Once upon a time not so very long ago, graffiti was only thought of socially as taboo. It was an act of vandalism found in low-income neighborhoods, completely void of any artistic merit. But sometime in the 1980s, graffiti began to morph from tagging into something more complex and, daresay, interesting. By the 1990s, the term “street art” began popping up to describe some pieces. And then came Banksy, bringing a name to the art but never a face.
Opinions about Banksy and what he does are never tepid. People either love him or hate him. Or, more specifically, what he represents. To his supporters, Banksy is the pioneer of the satirical street art movement. He is to graffiti what Nirvana was to grunge. He didn’t necessarily invent it, but he was in the right place at the right time, with a message that caught everyone’s eye and then suddenly his work was everywhere.
To his naysayers, Banksy is nothing more than an overrated hack who sold out and doesn’t deserve his fame. He has sold his work for millions of dollars to the kind of people he suggests are part of the problem of society, like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, which makes him nothing more than a hypocritical weasel.
But, love him or hate him, there is no denying that Banksy’s work has always demanded attention. Sometimes it’s for the message in the work and other times, it’s just to marvel at how he got away with it. Here are 15 of Banksy’s most iconic pieces of street art throughout his career.
15. If Graffiti Changed Anything, 2011
Location: Central London
One of Banksy’s simplest works remains one of his signature pieces. With intentionally amateur lettering and use of his iconic rat stencil, it’s the message that becomes the star, just as all great street art should. The line “If graffiti changed anything, it would be illegal” acknowledges the role of satire and graffiti in modern society, by paying homage to a famed female anarchist from long ago, Emma Goldman. As a key player in the women’s suffrage movement, Goldman fought tirelessly for women’s rights and is quoted saying, “If voting changed anything, it would be illegal.” By altering this line, Banksy successfully challenged the political system and defended his craft.
14. The Simpsons’ Opening Sequence, 2011
Location: The town of Springfield on The Simpsons
This one isn’t exactly street art, due to the fact that it’s animation. But, that’s what makes it so remarkable. The producers of The Simpsons allowed Banksy to rework the opening sequence of the famous show to an alternate anarchist Universe of Springfield, that includes his tag on a billboard and landmarks throughout the city. Bart is shown writing “I will not write all over the walls” all over the walls which leads into a scene meant to resemble the iconic scene from 1984. The producers of the show have said that it was Banksy who approached them with the idea and they were excited to be a part of it. Critics of Banksy cite this as being one of his more blatant sell outs, however, considering that The Simpsons is one of the most successful television shows ever created.
13. Must Not Copy
After Banksy’s intro sequence to The Simpsons aired, this piece popped up as a direct play on the scene with Bart Simpson. Anyone familiar with The Simpsons knows that Bart writes something different on the chalkboard at the start of every episode. This piece is one of Banksy’s more playful pieces but is also very clever and, as always, has an underlying message. Throughout his career as a rebellious street artist, Banksy’s main message has always been to challenge authority and to not become complacent in a society that just does what it is told. This piece shows that he acknowledges his level of fame by reaching the audience of The Simpsons, but that it still doesn’t make him any more important or knowledgeable than anyone else through the brilliance of irony.
12. Graffiti Removal Hotline
This Graffiti Removal Hotline piece is one that helped launch Banksy from a big name in the underground world, to a pseudo celebrity street artist. After being published in a few art books and making the rounds on the internet, this piece brought to mainstream light the shift in street art. By challenging authority so playfully, Banksy successfully made people see a different side to graffiti. Much like the wise guy who thinks it’s funny to try to make the guards of Scotland Yards laugh by getting in their face, Banksy reminds the viewer that just because we’re told that something is wrong, doesn’t make it completely evil across the board.
11. Girl With The Heart Balloon
When people think of Banksy, the Girl With The Heart Balloon stencil is one of the first pieces that usually comes to mind. Easily one of the most recognizable, this stencil has been recreated in multiple places and published in various art books. It is also credited with being partially inspirational to the art work that pop punk band Green Day used for their album, American Idiot. If you look closely in the stencil, you can see the line “There is always hope” hidden, bringing an inspirational side to an otherwise hopeless seeming image. This iconic stencil made headlines again recently, when Justin Beiber got it tattooed on his arm, after which Banksy’s critics wasted no time in calling it another sign that the notorious artist’s work had officially jumped the shark.
10. If At First You Don’t Succeed, Call An Airstrike; 2010
Location: San Francisco
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been popular with many people, Banksy being one of them. But not everyone has a giant wall to express their opinions on. When Banksy visited San Francisco in 2010, he went on a 30-day painting spree around town, leaving under a dozen pieces behind, this Airstrike message being one of them. As if the message that America has launched countless airstrikes, despite not being able to successfully end the wars wasn’t a stark enough reminder, the image of the gas mask and painted blood splatter is one of Banksy’s works that shows a more blatant disgust with the current political climate.
9. Drunken Mickey, 2011
If you were in Los Angeles in 2011, you might have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Banksy’s Drunken Mickey billboard. But, if you blinked, you probably missed it. The artist defaced a CBS billboard clad with an advertisement from The Light Group, by plastering a drunken Mickey Mouse groping the women in the ad in one hand, along with a martini in the other, while Minnie Mouse looks on appearing stoned. CBS had the graffiti removed in under two days, much to the dismay of The Light Group who saw the work as great publicity and wanted it to stay up.
8. Street Lines Flower, 2007
The Street Line Flower piece is one of Banksy’s most recognizeable works and easily one of his most creative. Another theme frequented by the artist is the portrayal of feelings of hopelessness. This image depicts what can be interpreted as a painter who was assigned the task of painting the standard yellow lines in the street, yet again. Bored with his job and looking for more, the painter deviates from his task and takes the lines up the wall to create a flower, bringing beauty to the streets with a mundane, every day task. Banksy quite literally portrays the importance of painting outside the lines, with this brilliant stencil which can be found in the Bethnal Green neighborhood of London.
7. The Lifestyle You Ordered Is Out Of Stock, 2012
Banksy’s art usually comes down just about as quickly as it goes up. According to his website, Banksy put this Lifestyle piece up the same night as he did three other pieces in one single night. Within two days, they were gone. The Lifestyle piece remained in tact the longest and it also doubled as having the most powerful message, bringing its viewers face to face with their own materialism. It also serves as a stark reminder that despite continuously being told that the world economy is recovering and doing better, not many people are feeling those “so-called effects”.
6. I Remember When All This Was Trees
Location: Detroit, Michigan
Perhaps no other American city has been hit by economic hardships as hard as Detroit has. What was once a thriving metropolitan area with a booming economy, pioneering the car industry, has in many places been resorted to a pile of ruble. And Banksy couldn’t have picked a better spot for his “I remember when all this was trees” message. Not only does it bring to light just how oppressive poverty is, but there is also an environmentalist message here. The land that was once covered in trees was destroyed to make way for concrete and industry in the name of progress, only to be torn down and left forgotten.
5. Follow Your Dreams
By 2010, Banksy was a household name and had accrued quite a fan base, despite no one knowing his identity. So, when this iconic Follow Your Dreams stencil appeared in Boston in May of 2010, many residents were excited to see it, even though the message is rather depressing. With the words “follow your dreams” in capital letters blocked out by a red “cancelled” is yet another one of Banksy’s works that cleverly conveys the message that the American Dream is more fantasy than it is a reality. The location of Essex Street, which is a low-income neighborhood in Boston, can be no coincidence, either. No one knows the reality of cancelled dreams better than those living in the throws of poverty.
4. Peel Fiction
One of the pieces to really turn Banksy into a household name was this 2007 piece called Peel Fiction, a play on the Quentin Tarantino cult-classic film, Pulp Fiction. Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are stenciled in a scene from the film in which the two gangsters are commonly known to be holding guns. In this piece, though, the guns have been replaced with bananas. It was removed by Transport by London based on their guidelines that graffiti encourages crime. But Banksy returned to the scene again, only to put both actors in giant banana suits.
3. I Don’t Believe In Global Warming, 2005
Location: North London
To advocates for global warming, there could be no more frustrating of a person than one who denies the evidence surrounding global warming. But this is what makes Banksy so good at what he does. Instead of taking a shot directly at deniers or trying to convince them that global warming is real like he believes, he instead became one of them and decided to take on their message for them. Except, he put the message half under water, a tongue-in-cheek display of the effects of global warming. This enabled him not to convince deniers that they were wrong, but merely to show just how crazy he thinks they are.
2. The West Bank Barrier, 2005
What could be Banksy’s most impressive work remains by far, his most risky. In 2005 when the artist took a trip to Palestine, he made sure to visit the West Bank Wall which separates Palestine from Israel. And since Banksy never met a wall that he didn’t know how to decorate, the graffiti artist went to town, putting up nine pieces total. A pair of scissors cutting along the dotted line, along with an open window on the wall can be found. Another famous piece is a 3D illusion that looks like a hole in the wall with palm trees and paradise on the other side. But the two chairs piece tops his time in Palestine, if for no other treason than just the huge size and shock that he took alone. Banksy spoke out about his work, saying that event though he knows it is illegal by terms set by the United Nations, he felt his work was justified because he feels that the wall “essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison.”
1. The Flower Thrower, 2003
When people think of Banksy, this is usually the first image they think of. It has become synonymous with his work and his characteristic ability to juxtapose two stark messages in one simple stencil. This image of what appears to be a rioter is wearing a bandana and a backwards cap and is preparing to hurl something at his assailants. But instead of a Molotov cocktail, he instead holds a bouquet of flowers which remain the only color in the piece. Reproductions of this stencil can be found on t-shirts, posters, prints, tattoos, phone cases, wall decals and serves as the cover for the book Banksy Wall and Piece, a compilation of the artist’s work.