Anonymous British graffiti artist, activist, and film director Banksy is among the world’s most celebrated street artist. Banksy’s pseudonym has become synonymous with politically engaged artwork: he often returns to themes of anti-capitalist, anti-war, and anti-imperialist sentiments, homelessness, refugee crises, and other societal ills and usually sites his pieces at locations charged with geopolitical significance. Currently ranked as the fifth best-selling artist ever at auction, Banksy describes himself as a “quality vandal.”
While his identity has remained unknown for the entirety of his thirty-year-long career, Banksy’s influence has permeated every sphere of pop culture. A 2017 poll revealed that Banksy’s Girl with Balloon is the United Kingdom’s favorite artwork. One of his murals of two policemen kissing appears in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian sci-fi film Children of Men (2006), while a film the artist directed, Exit Through the Gift Shop, was nominated in the category of Best Documentary at the 2011 Oscars.
Banksy made headlines in 2018 when, moments after its sale at Sotheby’s for a then-record $1.4 million, his work Girl with the Balloon, a paper shredder embedded in its frame activated, destroying the bottom half of the artwork. This now-famous stunt triggered a rapid rise in the artist’s market. Last year, the maimed artwork, now titled Love is in the Bin, went back to auction and set a record for the artist, hammering for $25.4 million—four times its pre-sale low estimate.
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Though best known for his public installations, Banksy has sold silkscreen prints and stencil paintings of his now-iconic images at auction since 1998 and on the primary market since 2002. While a Banksy print could be purchased for just a few hundred dollars in the early 2000s, even those editioned pieces now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Significantly, it is no longer even possible to buy a Banksy on the primary market, as he and his authentication firm, Pest Control, stopped issuing new prints in 2017. Although many people have attempted to capitalize on the artist’s fame and anonymity by creating fake Banksys, Pest Control retains a tight hold on the authentication of his available artworks.
Banksy originally made graffiti in a more traditional freehand style, but around 2000 he turned to his now characteristic stenciled approach. In 2003, one of these stenciled murals appeared on the recently constructed West Bank Wall in Bethlehem. Entitled Love is in the Air, the piece depicted a protestor about to toss a bouquet of flowers over the partition and spoke to conflict in the Middle east. The following year, his work Kissing Coppers appeared in Brighton, the home of England’s largest annual pride celebration. Also in 2004, Banksy created Napalm, a print that alters a famous image of a young girl fleeing bombs in the Vietnam war by portraying Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald on either side of her, symbolizing America’s involvement in wars abroad.
In 2005, Banksy began producing unique oil paintings, perhaps the most well-known of which is Show me the Monet. Exhibited as part of his exhibition “Crude Oils,” the work, a “vandalized” copy of Claude Monet’s Impressionist painting of a Japanese bridge spanning a lily pond, fills the body of water with an orange traffic cone and upturned shopping carts, symbols of urban detritus. The 2009 oil painting Devoted Parliament casts members of the British Parliament as chimpanzees. Throughout his oeuvre, Banksy demonstrates that he is now afraid to take on the often taboo subjects of modern life.
In line with his concern for social issues, Banksy has throughout his career raised money for various philanthropic endeavors. My Art Broker estimates that he has generated around $30 million dollars for charity. In May of 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the artist mailed his work Game Changer to Southampton General Hospital with a note reading “Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens up the place a bit, even if it’s in black and white.” The oil painting depicts a small child playing with superhero toys, one of which is a NHS nurse wearing a mask and a cape. Game Changer stayed at the hospital for ten months before going to auction, where it hammered for $16.75 million, nearly seven times its pre-sale low estimate of $2.5 million. All of the proceeds were donated to the NHS.
Other charitable works include his 2019 Christmas mural, sold to benefit the Midland Langar Seva Society, an organization which benefits the homeless; How Heavy It Weighs, 2015, a sculpture of an overloaded boat raffled to raise money for the charity Help Refugees; and The Banality of the Banality of Evil, 2014, which generated $615K for New York’s Housing Works. Instead of cashing in on his fame for only personal gain, Banksy deploys his celebrity to help those in need and is sure to be remembered as one of the twenty-first century’s most socially engaged artists.
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