Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.
by Haley Temin, Associate Curator
“If you want to say something and have people listen then you have to wear a mask. If you want to be honest then you have to live a lie.” — Banksy
There has always been something captivating about anonymity. And British graffiti artist Banksy has built his career on this knowledge—tagging countless cities across the world with his controversial, distinctive, and provocatively political stencil images without revealing his identity. Banksy controls his own narratives and, by doing so, leaves his followers craving more of his dark and satirical works. Remaining anonymous also protects the artist from the harsh criticism and negative attention—not to mention law enforcement—that come with displaying such profound subject matter. The sheer quantity of people who want to unmask this faceless figure just helps fuel the excitement and speculation behind the “urban legend”.
The underlying question that seemed to come up a lot while I was putting together the Banksy collection was: who even owns the rights to these works? Since Banksy wants to remain anonymous, it leaves the ownership of his works technically up in the air. His distinctive images, usually found on walls, bridges, and abandoned buildings are nearly impossible to ignore given the controversial subject matter and even more impossible not to quickly grab your phone and snap a picture. While searching for the works I wanted to put in the gallery, I came across a dozen different versions of any one of Banksy’s works—mostly by passerbyers and amateur photographers—which made me question if I could even legally use these images. Most of these people gave up the rights to their photographs to public domain sites like Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons, but it still felt strange using other people’s photographs of an artist who no one actually knows. Street art, generally rendered on privately owned property and not owned by the artist, has become a thoroughly mainstream form of art. Copyright laws for this particular sector of art have not been fully established and therefore the ownership of these works are questionable even when a known artist takes credit for the work. It also doesn’t stop pedestrians from taking pictures of the work and redistributing it online. Moreover, the fact that there are countless versions of his works makes the argument that much more clear. Banksy controls his narrative and notoriety by remaining unknown and essentially maintains his fame through the thousands that document and talk about his art for him. Without his anonymity, would his works—virtually large scale stencils of silhouette figures and animals—even be appealing?
There is no doubt that Banksy’s works, both meticulously detailed for the medium used and profound in their underlying message, have left an indelible effect in the art world. He has revolutionized the medium of graffiti, making it not only an illicit public display of art, but a way to illustrate today’s relevant issues on a grand, public scale. Banksy, whoever he is, has ignited a new revolution of art, creating a social phenomenon across the globe and constructing a new sort of canonical figure: the legend of the streets.