The story of Banksy begins in the United Kingdom, with a man named John Nation in the Barton Hill district of Bristol. Following a bout of violence at the age of 15, Nation was sent to a detention center, and then eventually taken in as a part time worker at the Barton Hill Youth Center, which largely focused on 5-a-side football and occasional concerts. Nation, though not an artist himself, became deeply interested in graffiti and urban art, when he visited Amsterdam and came across the city’s main graffiti collective. After this exposure, he decided that the Barton Hill Youth Center would become the graffiti center of Bristol. He began communicating with graffiti taggers, and started receiving photos of work from around Europe through the mail. Additionally, he began photographing every piece he stumbled upon, in order to create a sort of visual reference library for the young artists of the city. With this, he turned the Youth Center into a legal venue for graffiti and aerosol art, stocking the place with paint, markers, and spray nozzles, to discourage ‘vandals’ from stealing their supplies from stores. In many respects, he was successful at turning Barton Hill into a graffiti Mecca, with artists coming from Bristol, the rest of the UK, and even further afield. This safe haven did not last long, as many of the artists who would visit the youth club also tagged trains, walls, doors, and more all over Bristol. As such, a lengthy and expensive operation (costing close to one million pounds) was put into place to try to catch the many artists who were tagging the city. By March 1989, over seventy-two artists were arrested and fined between ten pounds and 2000 pounds. John Nation himself was charged with inciting others towards criminal behavior. Although he was eventually found not guilty, the police won a decided victory and significantly decreased the level of illegal graffiti throughout the city.55 It was following this event that Banksy, then 15, first showed up at Barton Hill. Nation recalls Banksy’s arrival towards the end of his time at the Youth Center. Banksy was much younger than many of the artists there, and at first he would just tag along. Over the following years, Banksy slowly began to make his presence known in Bristol under the name Robin Banx. However, his alias quickly evolved to Banksy. It was during this time that he started experimenting with his mediums as well: would he be a graffiti writer, a freehand artist, or a stencil writer? While to some, there is no differentiation between these options, to the artists of the underground world, the difference is huge.
Banksy created his own style when he was 18. Though he has given several explanations for his switch to stencil art, the most popular story he has told is from his book Wall and Piece, where he relates when he was in the middle of painting a train with friends when the British Transport Police showed up:
In other accounts, he reveals that he left graffiti because he ‘was 21 and crap’ where stencils were ‘quick, clean, crisp and efficient’, that he ‘wasn’t good at freehand graffiti’, and he was ‘too slow’. Perhaps the most honest account on his switch from free hand to stencil comes from talking to Tristan Manco, an author who writes about graffiti and art, and friend of Banksy. Banksy told Manco:
the rest of my mates made it to the car and disappeared so I spent over an hour hidden under a dumper truck with engine oil leaking all over me. As I lay there listening to the cops on the tracks I realized that I had to cut my painting time in half or give up altogether. I was staring straight up at the stenciled plate on the bottom of a fuel tank when I realized I could just copy that style and make each letter three feet high.56
Despite his claim that he was not very good at freehand, Banksy did not switch to stencils overnight. Instead, he experimented with adding stencil into his free hand paintings and he created pieces with both mediums in it. What set Banksy apart from the other artists working in Bristol was his ability to coordinate and his motivation to pull artists together in a way that had not been done before. In 1998, Banksy, with the help of a fellow artist called Inkie, organized an event called “Walls on Fire” which would cover 400 meters of walls on the buildings around Bristol harbor. Inkie provided the necessary contacts, but everything else, getting permission to legally paint the walls, sourcing paint, hiring out DJ’s, inviting artists, and assigning space, was all organized by Banksy. All in all, the event was a huge success, with John Nation, whom Banksy had gained sponsorship, calling it ‘the best event ever’.58 Just a few months later, Banksy completed one of his final pieces in Bristol, entitled the Mild, Mild, West, which depicted a teddy bear throwing a Molotov bomb at three police officers. As Will Ellsworth-Jones, author of Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, put it, ‘the history of this piece illustrates Banksy’s extraordinary trajectory through the art world’.59 There was no backlash from the police, nor the anti-graffiti squad following the creation of the piece, but rather, as years went on, the piece was voted to be a new landmark for the city of Bristol. A land developer even proposed to encase the wall in glass as part of a new building proposal.
I started off painting graffiti in the classic New York style you use when you listen to too much hip hop as a kid, but I was never very good at it. As soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there. The ruthlessness and the efficiency of it is perfect… I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.57
Since leaving Bristol, Banksy has organized several shows, among which his 2013 show Better Out Than In, and his 2015 show Dismaland. In 2013 Banksy took up residence in New York for the month of October, to host a show he entitled Better Out Than In. During the month, he unveiled a new work each day, ending with thirty-one new Figure 14 Figure 15 pieces throughout the city, the majority being stencils with a political agenda. Two years later Banksy organized Dismaland (2015), which exhibited the works of fifty-eight artists, and was open to the public for five weeks. Additionally, from 2000-2015, he has published several books, and been exhibited in many solo shows in various museums from New York to London. He has been featured in two separate documentaries, and has been the primary subject of several books written about Street Art. Furthermore, his works appeared on the walls of various cities around the world, and he was honored as Art’s Greatest Living Briton in 2007. As previously mentioned, the artist was even included in the list of most influential people drawn by Time Magazine in 2010. Banksy’s art has served as inspiration for amateur and professional artists alike, and has been widely recognized and beloved by the public. Banksy is representative of Street Art as a whole, but more specifically, his work with stencils will serve as the example of stencil art I shall discuss in chapter 3, where I will address the Musealization of Street Art.
53 ‘Banksy (Defaced Hirst)’, Sotheby's, 2008
54 ‘The 2010 TIME 100 – TIME’, TIME.Com, 2010
55 The information regarding John Nation and the Barton Hill Youth Club comes the following book: Will Ellsworth-Jones, Banksy (New York, N.Y.: St Martin's Press, 2013).
56 Banksy, Banksy: Wall and Piece (London: Century, 2005).
60 See note 8, above.