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Banksy (British, b.b. 1974)
Both completely accessible and ultimately unknowable, Banksy represents a dichotomy that has enchanted and infuriated the modern art scene for decades. His work spans multiple media, from film, to graffiti, to installation, to canvas painting -- the throughline being that a Banksy piece will always enchant, delight, and challenge the viewer. Though he has managed to succeed in his quest to remain an “anonymous” artist, there are some things we do know about one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2010.
Banksy grew up in Bristol in the 1980s. It was on the grungy streets of the Barton Hill District that Banksy would hone his now-distinct stencil graffiti. As the legend goes, Banksy was inspired by seeing a stenciled plate on the bottom of a fuel tank while hiding from the police. He realized it would be relatively easy, inexpensive, and most importantly -- fast, an important quality for putting up subversive work. His first wall mural, The Mild Mild West (1997) shows a teddy bear throwing a molotov cocktail at the police.
“As soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there,” Banksy said in an interview with author Tristan Manco. “I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.”
In 1999, Banksy moved to London. It was where he began to emphasize his anonymity, mostly as a tool to help evade local law enforcement. His early work drew comparisons to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring -- two artists who had also used public space for their canvas. In 2003, Banksy mounted his first exhibition in an abandoned warehouse in Hackney. Turf War (2003) was an instant success, an art carnival complete with Andy Warhol’s face stenciled on a live cow.
The following year saw Banksy go international, with performance art pranks at the Louvre and the MOMA. He also continued his political dissidence, creating nine images that appeared on the Israeli West Bank Wall. His exhibition Barely Legal (2006) featured a live elephant painted pink and gold, as well as many satirical paintings incorporating the art of Andy Warhol and Da Vinci. It was during this time that Banksy’s work began to sell at auction, Girl with Balloon (2002) and Bomb Hugger (2003) both sold much higher than their estimated prices.
Banksy's biggest foray into pop culture was his Academy Award-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) which tells the story of Mr. Brainwash, a Los Angeles-based artist and owner of a used clothing store. In typical Banksy fashion, the documentary raises more questions than it answers, and many feel that Mr. Brainwash himself is just another Banksy creation.
No matter the medium, a Banksy piece will always challenge the viewer and display his trademark wicked sense of humor. This vitality is imbued in every stencil, making Banksy one of our most treasured - and divisive - artists. Just the way he wants it.
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