Banksy has garnered gobs of media attention ever since he began using stencils and spray paint to leave his iconic images on public canvasses — walls, streets, sidewalks and even port-a-potties have been ambushed by this mysterious crusader of creativity. His eye-catching graffiti art is a series of satirical symbols that address issues like capitalism, war and hypocrisy, often utilizing contradictory imagery to get his point across.
But while Banksy’s creations are hailed as the uniquely perceptive ideas of an artistic lone wolf, the vehicle for his satire is far from unique and is instead strikingly reminiscent of a much larger movement that dominated the art scene of the ’50s and ’60s. I’m talking, of course, about Pop Art.
Most Banksy fans would probably balk at the idea that their socially conscious and politically opinionated idol could be associated with people who painted soup cans and movie stars in their snooty minimalist lofts, but their similar focus on consumerism and popular culture are unmistakable. Both enjoy taking everyday items or scenes out of context and allowing the viewer to see them in a different, often revealing light — only Banksy’s penchant for utilizing juxtaposition as blatant irony hints at the evolution that Pop Art has undergone since its 20th-century heyday.
His images of crucified Christ holding shopping bags in his outstretched arms and a group of children saluting a Tesco grocery bag that’s being hoisted like a flag are perfect symbols for a new generation of pop artists and culture critics who have emerged en masse to pick up where Warhol and Dine left off. Ironic and deadpan humor are the means by which Pop Art’s newest incarnation has emerged, producing works of varying craftsmanship and seriousness that now fill everything from modern art galleries to the vast corners of the web.
Accordingly, Warhol’s painting of Marilyn Monroe becomes North Korean defector Song Byeok’s portrait of his dictator’s smiling face superimposed onto the actress’s body in her famous updraft pose. Meanwhile, Lichtenstein’s comic book girls become popular Internet images of ’50s housewives whose brilliant advertisement smiles are rendered neurotic by an accompanying quote about their hidden desire to tear you a new one.
Interestingly, like the Pop artists before him, Banksy also fits into an artistic movement whose boundaries regarding originality and ownership are blurred by the use of material that is both copyrighted by companies and used by his fellow artists. Artists of the ’50s and ’60s were known for their sense of openness when it came to using other people’s ideas, even if that meant that inspiration came from a fellow artist. Heck, Banksy wasn’t even the first guy to run around spray-painting walls with political and cultural iconography.
Don’t believe me? Do a Google Image search for “Blek Le Rat” — go on, I’ll wait.
Done? Notice anything? The results are eerie — the search turns up hundreds of images that are so Banksy-esque you would swear you’d stumbled across a hiccup in Google’s wiring. These hundreds of stenciled black-and-white historical, political and cultural figures include many rats as well, a symbol usually attributed to Banksy’s repertoire.
Banksy has admitted that Xavier Prou, the street artist who paints under the moniker “Blek Le Rat” and has been working since the early ’80s, has inspired much of his work. And Prou has been surprisingly enthusiastic about allowing another artist to imitate his style in an age where messing with ownership and copyright laws is akin to playing with fire. Still, their relationship is not set in stone. Banksy may have “borrowed” in the spirit of artistic self-expression, but just as Lichtenstein’s comic book girls fell under intense scrutiny for their suspicious resemblance to actual comic panels, the street artist is certainly skirting the line between what is art and what is plagiarism.
Still, it’s ’50s art legend Andy Warhol to whom Banksy is most often publicly compared. Their artistic interpretations of figures like Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth II may be very different, but their focus on the isolation and re-interpretation of popular cultural icons form some fascinating parallels between the two, even in the professional art community: In 2007, Pollock Fine Art teamed up with the Hospital, a creative arts venue, to run an exhibit exclusively devoted to gathering the works of these two artists side-by-side into the same studio.
But outside art galleries, Banksy’s savvy and powerful imagery stretches from the hurricane-ravaged houses of New Orleans to the Israeli West Bank wall. While his unconventional methods may resonate strongly with a generation driven by the use (and misuse) of pop culture, it’s important to remember he isn’t the first person to call into question commercialization and the state of the human condition, even from this new generation of artists. The revival and transformation of Pop Art into a medium for satire and self-examination is only its latest incarnation, one which has the potential to stay with us for as long as we continue to question our values, our motives — and ourselves.