With spring in the air, one usually thinks of the flowers and trees in bloom.…
For years, Banksy has been known for his contemporary street art that is often described as evocative, thought provoking, and controversial. The artist, based in England, uses imagery and iconography to take aim at everything from war and fascism, to imperialism and consumerism. Yet, his most recent work emerged from a desire to shine the light on unsung heroes. The piece, titled Game Changer, shows a young boy playing with a nurse doll that is wearing a cape while Batman and Spiderman sit in a toy bin off to the side. The powerful image serves as a reminder that during this COVID-19 pandemic, those on the frontlines, the nurses and doctors, are the real superheroes and the ones we should be applauding and emulating.
Who is Banksy?
Banksy has maintained his anonymity since he first came into the public eye in the late 90’s. As a result, the details about his background and personal life are shrouded in mystery. Many theories abound about the man behind the striking stencil art, the most outlandish of which claims that Banksy is, in fact, composed of a team of seven different artists rather than a single individual. The details of his career, at least, can be pieced together by the various works that have become something akin to icons in the world of contemporary art.
Banksy, the Early Years
In the early to mid 1990’s, Banksy’s work became characterized by the imagery he created with stencils. Typically, he hand draws his images onto pieces of thick cardstock or acetate paper, then places them on a surface (on the wall of a building, in Banksy’s case) and manually cuts them out. Then, he affixes the cutout to the wall and spray paints it so that when he removes the cutout, the image is left behind on the surface. By preparing the design beforehand, Banksy is able to quickly create his artwork before he is spotted and potentially stopped by authorities.
The use of public buildings for his artwork is often criticized and denounced as vandalism. However, Banksy defends his work as an act of defiance of what he calls “Brandalism,”the bombardment of advertisements produced by businesses and corporations that we encounter in everyday life, whether we like it or not. As such, he targets buildings owned by symbols of power and wealth, such as corporate and government buildings to use as his canvas. Banky’s first large mural was created in 1997 in the city of Bristol, England in response to violent police force used against civilians. The Mild Mild West depicts a giant teddy bear facing off against three police officers in riot gear. After this piece gained popularity, Banksy’s work was instantly recognizable and he became synonymous with contemporary street art.
Capturing the Public’s Eyes and Minds
Banksy’s art style is often characterized by the muted colors of black, white and gray, with splashes of red used to punctuate symbols and icons. Rats, which he sees as manifestations of perseverance and survival, are staples of his work, in addition to police officers, soldiers, children, and monkeys. In the 2000’s, Banksy stepped into the public eye more than ever before with his 3D projects and installations. He once placed an inflatable doll wearing an orange prisoner’s jumpsuit below the popular Thunder Mountain roller coaster inside Disneyland. His intention behind this bold statement piece was to remind people that escapism is a very real issue we face in a society surrounded by neverending entertainment. In 2008, Banksy traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana and painted on the remains of buildings destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, seemingly to draw attention to the lack of initial response and action in rebuilding parts of the city.
Making Art History Through Destruction
One of Banksy’s more recent subversive public artworks became a highly-publicized moment in the art world. Girl With Balloon, a striking image of a young girl in a dress reaching out for a floating red-heart balloon, sold for $1.37 million at an art auction in London in October 2018. As soon as the auction closed with the final bid, an alarm went off from within the picture frame, signaling that a built-in shredder had been activated. The painting descended from the frame in pieces, stunning the room into silence. The piece was later renamed Art Is In the Bin and commentators praised the act as a statement regarding art’s place in our society. Many criticize the reality of art turning into a commodity, bought and sold for exorbitant amounts of money by only the wealthiest. Yet, the act of shredding the piece before a crowd at an auction and ultimately creating a new piece of artwork live in the process, ended up increasing the value of the original work. The winner of the auction initially expressed shock at seeing her purchase being shredded into pieces, but eventually realized that she now owned a “piece of art history.”
Focusing the Lens On the Real Heroes
With Game Changer, Banky’s statement may have a lighter tone, but it is just as powerful as any of his previous works. In early May of this year, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, he dropped off a canvas at the NHS Foundation Trust Hospital in Southampton, England with a simple note enclosed. The note read: “Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.” The canvas depicts a child playing with a nurse-superhero doll, her arm outstretched in the typical “Superman” pose as her cape flutters behind her in the air. Unlike his other notable works, Banksy chose to draw this piece on canvas in what appears to be charcoal, instead of spray painting it on a building with a stencil. The hospital staff proudly displayed the canvas, with the CEO of the NHS Foundation Trust, Paula Head, saying the artwork would surely “be a massive boost to morale” for those on the frontline, caring for the sick and saving lives every day.
Recently, a man wearing protective gear and carrying a cordless drill was chased out of the hospital after staff caught him circling the artwork. Due to Banksy’s popularity, the staff was vigilantly on the lookout for potential thieves, and able to prevent the possible theft with the help of security guards. The NHS Foundation Trust Hospital plans to auction Game Changer t in the fall in order to raise funds for the institution. Although they are grateful for the thoughtful and meaningful gift, a public building is not the most ideal place to house artwork made by such a well-known artist. The funds raised will be a huge help to the doctors and nurses as they continue the fight against COVID-19.