Monday, December 3, 2012

Wall and Peace

Wall and Peace[1]

Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.

      Banksy, 2006

            If asked to reflect upon the concept of graffiti, there is no doubt that the majority of individuals – regardless of age, class, and ethnicity – would immediately associate the term with a historically and socially-constructed stigma of crime, delinquency, and vandalism. Resisting this stigma – as well as much larger and more complex opposing forces, emphasized throughout this essay – the graffiti art of Bristol-based Banksy is backed by highly regarded information, is famously satirical, and welcome to interpretation. While his sophisticated and often complex narratives demand both critique and celebration, they in turn serve to encourage Banksy’s fellow subjects to become aware of surrounding social, economic, and political forces. Thus, Banksy’s graffiti art is not just an often-undermined art form, but is also a platform for radical expression, response, and resistance to authority. Self-defining his work, Banksy explains in his bestseller, Wall and Piece, “[Imagine] a city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business” (2006). The following review of Banksy’s graffiti art will provide an analysis of the historical, political, and social roots of his work. Although I will appropriately relate the symbolism and irony of Banksy to themes of power relations and social resistance throughout, considerable emphasis will be placed on the political significance of borders, as the walls of which not only act as physical barriers, but also as gateways to information, perspective, and voice.

            While Banksy, like many graffiti artists, continues to mark territory and reject power implications of the physical environment, graffiti and street art are increasingly occupying the space between cultural criticism, art, and vandalism, which has the potential to provide both fans and passive “passer-bys” significant meaning if done so effectively (Branscome, 2011). Common pieces depict colourless uniformed men topped with seemingly out-of-place “smiley” faces. The expressions on these bright yellow faces, however, are not always smiling, perhaps representing shifting ideologies of time. According to Banksy, graffiti is not the lowest form of art, despite its reputation. On the contrary, it is often one of the most honest, well-informed, and thought-provoking forms of art, intentionally lacking elitism and hype. Using a city’s surfaces as his gallery, Banksy deems members of authority – usually the metropolitan police and the government – ineffective. As Branscome suggests, Banksy’s graffiti provokes subversion from within, as it “manages to hold up a double mirror to society” (2006). Inspired by American conceptual artist, Jenny Holzer, Banksy’s radical Post-Modernist and politically interventionist art genre is one of “high-street irony” (Branscome, 2011). Since Banksy’s tag first appeared in the 1980s, his work has only become more complex, as it targets individuals to subvert everyday expectations. Branscome furthers, “It stokes the collectors’ interest through the mischief of public spectacles, the subversion of clichés and convention” (2011). In the book previously referenced and further referred to throughout this review, words and images are conceived together to unfold as sophisticated narratives, which often then dramatize sequences of carefully staged and photographed street graffiti. In many ways, graffiti can thus extend to performance. Banksy’s chosen act includes painting, photographing or filming, and “making a permanent record of ephemerality” (Branscome, 2011).

Political Significance
            Many members of Western democratic civil society, including myself, would agree with Banksy in that “it takes a lot of guts to stand up anonymously in a Western democracy and call for things no-one else believes in – like peace and justice and freedom” (2006).[2] Politically, Banksy has illustrated such contested issues of Facist regimes and religious fundamentalism. For example, his tag has been discovered next to stencils satirically representing unrest in Palestine and the police state in Britain. Furthermore, rats and monkeys are illustrated in ways that are symbolic of individuals of authority and subjects of this power, respectively. Referring to his use of rats, Banksy radically states,

They exist without permission. They are hated, hunted and persecuted. They live in quiet desperation amongst the filth. And yet they are capable of bringing entire civilizations to their knees…If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model (2006).

Perhaps, Banksy inevitably finds himself at extremes to capture the attention of both civil society and authorities. Intentionally formatted below an image of a long dribble of white paint, winding its way to a stenciled police officer crouched to the paint as if snorting a line of cocaine, Banksy simply states, “There are no exceptions to the rule that everyone thinks they’re an exception to the rules” (2006). Another example is his stencil reading, “designated riot area” in Trafalgar Square, London in 2003 (Banksy, 2006). A different but equally significant example is the image of a child enjoying ice cream next to Brighton Beach, Brighton. If one looks closely, however, he or she will notice a bomb on the cone in place of ice cream (Banksy, 2006). It has been hypothesized that Banksy’s prevalent use of children in his pieces are to encourage people to acknowledge the world in which children of our generation are growing up in. Another similar example is a stencil of a baby stacking cube blocks with the letters k i l l orderly arranged on top of one another (Banksy, 2006). Much of Banksy’s politically satirical works of art can be compared to the dystopia of Orwellian society of war, dictatorship, and euphemism, with reference to the book 1984 by George Orwell. I personally made this connection as I came across a dialogue between Banksy and a stallholder at Portobello Market regarding the fake surveillance camera previously installed by Banksy along with three crows visibly chewing its frayed wires: “I heard they was put there by the police so you look up and a computer can scan your face” (Banksy, 2006). Despite Banksy’s encouragement to – quite literally in this case – open their eyes, much of civil society has a long way to go.

Economic Significance
            According to Banksy, those who “truly deface” cities are the companies that display their slogans on buildings, buses, and billboards, “trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff” (2006). Perhaps subconsciously, Western society has become one that is consumer-driven and economically minded. Although much of Banksy’s art appears cynical, most provides messages that critique mainstream assumptions. Bluntly narrating one such message in his book, Banksy writes, “The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit” (Banksy, 2006). Similarly, according to Banksy and emphasized in his work, civil society is too-often expected to accept the messages of companies’ slogans, without acknowledgement of response, and often even opportunity to do so. Two examples are worth including here. In his book, next to a photograph of stenciled graffiti illustrating three tanks and a man in front with a sign that reads, “Golf Sale,” Banksy includes “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves” (2006). Another stimulating example that accurately portrays society as consuming and dependent on resources and conflict to pursue its own welfare is of an image of a man holding a gas nozzle to his head (Banksy, 2006).

Social Significance
            Touched upon above, graffiti has historically been perceived as symbolic of a decline in society, and continues to struggle with its delinquent reputation and social stigma. That of Banksy, however, ironically uses graffiti as a platform to constructively criticize society of its own ignorance and lack of independence. A famous example is Banksy’s “Simple Intelligence Testing,” series in which, over the span of five images, a monkey escapes from a laboratory by stacking the three compartments in which he or she was to simply find a banana. The message of this series of images emphasizes the challenge for people to subvert the system in which they live by using its own tools against it (Banksy, 2006 and Branscome, 2011). Other works portray Western society as fluid and impatient, perhaps due to the increasing influence of technology and social media. For example, next to an image of a beaten clown being dragged by four authorities is the simple, yet poignant phrase, “You told that joke twice” (192-193). Another example is of a stencil of a child drawing a house around himself, complete with barred windows and a sign on the grass that reads, “no loitrin,” again portraying a society of fluidity, harm, and distrust (, 2010). Another piece that not only highlights the notion of consumerism, but also that of race is a stencil of three patriotic children taking part in a flag-raising ceremony; one child is black and the flag is a plastic Tesco grocery bag (Branscome, 2011). Amidst his seemingly infinite amount of humans, animals, and artifacts, Banksy also stencils poems that usually end with a twist.

Love Poem

Beyond watching eyes
With sweet and tender kisses
Our souls reached out to each other
In breathless wonder

And when I awoke
From a vast and smiling peace
I found you bathed in morning light
Quietly studying
All the messages on my phone
(Banksy, 2006)

Embedded in this piece of street-art are issues of consumerism, surveillance, distrust, and lack of conversation, and thus also, perhaps, a lack of education and perspective.

Relation to Themes of Authority and Social Resistance

Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge.

      Banksy, 2006

            In 2008, Banksy traveled to New Orleans to draw attention to “an embarrassingly large and mysteriously under-represented section of the displaced poor” still living in temporary accommodation three years post-Hurrican Katrina (Branscome, 2011). As history has proved, war and conflict allow marginalized individuals, including those of minority groups, displaced people, and demobilized soldiers, to retreat into subsistence (Cramer, 2008). Banksy’s work acknowledges this assumption, and strives to repair, rather than further vandalize, social damage. The messages embedded in his graffiti often revolve around social issues such as employment, economic order, and property rights, often surfaced by the contested neoliberal economy of peacebuilding (as cited in Pugh, 2008, p. 141). As Oliver P. Richmond claims in his chapter “Welfare and the Civil Peace: Poverty with Rights?” rights to life and liberty are often reflected in discourses of conflict resolution and liberal peacebuilding; however, societies, cultures, groups, identities, and welfare are often only rhetorically part of this discourse, even though “the problem of civil peace has come to preoccupy the Western-dominated peacebuilding consensus” (2008). Because his messages are ultimately the yet to be discovered voices of the people, Banksy self-defines his art as one of the most honest forms (2006). Banksy and his followers would undoubtedly agree that the objective of peacebuilding is to create and maintain a vibrant civil society. Because it receives the majority of its support and legitimacy from civil society and local actors, the notion of a civil society is a validation of peacebuilding strategies (Richmond, 2008). Because welfare has been ignored by discourses of conflict resolution and liberal peacebuilding, its potential to be perceived as a way of empowering civil society for purposes of liberal peace is also lacking (Richmond, 2008). By analyzing and studying the art of Banksy, it is clear that he recognizes this, and thus engages with the agents and subjects of liberal peace and neoliberalism.

            Banksy’s art also responds to particular historical events and political and social revolutions. A famous series of the face of Cuban revolutionary icon, Che Guevara, progressively fades across a train bridge over Portobello Road in West London. Guevara paraphernalia is sold every Saturday at the market below, together making the statement about “the endless recycling of an icon by endlessly recycling an icon” (Banksy, 2006). On the top of the page on which this series is displayed in his book, Banksy states, “This revolution is for display purposes only” (2006). While my interpretation of the series is subjective, I was told by these images that dressing like a revolutionary does not mean that an individual is a revolutionary; again, Banksy succeeds in encouraging, and perhaps simultaneously educating civil society to recognize that we, the people, can be revolutionaries, ourselves. Another famous piece illustrates a stenciled protestor, holding a bouquet of flowers in his hand, instead of weapons. This particular image symbolizes the Revolution of 1989 in protest against the corrupt regime of President Ceausescu of Romania, and includes details that can also be accurately linked to images of other historical protests, such as that against the Vietnam War at the Pentagon on October 21, 1967, and even the Occupy Movement of 2011 and 2012 (Banksy, 2006). I found myself questioning, however, why humans more easily and sympathetically accept images of protest and resistance when they are of actual footage, and not simply stenciled ink. More recently, Banksy was involved in London’s anti-war demonstration in 2003, and London’s May Day demonstration later that year. Images significant to this event include fighter jets with yellow bows, grim reapers dawning smiles, and signs that read questionable slogans such as, “I don’t believe in anything. I’m just here for the violence” (Banksy, 2006).

Borders and the Significance of Walls
            At a Christmas event organized by Banksy in Bethlehem in 2007, the graffiti artist declared the Palestinian side of the Segregation Wall that separates Israel and Palestine a street art side (Banksy, 2006). A soon to be famous – and famously contested – armoured peace dove ironically wearing a bulletproof vest with red crosshairs aiming at its heart appeared over night in 2007. One critique poses the question, “Does peace stand a chance in these war-torn lands?” (Branscome, 2011). Borders and the walls on which images such as the armoured peace dove are created act as both political and geographical barriers, and gateways to perception, meaning, and voice. As stated by Goodhand in his chapter, “War, Peace and the Places in Between: Why Borderlands are Central,” “boundaries play an ambiguous role, acting simultaneously as source of security and antagonism, inclusion and exclusion” (2008). Banksy’s graffiti counters a boundary’s physical functions of delimiting ownership and authority, establishing defensive lines, and solidifying discrepancies between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Goodhand, 2008). Furthermore, Banksy’s wall art encourages civil society to deconstruct the mental constructs that eventually become social and physical realities if not intervened. It is well understood that the transition from war to peace involves complex bargaining about the nature of not only physical, but also social boundaries (Goodhand, 2008). However, mainstream accounts often ignore social boundaries, disregarding the periphery and its influences on, and exchanges with the centre (as cited in Goodhand, 2008, p. 228). As previously discussed, borderlands are central to dimensions of war and peace; however, they often continue to be ignored within policy discourse and practice (Goodhand, 2008). Banksy literally bridges this gap using imagery to break down nationalist barriers and strengthen the morale of the subjects of ignorant discourse.

            Despite his talent, knowledge, and success, even followers of Banksy sometimes wonder if the subversion of his graffiti has become too complicit. With reference to his book, the often-verbose narratives of Banksy are implicit forms of art, themselves; however, due to their unique styles of expression, the vague explanations serve not only to provide room for subjective interpretation, but also to hypocritically make assumptions and generalizations of civil society. Some may also find it ironic that Banksy is often perceived as joining the ranks of collusion, allowing the potential to encourage the discrepancies among class and maintain the stigma attached to graffiti (Branscome, 2011). Recently, parallel to the success of his work, Banksy has boosted the value of his art in the economic sector, forcing followers to believe issues of antitrust and insider trading are being practiced to increase recognition and market value (Branscome, 2011).


But perhaps Banksy is the art world’s Wizard of Oz – an unimposing middle-aged man working a clever apparatus.

      Branscome, 2011

            Activist performance, as acknowledged by Dia da Costa, has the potential of “illuminating the limits and possibilities of transforming inequalities of livelihood and belonging” (research presentation, November 1, 2012). Banksy undoubtedly succeeds in transforming stigmatized communities into artistic ones, often drawing on walls of physical barriers constructed to prevent confrontation and rebellion, and to eliminate the power of morale among subjects. The voice projected by Banksy that is representative of civil society, however, is sensed and not spoken. One of many structures of what da Costa refers to as affectism is that of sentimental optimism, which is pertinent to Banksy and the embedded meanings in his graffiti, which effectively mobilize and empower perspective by means of creativity (2012). A second structure is that of crude pessimism, which refers to the feeling of constantly being on the verge of overcoming criminality, pertinent to graffiti, itself (2012). Banksy continues to overcome graffiti’s reputation of delinquency and crime, performing affectism on concrete surfaces across the globe, “situating creative livelihoods in the longing for ordinary regard found in spaces of activism” (2012).

            Branscome accurately concludes, “[Banksy] plays with the concept of art, mixing it up with vandalism and adding a significant dash of sophisticated marketplace” (2011). The interventionist language of street art encourages communication between the disenfranchised to the powerful. Banksy is undoubtedly one of the most radical artists of this genre, encouraging fellow civilians to raise their voices, either directly or creatively. Banksy admits, “A lot of people never use their initiative because no-one told them to” (2006). His tag is symbolic not only of encouragement, but also of education of the right to speak up against authority’s opposing social, economic, political, and cultural forces, and challenge society’s perceived stupidity:

The human race is the most stupid and unfair kind of race. A lot of the runners don’t even get decent sneakers or clean drinking water. Some runners are born with a massive head start, every possible help along the way and still the referees seem to be on their side. It’s not surprising a lot of people have given up competing altogether and gone to sit in the grandstand, eat junk and shout abuse. What the human race needs is a lot more streakers (Banksy, 2006).

Demanding both critique and celebration, the work of Banksy is complex and varied. Understandably, pieces are often perceived differently; however, most interpretations will undoubtedly recognize Banksy’s interventionist, yet renegade, objectives. Although his work remains politically charged, contested, and often not accepted by all members of civil society – perhaps, even by librarians of Queen’s University’s Stauffer Library, who strategically pasted a “Date Due” sticker over the satirical religious piece of art on the last page of Wall and Piece – Banksy is confident in his radical images and narratives, expressed with the simple phrase, “I’m proud to be the art terrorist” (Banksy, 2006).

LARGE GRAFFITI SLOGAN: Some assembly required (Croydon, 2009)


Banksy. (2006). Wall and piece. England, UK: Century.

Branscome, E. (2004). The true counterfeits of Banksy: Radical walls of complicity and
            subversion. Architectural Design, 81(5): 114-121.

Cooper, N., Pugh, M., & Turner, M. (Eds.). (2008). New security challenges. England,
            UK: Pulgrave Macmillan.

da Costa, D. (2012, November 1). A Hunger Called Theatre: Work, Affect, and Activism
            Among Postcolonial Subjects. Studies in National and International
            Development. Research presentation from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.

Urban Art Core. (2010, 13 May). Banksy – Child Drawing Series. Urban Art Core: Street
            Art. Retrieved November 1, 2012, from

[1] The title of this review is derived from that of Banksy’s book Wall and Piece. As this essay strives to relate Banksy’s politically charged and often contested graffiti art to themes of conflict and peace, I have chosen to extend the concepts of wall and piece to larger, historically and politically significant structures of walls and peace. For example, I argue that the Segregation Wall between Israel and Palestine is not just a physical barrier, but one that also provides a wall for activist performance. Other examples include, but are not limited to, the Berlin Wall between Soviet-controlled East Germany and West Berlin between 1961 and 1989, and the Moroccan Wall currently in Morocco and Western Sahara that separates Moroccan-controlled provinces from others striving for independence (Banksy, 2006).
[2]Civil society represents a Western view of non-governmental actors, citizens, subjects, workers, consumers, and institutions” (Richmond, 2008)

1 comment:

  1. Many an afternoon has been enjoyed by a family, bonding over the discussion of liberal peacebuilding. Given that its influence pervades our society, there are just not enough blues songs written about liberal peacebuilding. Since it was first compared to antidisestablishmentarianism much has been said concerning liberal peacebuilding by the easily lead, who form the last great hope for our civilzation.