ConsultantDr Luke DickensOpen University

The writing on the wall

Banksy is the most well known graffiti artist in the world, even though he has never revealed his true identity. Quirky and political, his work has satirised oppression in Palestine, hypocrisy in politics and capitalist greed in London.

His spray-painted images are illegal but still create newspaper headlines and sell for six figure sums in galleries around the world. How has the world's most famous vandal become the darling of the art scene?


Spray can art in Bristol

Luke Dickens

Early Banksy graffiti in Bristol

Banksy’s home city of Bristol has enjoyed a vibrant history of graffiti writing.

As a teenager he began doing graffiti in his home town, Bristol, as part of the DryBreadZ Crew. He adopted the name ‘Banksy’ to protect his identity.

Choosing a tag or graffiti name was common in this subculture to brand work and to avoid arrest. This is the name that he has stuck with since. The Bristol street artists adopted graffiti-style pseudonyms and painted in collaborative groups or ‘crews’. His earliest influence was musician and graffiti writer 3D, one of the pioneers who brought free-hand, spraycan-style graffiti writing to the UK from the New York subways.

Bristol Street Art: Gallery of graffiti and street artThe graffiti of the New York subwayGuardian: 1980s New York graffiti picture gallery

Mid 1990s

Early influences: The role of the Rat

Graffiti art from French street artist, Blek le Rat

Otherwise known as Xavier Prou, Blek le Rat began painting rats on the walls of Paris in the 1980s.

His style developed through the influence of a French graffiti artist Blek le Rat – particularly his visual style and political messaging.

Rather than using a free-hand painting style like most graffiti writers, Blek used stencils to create images. Banksy adopted this technique for practical reasons: “I was quite crap with a spray can, so I started cutting out stencils instead.” Blek influenced Banksy and inspired him to develop the anti-establishment views he grew up with in Bristol. Armed with a new visual style, Banksy pursued more political targets with his work.

The art of Blek le Rat in LondonIndependent: The street art of Blek le Rat

If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model.


Late 1990s

Stencil work in Bristol

Getty images

A Banksy artwork called Mild, Mild West on a wall in Bristol. Getty Image

Banksy's Mild Mild West, dating to this period, referenced the riots that struck the city in 1992.

This new stencil based style began appearing in his home city of Bristol. His political views also came to the fore.

Witty and subversive, these new Banksy works targeted political hypocrisy and social injustice. In a 2001 Herald Scotland interview he summed it up: “There is a side of my work that wants to crush the whole system, leaving a trail of the blue and lifeless corpses of judges and coppers in my wake, dragging the city to its knees as it screams my name. Then there is the other darker side.”

Guardian: Early Bristol Banksy work rediscovered


New friends in London

Luke Dickens

A Banksy rat. Image courtesy of Dr Luke Dickens

Far from being a pest, Banksy's rats were seen as subversive anti-heroes.

Moving to London, Banksy became involved with a new circle of friends and collaborators who helped increase his public image and recognition.

His stencils of rats and chimps appeared around the city, gaining the attention of the national mainstream press. He entered a close working relationship with the photographer Steve Lazarides who became his agent and publicist. The pair self-published a series of books – Brandalism, Existencilism and Cut Out and Collect – that captured and popularised Banksy's work and raised his media profile.

Saatchi Gallery: Finding Banksy art in LondonArt of the State's Google map: See Banksy art in LondonStudent Beans: Guide to seeing Banksy art in London

If you want to say something and have people listen then you have to wear a mask.


2001 onwards

Banksy and Brandalism

Press Association

Banksy's Tesco parpody. Press Association

Banksy's commentary on Tesco expansionism appeared on a pharmacy wall in Islington, London.

While in London Banksy honed his political ideas particularly his views on globalisation and corporate greed which became more evident in his work.

At the heart of his newer pieces was the idea of ‘Brandalism’ – a combination of ‘brand’ and ‘vandalism’ borrowed from US punk culture. Copying the techniques and language of advertising through slogans and simple images, Banksy's work appeared in clever public locations and attacked brands from Tesco to Nike. Each new work became a newsworthy event and the myth of Banksy as a masked, anonymous Robin Hood-type character poking fun at the powers-that-be began to emerge.

Independent: Brandalism campaign hijacks UK The advertising take-over project

Early 2000s ongoing

Urban exhibitions


Banksy artwork at the Cans Festival, 2008. AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth

A Banksy work at the Cans Festival in a disused tunnel on Leake Street, London, 2008.

By now the biggest name of the British graffiti scene, Banksy expanded his sights and targeted the art world as his next venture.

Shunning traditional galleries, Banksy hosted exhibitions of street art in unusual locations such as abandoned tunnels. Harking back to Blek le Rat’s attacks graffiti attacks on the Paris art world, Banksy took art out of what he saw as stuffy galleries and into the forgotten, seedy places that the art world ignored. “When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.” Banksy wanted art to be available to everyone.

Banksy at the Cans FestivalGlasgow's hidden Banksy art


Brandalism on tour

David Silverman/ Getty Images

Large Banksy wall mural in the West Bank. Getty

Banksy's stencils in the Palestinian territories have triggered an unofficial tourist trail.

Continuing his use of public spaces to display his work, he choose one of the most controversial walls in the world.

In 2005, to comment on Israeli involvement in Palestine, Banksy travelled to the Middle East and targeted the West Bank wall. His satirical stencils criticised Israeli militarism and oppression. The works provoked fierce debate in the media over whether a wall judged to be “illegal” by the International Court of Justice could in fact be vandalised. Banksy described the wall as “the ultimate activity holiday destination for graffiti writers".

Banksy graffiti on the Palestinian West Bank wallGuardian: Gallery of Bansky's West Bank art

There's nothing more dangerous than someone who wants to make the world a better place.



Big business and celebrity buyers

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Not every Banksy can be found on the street. Some are found in galleries. Clip: The Culture Show.

By the mid 2000s, Banksy was becoming a celebrity and his work was selling for huge amounts of money.

By 2008, despite the global financial crash, a Banksy 'vandalised' version of a Damien Hirst painting sold for over $1.8m. High profile art collectors and celebrities spend thousands to own a Banksy. Among the rich and famous, designer Paul Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are known to be Banksy collectors. After claims that his success meant that he had sold out, Banksy said: “I love the way capitalism finds a place – even for its enemies. It’s boom time in the discontent industry.”

Metro News: Brad Pitt owns a rare commissioned Banksy

December 2009

Art versus graffiti: The King Robbo war

Bottom image: Getty Images

Banksy and rival graffiti writer King Robbo clashed over artwork in London

The site of the turf war was by a canal in Camden. Banksy struck first (top image) before Robbo's team responded (bottom).

However, not everyone was happy with Banksy's popularity when he became involved in a public row with another graffiti writer called King Robbo.

As the feud developed, Banksy painted over work by King Robbo, one of London’s earliest graffiti writers. Painting over the work of a fellow graffiti writer was seen as unforgivable and Robbo’s crew responded by defacing the new Banksy. A tit-for-tat war ensued – even continuing after Robbo’s untimely death - as his crew continued to target Banksy works across the capital. Robbo’s largely urban, underground, working class team saw Banksy as a mainstream, middle class imposter.

Independent: King Robbo's rivalry with BanksyVeteran graffiti artist King Robbo dies aged just 45Team Robbo official website

Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing.


April 2014

Who actually owns a Banksy?

Mobile Lovers, by Banksy

Bristol's Broad Plain Boys Club originally moved the Banksy indoors and charged members of the public to view it.

Banksy's work was now so popular that councils began to see them not as annoying vandalism but as a money spinning opportunity.

A Banksy called Mobile Lovers appeared on the door of a cash-strapped Bristol boys’ club. A row broke out when the council claimed ownership. Banksy intervened when he wrote to the club to support their claim and the club later sold the door for £400,000 which saved it from closure. Bansky's art can now cause tension when it appears in communities as locals see them as gifts to their area – if anyone should profit from selling a Banksy it should be them.

The One Show: Should you sell a piece of graffiti?

July 2014

Vandalising Banksy

Getty Images

Banksy's GCHQ grafitti before and after being vandalised

First appearing in Cheltenham in April 2014, Spy Booth was vandalised in August of the same year.

Banksy's works, such as the surveillance spoof Spy Booth, are now being targeted by a new generation of rival graffiti artists.

He has become a brand in himself and for some younger graffiti writers Banksy is fair game. The mischievous, anonymous outsider taking shots at the establishment is now a part of Britain's art scene. Councils are quick to restore and protect works that previously they would have scrubbed away as vandalism. He has kept his identity secret for years and built a cult around his name. He still manages to walk the tightrope between maverick and mainstream but how long can he maintain that position?

Banksy's GCHQ Spy Booth defacedBanksy's Folkstone Art Buff vandalisedBanksy's Girl With a Pierced Eardrum attacked

A wall is a very big weapon. It's one of the nastiest things you can hit someone with.