable images such as corporate mascots and famous historical paintings.

This "guerrilla art," also referred to as "post-graffiti art," which Banksy helped develop, often plays heavily upon location and context as part of the work, and seeks to regain power from stronger enemies (such as corporations and governments). These artists accomplish this by carrying out interventions in corporate and government spaces (such as billboards, storefronts, and barrier walls), and by co-opting corporate and government images (such as logos, mascots, political figures, and official currency). Banksy has also pioneered the use of alternative venues for the display of street art, as in his 2003 exhibition Turf War, which was staged in a warehouse on Kingsland Road in London's East End.

Moreover, his art has sold for extremely high prices at auction, with pieces being purchased by collectors and celebrities alike for millions of dollars, making Banksy one of the first street artists to become part of the commercial art market. However, this commercial success troubles the artist, who says that "Commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist," and "We're not supposed to be embraced in that way." He continues to believe that "When graffiti isn't criminal, it loses most of its innocence." This is an ongoing controversy in the art world, with many artists being seen as "sell-outs" when they embrace the mainstream art world success. Banksy's establishment of representatives and liaisons for points of sale of his work has furthered this controversy. However, many other street artists (including equally famous Shepard Fairey) argue that they use this legitimate income to fund further illicit, unsanctioned guerrilla art.

Banksy's reception on a universal scale has also legitimized graffiti as a viable form of public art, furthering debate between vandalism as criminal activity and vandalism as an artist's creative medium (in a way, becoming a symbol of freedom). Many of his works remain on buildings and other public spaces because of their contemporary value, even if at the time of their creation, they were seen as illegally concocted. In fact, many building owners have benefitted from becoming "owners" of an original Banksy.

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Banksy Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 16 Feb 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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