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It’s one of the most debated art forms of the last fifty years. Graffiti, is it art or vandalism? The short answer is it’s both. Graffiti is often created illegally in public spaces and can range from crude spray-painted signatures (or tags) to elaborate pieces of art depicting everything from pop culture figures to war protests. But ultimately it’s all artistic expression.
It’s not a new thing though. Graffiti’s been around for centuries. There are examples dating back to the time of Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. But the spray-paint graffiti of today can be traced back to the emerging hip-hop culture of the late seventies, which closely linked rap music, breakdancing and graffiti art together. Stencilling, the preferred method of Banksy, was more a part of the punk scene, which rose to prominence around the same time.
Largely, the perpetrators are anonymous, despite their work often being signed, although there are people who have made a name for themselves publicly producing graffiti art. Back in the early days of the art form, New York artists Lee Quinones and Freddie Brathwaite were given a gallery opening in Rome by art dealer Claudio Bruni.
There are also numerous examples of artists like John Robertson, also known as King Robbo, being commissioned to create art works as well as staging their own exhibitions.
The UK’s Banksy is unquestionably the most famous practitioner of the art form, and has become an indelible part British pop culture in the same way Andy Warhol did in America. Many of his works are as recognisable as Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych or Campbell’s Soup Can, or even, for that matter, the works of artists like Monet or Van Gogh.
The difference is Banksy doesn’t create in the traditional way, and because many of his most famous pieces are in public places, they’re difficult to sell, although that hasn’t stopped people removing sections of walls to sell his work. He also doesn’t stick to a single medium.
Originally, Banksy made a name for himself with stencil art, though he’s also created what could only be described as pop-up sculptures like his piece Death of a Phone Box which appeared overnight in a backstreet of London’s Soho.
He also loves a good stunt. On numerous occasions he’s hung his own work in famous museums, he replaced hundreds of Paris Hilton CDs with his own version of the album, and he placed a Guantanamo Bay-esque figure in a Disneyland ride.
Most recently, he ‘destroyed’ one of his own works while it was being auctioned at Sotheby’s London. The moment the spray-painted stencil art was sold for £1,042,000, the artwork began to shred itself. A shredder had previously been installed within its Victorian frame.
Moments later, a video of the artwork’s self-destruction was posted on his Twitter account with the caption ‘Going Going Gone’. Whether the shredder was activated and filmed by the artist himself is unclear – it wouldn’t be the first time he’s hired people to participate in his stunts, and his true identity is known only to a few of his most trusted art allies.
Banksy could well be the most famous artist of our time, and very few people actually know who he is. Which is also part of the allure of his art – it could have literally been made by anyone.