Banksy in New York: Controversy, Adversity, and Exposure
As all of the art world knows by now, Banksy, the elusive street artist from the UK has spent the entire month of October in New York. He left 27 works of art in various locations of New York, plus a landscape oil painting “vandalized”, an unpublished op-ed for The New York Times, and two videos plus a free t-shirt graphic for fans on his website. Appropriately named Better Out Than In, Banksy clearly reveals in the header of the website that his New York trip is about his conviction that art should be found outside of galleries to be easily seen and enjoyed by the masses.
True to Banksy style, each of his graffiti, sculptures, and animated New York pieces are a commentary on large corporations, art galleries, society, war, etc. Many fans chased Banksy around New York, posing “selfies” online of incorporating themselves in his graffiti. Unfortunately, some graffiti art rivals reached a few of his pieces too late for fans to see his work un-marred in live fashion.
During his time in the city, Bansky met controversy from fans and critics, adversity from rivals defaming his art, and risk of exposure several times. Yet through it all, Banksy continued to add a piece of art a day (except on the 23rd due to police activity, as mentioned on his website). His audio recordings that accompany some of his art on the website are tongue-in-cheek explanations, revealing his humorous side and, I think, the whimsical and light opinion he has of himself, which is quite a breath of fresh air compared to the self-sculpted pedestal on which many artists like to perch.
The following is an almost comprehensive compilation of events during Banksy’s stay in New York, from his art to his struggles. If you’re like many, you may have only had time to keep up with his activity here and there, so take a look and get caught up on the buzz surrounding Banksy and his message for New York.
During his time in New York, Bansky received more than a little criticism from both fans and critics, with one of the most discussed and easily the most offensive being his own critique of the new One World Trade Center. The New York Times rejected the op-ed that Banksy wrote about the “non-event”, “vanilla” new structure for the World Trade Center. “It looks like something they would build in Canada”, he writes in the op-ed, which he posted on his website. Probably the most offensive statement is the last sentence in his article: “…You currently have under construction a one thousand foot tall sign that reads – New York – we lost our nerve.”
Rueven Blau of the New York Daily News says that those who lost loved ones during the 9/11 tragedy “took it as a slap in the face” in his article on Banksy’s op-ed. Yet, the rejection from The New York Times only spurred Bansky to create a graffiti message that clearly showed his opinion of the news giant’s response:
In fact, his insulting op-ed and seemingly angry graffiti response at the end of Banksy’s stay threatened to leave New Yorkers with a bad taste for the street artist. Just two days after, Banksy bought a landscape oil painting by K. Sager from a Housing Works thrift store in Manhattan for $50. He then added a Nazi sitting on a bench facing the lake, signed his name underneath Sager’s signature, and donated it back to the shop. The shop started the auction price at $74,000 and sold it for $615,000.
The letter and accompanying graphic is not the only art that Banksy left that spurred controversy. One done in Tribeca on the 15th is of the twin towers with an orange daisy stuck near the top of one of the towers, looking eerily like an explosion. In comments on a Yahoo News article, some called it a kind memorial, while others claimed it was insensitive and harp on Banksy’s lack of creativity and his illegal art.
Another of his video pieces on his site shows ants crawling in and out of a crack in the cement, around which Bansky drew curvy torso lines to indicate a woman’s shape with an ant hill as the vulva. Most thought it a hilarious piece, while others found it offensive. Roberta Smith in The New York Times called it “juvenile bad taste“.
A very clever piece in honor of Halloween, Banksy’s “Bowery” involved the Grim Reaper riding a bumper car amidst smoke and a live accordion player. However, the locals grew a bit tired of the constant noise, something Banksy seemed to anticipate as the audio accompanying the art piece calls it an “art show that goes on so long, we wish we were dead already”. Banksy’s piece isn’t just a random Halloween memorial, however. He calls it “the dance of death” and that the bumper car is like death in that it is “a bit random”, which then shows “the importance of living in the moment”.
Many of Banksy’s graffiti pieces met with hostility and adversity from other, clearly jealous, graffiti artists, which is understandable. As soon as a new Banksy piece was discovered, crowds of New Yorkers flocked to the site to take pictures of the work. Other graffiti artists saw a chance to get exposure – or to show their outrage at a millionaire street artist encroaching on their territory. And his pieces certainly do stand out in their Banksy style of using urban rubble, detailed illustrations, black silhouettes, and font styles you normally see in print or on the web, not on the side of a building.
In Queens, it only took a matter of hours for his art work above to look like this:
Probably the worst defacement happened with Banksy’s very first piece he created in New York. His illustration of two boys, one standing on the other’s back, grabbing the spray can out of a sign that reads “Graffiti is a crime” went through several stages of changes. The sign was removed by Smart Crew and replaced by their logo. At another point the tag “CMON” was added. The entire illustration was painted over at another time, and a crude tag added that reads: “(c) PHATLIPP Sweaty palms made me lose the love of my life :(“.
Banksy’s pieces over the next couple of days were defaced with tags as well:
But Banksy responded with his own series of tags defacing other graffiti in his series on October 4 in Delancey, Bushwick, and Williamsburg.
Of course, Banksy’s series didn’t slow down defamations of his work. A humorous piece by Banksy was copied by someone else who apparently wasn’t as amused as the crowds that came to take photos of the quote:
The following very elaborate, stunning piece located on Lower East Side was poetic, political, and dark. Unfortunately, The Verge reports that looters stole some pieces off of the car.
One of Banksy’s greatest pieces in New York, unfortunately, could also not be saved. Just hours after it was discovered, a group of men brought a truck and loaded up the Sphinx of Giza. Banksy created it using smashed cinder blocks and on his web page stated, “You’re advised not to drink the replica Arab spring water”.
Banksy is a smart guy. He marketed himself well throughout the years, using his elusive identity to create mystery and awe around him and, therefore, his works. There are many talented artists, street artists even, out there. Banksy has the advantage of being a skilled artist as well as a smart marketer. New York was a difficult place to keep his identity a secret, however. More than a few fans claim to have caught the famous artist either in action or leaving a scene.
Supposedly, when making final preparations for the portable garden oasis in a moving van, a fan spotted two men. The Daily Mail has the purported picture of Banksy, snapped by the fan, but Banksy continues to deny that he has ever been captured on camera.
Another fan claims to have caught Banksy working on one of his pieces, a second moving truck artwork – this one full of stuffed animals that squeaked and squealed. This time, though, Banksy was with several workers preparing the art, so it is unclear as to which one Banksy is. DJ Jon Henry claims that the guy in the hat on top of the truck had an English accent and was directing the others, but he only got the cold shoulder when he approached, so was unable to confirm his claim.
The fiberglass Ronald McDonald that Banksy created travelled around New York to different McDonald restaurant locations accompanied by an actor in the role of a young boy shining Ronald’s shoes. Some wondered if the man who showed up to help move the interactive sculpture to the next location was Banksy himself, but the idea was quickly dismissed. One fan claimed to have asked for the actor’s signature and received a piece of paper with a dollar sign and Banksy’s signature.
Yet a possible spotting of his face is not the only exposure that Banksy had during his time in New York. Residents and fans of Banksy flocked to take pictures of his work before defamation occurred. Others snapped photos of fans interacting with his work.
Banksy’s “Rebel rocket attack” video in which rebels apparently shoot down Dumbo was uploaded several times to YouTube and received only a little over 8,000 views. The rather low numbers may indicate that Banksy is more popular on the streets than on YouTube.
Banksy’s cute little beaver, who appears to have chopped down a sign with his adorable teeth, was hijacked by locals who covered the graphic up with cardboard. They then proceeded to demand viewers to pay $20 to see and take pictures of the beaver. Now, a red tag next to the beaver says “We don’t need more rats” and the beaver’s face has been chipped off.
The idea to make a profit off of Banksy’s work has spread, along with the attempt to keep his work intact. The owners of the hustler club on which he left a graphic of a slouched man holding a bouquet of flowers plan to take down the door to keep the art intact. Currently they keep a man posted to keep the work safe.
The owners of this building put up an awning structure in an attempt to keep this Banksy work of two geishas on a bridge-like structure.
Some construction workers attempted to protect the Manhattan graffiti titled “Concrete confessional” by covering it with plexi glass. Unfortunately, the entire piece has since been removed.
One of Banksy’s artworks resides underneath the High Line at West 24th Street. It is actually comprised of two paintings, in which Banksy merges his work with that of Os Gemeos, a bench, and a water cooler full of champagne. The building owner, who gave permission for Banksy to use the space, has hired a guard and put up a gate to keep the artwork safe.
Banksy makes an attempt to sell his artwork in Central Park for only $60 per canvas, but since all were unsigned, he only sold a few pieces. Was this, perhaps, another tongue-in-cheek commentary on society?
Final Days in New York
Banksy’s last week in New York was full of controversy, charity, and a few random pieces of artwork. The day before his rant against the new World Trade Center tower and accompanying graphic, he posted this enlightening “Alternative New York bumper slogan”:
The timing of this bumper sticker of sorts now almost seems like a premonition of the turmoil to come the next few days as post after post was published ranting against Banksy’s insensitivity the following day. On Monday of his last week in New York, Banksy leaves a graphic in Coney Island of a robot tagging a bar code on a building, disturbing a dove into flight.
With Century 21 dropping their interview with Banksy, though, he seemed to need a final big event to show his humanity. The oil painting donated to the charity certainly did help. His next piece for Wednesday was so ordinary compared to the oil painting and unpublished article that it almost seemed to go unnoticed, and it’s certainly only “ordinary” when seen in light of the week’s big events. The colors are quite stunning:
And there is a peace symbol on the cat’s shoulder, possibly another commentary on how he would like to leave New York. In fact, he leaves residents with a gift – a graphic that they can get printed at onto a t-shirt.
His final graffiti work is his name spelled out with balloons attached high on the side of a building. In his final recording for this last piece, he pokes fun at himself with phrases such as “we’re going out on a high note” and “or it’s another Banksy piece that’s full of hot air”. He ends by reinforcing his assertion that art should remain outside: “Art’s rightful place is on the cave walls of our communities.” Why? Because art should act as a “public service”, “voice concerns”, “forge identities”. Don’t we want to “live in a world made by art, not just decorated by it?”
And, yes, someone did try to steal this final piece, three men to be exact. For once, though, “justice” prevailed, in a backwards sort of way, and police caught the thieves in the act and arrested them. Sadly, the police department took the balloons in to be processed as evidence in the arrest.
To see Banksy’s collection of New York art in chronological order and watch his videos, visit his Banksy New York website. Be sure to listen to the recordings found with a few of his pieces. You get to see much more deeply into the heart and mind of Banksy and the reasoning behind his incredible yet controversial street art.
Tara Hornor loves writing about marketing, advertising, branding, web and graphic design, and photography. She is a Senior Editor for Creative Content Experts, a copywriting company that she owns with her husband. Connect with @TaraHornor for more design inspiration and marketing help.