The Writing on the Wall: Art, Graffiti, Banksy: Images of Political and Social Disenfranchisement

Image above “Blek le Rat: This is Not a Banksy”, The Independent, 2008

I didn’t put much thought into all of the commentary surrounding Banksy when I took those outfit photos I posted yesterday. To be honest, I hadn’t done my homework before those snaps. I thought Banksy was an uber-cool, uber-famous graffiti artist tagging for the win, turning social gaffes into palatable packets of graffiti around the world. Ironically because of his fame, I just heard an artist’s name I’d come to equate with GOOD– good art, good pictures, good graffiti. Good on you, Banksy.

I didn’t realize there was such foment around his work. In fact, the most controversial traction Banksy gathered in my memory was the story of a Utah man who had defaced another of his pieces in Park City, spraying it over with brown spray paint. (The man was ordered to pay $13,000 in restitution, incidentally.) What a shame. An inherent risk of artistic mode, I thought. But there was so much MORE.

Naively, I thought Banksy was further advancing his vote in the debate of graffiti vs. art, or graffiti as art. ART, tally mark, I got it. I didn’t even take the hint when the piece I stood in front of featured a camera man, innocuously filming a vibrant flower… Until a more careful observer realizes that the camera-person has pulled out the entire plant down to the root. Ignorance– it’s a b*!@$!

Needless to say, too many hours spent scanning the inter-webs have brought me to a totally different place of understanding. If not understanding, at least KNOWING. Banksy’s images celebrate anything but the smilingly brief soul-of-wit I originally thought they were intended to project– a little cuff on the proverbial head of each of us.

Instead Banksy condemns all of us, or at least those of us who hold a portion of power pie. He actually attempts to represent the tip of the iceberg of human antipathy, subtly and not so subtly pointing to the nearly 90% of the BERG that lies submerged just below us. Maybe that ice berg analogy is WEAK and the message is actually a MOUNTAIN in front of us, none of which lies subterraneanly. A massive pile of conviction we still want to treat as a mole hill.


This mountain of enmity stands for widespread societal apathy to human suffering: pain, war, policing, consumerism, sexism, racism, capitalism, the result of which drives some of the most horrific, gruesome, grotesque and UNIVERSALLY hateful actions we give as a dole to the poor, the underprivileged, and disenfranchised of human-kind. That which we would like to term indiscriminate indifference serves to drive the hatred of discriminative detention and deprivation on the least of these– our very own human brothers and sisters.

Back in 2008 the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery hosted an installation titled “RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture”. After some thoughtful days about the messages of Bansky’s art I went back to find the poem that was actually played in a room along with this art installation titled “No Thief to Blame”, by Shiniqe Smith:


It’s Not a Just Situation:
Though We Just Can’t Keep Crying About It

By Nikki Giovanni

You don’t
Just wake up and brush your teeth and make up your bed
and put on your favorite pair of blue jeans

You don’t
on other evenings
Just sneak away from your sleeping lover
Just to grab a bite of Quik Stop
Just to hop a train

You don’t
Just visit the 24 hour superstore
Just to get a few cans
of spray paint
Just happen to have a case to put them in

You are not
Just out of yellow
So you’ll
Just shadow with grey this time
Just shy of metallic blue you will
Just fill in with electric orange

You are not
Just bored
Or hungry or silly or
Just crying for attention

You are
Just, if there is a
Trying to be an artist

You are
If there is any
Trying to find a way of not
Just surviving but living

You are just
trying to show the beautiful soul of your people
You are just
trying to say “I’m alive”
You are just
determined to be more
than what the powers who
Just hate the idea of you want you to be

You are just
trying to discover the route
of the neo underground railroad
so that your kids can
Just be free

You are just
being a man
You are just realizing
your womanhood
You are just singing and smiling
because you
Just don’t want to cry anymore

You are just
falling in love
because hatred is too hard to bear

You are just
to be the very best you and
You just guess
you better not let anyone take that away

You are just
a person
with a big heart and wonderful talent
That you just
think should be shared

Put a button on it

‘cause suspenders

Banksy and even his contemporary counterparts with more Queens or Detroit street cred, are also not the first to co-opt this art form as a method of activism, voice, protest, and social commentary. Graffiti may have been around as long as petroglyphs and pictographs etched and sketched their way into human history.

Banksy’s take on pictography. Flickr user Michael Pickard

A French artist who goes by the name Blek le Rat used graffiti as his mode beginning in the early 1980s. Again, there is a beautiful read of his work, here, in The Independent. Bleck’s sheep and businessman are the banner picture to this post. Can you say, Baaaaaa! Society! It totally smacks of Charlie Chaplain’s Modern Times.

Where Blek began, Banksy’s work goes further. Perhaps he’s trying even harder to strike at the nerves of social justice and rage at the roots of global human disenfranchisement because there is no end sighted, no reprieve, no overcome.

If you, too, want to be examining the interplay between society and long-held hierarchies, war and the callousness the media’s removed third-person apathy festers in each of us, hatred and questions of color, race, nationality, poverty, power, powerlessness, and any other cogent social or environmental question you should check out Banksy’s Instagram feed, or Banksy’s website.

If you believe that the conversation surrounding graffiti as art is long decided, like I foolishly did, consider the comments peddled by the Westminster County Council after their vote to remove the image below from a building housing the Royal Mail and other businesses. The Times reported Robert Davis, the chairman of Westminster’s planning committee, as saying that the personality behind the artwork was irrelevant. “If we condone this then we might as well say that any kid with a spray can is producing art,” he said.

The mural showed a red-hooded little boy on a ladder rolling the message up the wall, “One nation under CCTV”, while a police officer and a brown dog watched on. Apparently Big Brother didn’t like the message, and the mural was removed in 2011. GRAFFITI: a child dissident with a spray paint can, TRASH. Tally mark, I got it.

Getty Images

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you will necessarily like what you see. In fact, even a fan of Banksy’s work wouldn’t or shouldn’t, I don’t think, LIKE what they see. There are many, many images and arts laced with all manner of controversy, as is approached in this article in Mental Floss, “Banksy’s 11 Most Complicated Works”. Great and small, controversiality is the entire intent. But don’t also fool yourself into thinking that you shouldn’t, don’t, or can’t grapple with what those works of art read– objectively AND subjectively.

I look and look and look some more. I read and read and read again. I am convicted.


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