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Banksy melds street-fighting passion and pacifist ardor in his image of a protester whose Molotov cocktail morphs into a bouquet. (Pixelbully / Alamy)

The Story Behind Banksy

On his way to becoming an international icon, the subversive and secretive street artist turned the art world upside-down

Banksy became an international star in 2005. In August, he arrived in Israel, where he painted a series of images on the West Bank’s concrete wall, part of the barrier built to try to stop suicide bombers. Images of a girl clutching balloons as she is transported to the top of a wall; two stenciled children with bucket and spade dreaming of a beach; and a boy with a ladder propped against the wall were poignant meditations on the theme of escape.

Two months after returning from Israel, Banksy’s London exhibition “Crude Oils” took the art of the subversive mash-up to new heights—Claude Monet’s Water Lilies reworked to include trash and shopping carts floating among lily pads; a street hooligan smashing the window depicted in a reimagining of Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks. A signature Banksy touch included 164 rats—live rats—skittering around the gallery and testing critics’ mettle.

There was an inevitability to Banksy’s incursion into Los Angeles with the show “Barely Legal” in September 2006. “Hollywood,” he once said, “is a town where they honor their heroes by writing their names on the pavement to be walked on by fat people and peed on by dogs. It seemed like a great place to come and be ambitious.” Crowds of 30,000 or so, among them Brad Pitt, were in attendance. “[Banksy] does all this and he stays anonymous,” Pitt told the LA Times, almost wistfully. “I think that’s great.”

The exhibition centerpiece was an 8,000-pound live elephant, slathered in red paint and overlaid with a fleur-de-lis pattern. L.A.’s outspoken animal-rights advocates were incensed; the authorities ordered the paint to be washed off. Fliers distributed to the glittering crowd made the point that “There’s an elephant in the room...20 billion people live below the poverty line.”

In February 2008, seven months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, New York’s rich and famous gathered at Sotheby’s for a night of serious spending. The event, organized by Bono, artist Damien Hirst, Sotheby’s and the Gagosian Gallery, turned out to be the biggest charity art auction ever, raising $42.5 million to support AIDS programs in Africa.

Banksy’s Ruined Landscape, a pastoral scene with the slogan “This is not a photo opportunity” pasted across it, sold for $385,000. A Vandalized Phone Box, an actual British phone booth bent nearly 90 degrees and bleeding red paint where a pick­ax had pierced it, commanded $605,000. Three years later the buyer was revealed to be Mark Getty, grandson of J. Paul Getty.

Banksy took on the medium of film in Exit Through the Gift Shop, an antic, sideways 2010 documentary on the creation and marketing of street art. The New York Times described it as paralleling Banksy’s best work: “a trompe l’oeil: a film that looks like a documentary but feels like a monumental con.” It was short-listed for an Oscar in the 2010 documentary category.

When the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles put on its comprehensive survey of street art and graffiti in 2011, Banksy was well represented in the field of 50 artists. The show was a high-profile demonstration of the phenomenon that has come to be known as the “Banksy effect”—the artist’s astounding success in bringing urban, outsider art into the cultural, and increasingly profitable, mainstream.

It could be said that Banksy’s subversiveness diminishes as his prices rise. He may well have reached the tipping point where his success makes it impossible for him to remain rooted in the subculture he emerged from.

The riots in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol in spring 2011 offer a cautionary tale. The episode began after police raided protesters, who were opposed to the opening of a Tesco Metro supermarket and living as squatters in a nearby apartment. The authorities later said that they took action after receiving information that the group was making petrol bombs. Banksy’s response was to produce a £5 “commemorative souvenir poster” of a “Tesco Value Petrol Bomb,” its fuse alight. The proceeds, he stated on his website, were to go to the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, a neighborhood-revival organization. Banksy’s generosity was not universally welcomed. Critics denounced the artist as a “Champagne Socialist.”

He has countered this kind of charge repeatedly, for instance, telling the New Yorker by e-mail: “I give away thousands of paintings for free. I don’t think it’s possible to make art about world poverty and trouser all the cash.” (On his website, he provides high-resolution images of his work for free downloading.)

The irony, he added, that his anti-establishment art commands huge prices isn’t lost on him. “I love the way capitalism finds a place—even for its enemies. It’s definitely boom time in the discontent industry. I mean how many cakes does Michael Moore get through?”

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