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‘The Art of Banksy’ exhibition arrives in Washington

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One of the simplest forms of graffiti is “tagging”, i.e. writing a name or nickname on a wall, train car or any other publicly visible surface. For the British street artist and cultural prankster known only as Banksy, tagging has extended to a form of branding. Its brand images become recognizable and collectible.

It’s unclear to what extent Banksy himself benefited from this appreciation in value, like almost everything else about him. But the semi-clandestine figure isn’t enjoying, and in fact has barely acknowledged, ‘The Art of Banksy’, an international touring exhibition currently housed in the former Bed, Bath and Beyond space of the Gallery Place complex in downtown London. DC. According to the organizers of the exhibition, all of the more than 100 pieces on display were purchased from the artist by private collectors and none were taken from the streets.

Included are one or more variations on recurring Banksy motifs such as the Grim Reaper with a smiling face instead of a skull, a bomb thrower holding a bouquet of flowers instead of an explosive, and a girl holding a heart-shaped balloon. A version of this last image sold at auction for $1.4 million in 2018 – and became more valuable on the spot as it was immediately cut into ribbons by a shredder hidden in the picture frame. On resale, it sold for more than $25 million last year.

Banksy tried to destroy his art after it sold for $1.4 million. The shredded version just cost $25.4 million.

“The Art of Banksy” isn’t allowed, but it’s not a cheap knockoff. It’s skillfully staged, well-researched and comprehensive, and is likely to amuse and surprise viewers, even those who have followed the underground artist’s career. But the show clashes with what we know of Banksy’s anti-authority and anti-capitalist values, if only by charging $35+ for admission.

Although the works on display lack the context and immediacy that the originals would have, this is due as much to Banksy himself as to the show. The artist made several versions of his best-known images and sold them as screen prints, posters, postcards and T-shirts. Often it’s been done for a cause: ‘The Art of Banksy’ includes a 2002 poster made for Greenpeace and a 2011 poster and t-shirt sold in support of arrested protesters in Bristol, the south-west British city generally considered the birthplace of the artist.

Banksy was probably born in the early 1970s and became a graffiti artist around 1990, around the same time as Bristol trip-hop musicians like Massive Attack were becoming increasingly prominent. (Some have suggested Robert “3D” Del Naja of Massive Attack is actually Banksy, though stronger evidence points to someone else.) The artist designed album covers and other material for the musicians, and “The Art of Banksy” features a British (but some American) Indie pop and rock band.

Typically, a Banksy artwork is a simplified montage, usually done with stencils, that ironically contrasts a traditional image with aspects of mundane consumer culture: Aboriginal hunters stalking a herd of shopping carts; Jesus on the cross holds shopping bags; and biblical mourners wail around a sign that reads, ‘Sale ends today’. Banksy often evokes daily British life, with references to the Tesco supermarket chain and mockery of Parliament and the Royal Family. One of the most elaborate stunts illustrated on this show was the widespread distribution in 2004 of counterfeit £10 notes on which Queen Elizabeth’s face was replaced with that of Princess Diana. (The fake money was issued by, of course, “the Banksy of England”.)

Inevitably, American pop culture also features in Banksy’s work. Oddly enough for someone who’s probably not old enough to remember the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War is a recurring theme. The artist often depicts US military helicopters – one outfitted with a pink bow – and remakes Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Vietnamese napalm victim Phan Thi Kim Phuc so the girl is flanked by Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald.

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Banksy also pays homage to Andy Warhol, the American who first introduced screen-printed images to art museums, with prints of soup cans (Tesco’s, not Campbell’s) and a portrait of model Kate Moss in the style of one of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroes.

Warhol, of course, embraced and exalted fame. Banksy doesn’t, whether because of his early days as a graffiti tagger or because he still engages in stunts of dubious legality. But, as “The Art of Banksy” demonstrates, fame is voracious. The artist may be able to keep his first name a secret, but pretty much everything else about him is out of his control.

Gallery Place, 709 Seventh St. NW. banksyexhibit.com/washington.


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