The Politics of Banksy
Never one to shy away from current affairs, Banksy has been raising the profile of various political causes for decades. We take a look back at some of his most thought-provoking pieces…
1. Banksy’s star turn
Back in May 2017 when Brexit was a distant rumble, Banksy daubed a gigantic EU flag on a Dover building, alongside a workman on a ladder, busy chiselling off one of its stars. Immediately visible to anyone arriving at the harbour by car or lorry, the location of the mural was a reminder that the UK was saying goodbye to its neighbours just across the Channel. It was later painted over in mysterious circumstances (nobody has yet owned up and even Dover council has expressed dismay), but experts are hopeful that it might be restored one day. Following the cover up, Banksy announced that he had planned to make changes to the mural on Brexit Day, hoping to depict the fallen EU flag in a heap on the floor. He added, “Nevermind. I guess a big white flag says it just as well.”
Brexit, 2017. Courtesy of the National
2. A thank you to the NHS superheroes
In the midst of Covid’s first wave, a Banksy piece appeared at Southampton General Hospital in tribute to the heroism of NHS workers. Entitled ‘Game Changer’, the framed painting features a boy playing with a nurse doll wearing a superhero cape and a face mask, while Batman and Spiderman languish in the bin. The piece appeared overnight in a corridor, alongside a note which said, “Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit.” Banksy has stated that the drawing will eventually be auctioned to raise money for NHS charities, with experts suggesting a value of more than £5 million.
Game Changer by Banksy, 2020 at Southhampton General Hospital. Courtesy of The Observer
3. Break for the border
More than 15 years ago, Banksy created one of his most iconic pieces on the wall of a garage in the West Bank. Love Is In The Air/Flower Thrower depicts a masked man throwing a bunch of flowers as others might chuck a hand grenade and is instantly recognisable. The piece was the beginning of a body of work raising the profile of the Palestinian area close to the Separation Wall with Israel, and enticed more visitors to the area. Two years later, a provocative image of a white dove holding an olive branch, clad in a bulletproof vest, appeared on the wall alongside a little girl frisking a soldier. And decade later, Banksy went on to open the Walled-Off Hotel opposite the barrier, staging an ‘Alternativity’ acted by local children and created in conjunction with director Danny Boyle. As a backdrop, the artist depicted two cherubs mischievously crowbarring the wall apart.
Love Is In The Air/Flower Thrower, 2005
4. The smart way to avoid a court battle
Banksy made a big statement in Croydon in 2019, after a greetings card company threatened to use his name for a range of unauthorised merchandise. At the wrong end of (quite possibly the wrong) town, he set up a shopfront entitled ‘Gross Domestic Product’ which displayed a range of signed merchandise to demonstrate that he was using his own name and so it couldn’t be taken by anyone else. Featuring a bulletproof vest worn by Stormzy at Glastonbury alongside signed spray cans, police helmets with disco ball coverings, and welcome mats woven with life vests that had washed up on the shores of the Med, the pieces were sold on a dedicated website to raise money for the migrant rescue ship, Louise Michel.
Gross Domestic Product by Banksy, 2019. Courtesy of the National
5. A devastating view of the European migrant crisis
Following on from his support for migrant charities in 2019, Banksy sold this triptych through Sotheby’s to raise money for the BASR hospital in Bethlehem. Entitled Mediterranean Sea View 2017, it consists of three paintings in the style of 19th-century seascapes, with added abandoned life rafts and jackets to highlight the plight of refugees attempting crossings to Europe. Originally on display in the reception area of the Walled Off Hotel, the triptych sold for £2.2million – the second highest ever recorded price for a Banksy work.
Mediterranean Sea View 2017 by Banksy, 2017. Courtesy of Sotheby's.
6. Graffiti artists welcome?
Ahead of its hugely successful Basquiat exhibition Boom For Real, Banksy decided to poke fun at the Barbican’s hate/hate relationship with graffiti. Basquiat started his art career by tagging the New York streets as SAMO, so Banksy created a piece in which a borrowed Basquiat self-portrait (from the painting Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, 1982) was frisked by two policemen performing a stop and search. In a second piece, Banksy showed people queuing for a ferris wheel with booths made from Basquiat’s trademark crowns. An accompanying Instagram caption read, “Major new Basquiat show opens at The Barbican – a place that is normally very keen to clean any graffiti from its walls.” Ironically, the Banksy pieces have been allowed to stay too and are now protected by Perspex (although accompanying tags by other artists have been removed).
Banksy's Portrait of Basquiat Being Welcomed by the Metropolitan Police, 2018. Courtesy of Dezeen.