The death of Banksy

January 3rd, 2011 | By | 71 Comments »

Photo by eddiedangerous

Can Banksy die? I’ve got no doubt that the man who was writing the name Banksy on Bristol’s walls in the 1990′s can and will, at some point, die. That’s not what I’m wondering though. Keith Haring has been dead for more than 20 years, but you can still buy new products with his imagery. Similarly, Basquiat’s estate released prints after his death. But those artists had names and faces. Even after their deaths, products can still be made using their images, but there’s not going to be any new imagery. But Banksy (the brand, not the man) doesn’t have those same constraints. Disney didn’t die with Walt Disney. Is Banksy one man or many people?

While he is anonymous, Banksy is publicly portrayed as being one person. But what does that one person actually do these days when it comes to making art?

It’s ridiculously risky for Banksy to paint his own street art…

A Banksy billboard/artwork in NYC. Photo by caruba

Does Banksy paint his own street art? Shepard Fairey has said that he doesn’t (thanks to Mischa for the link to that article) and, in the latest issue of Very Nearly Almost, Eine says that he used to paint street pieces for Banksy. Given his high-profile status and the risks associated with painting outdoors, it probably makes legal sense for assistants to paint Banksy’s street pieces. If I were in Banksy’s position, I wouldn’t risk painting all of my own outdoor work. Even if Banksy does paint his own street pieces today and has always done so up until today, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to notice if that situation changed tomorrow.

There’s no way to know if Banksy paints his own gallery art…

Collaboration between Damien Hirst and Banksy. Photo by ahisgett

What about his indoor work? Maybe Banksy still paints everything himself, but I’m doubtful of that. While hiring assistants might be more difficult for Banksy than Jeff Koons, it’s clear in Exit Through The Gift Shop that Banksy has a staff. At the very least, I think it’s safe to assume that Banksy isn’t executing the creation of any his sculptures himself (no matter what this video purports to show). And there’s little reason to think Banksy doesn’t have assistants completing part or all of his paintings. Banksy has said that he paints his own pictures, but how would anyone outside of his team know if he was telling the truth or not? Assistants who work on paintings for an artist are a widely accepted practice. As an extreme example, Damien Hirst has said that his best spot paintings were the ones painted entirely by Rachel Howard, his former assistant. Even if Banksy paints all his own pictures today, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to know if that practice changes in the future. Again though, some use of assistants for painting is probably what almost any artist in Banksy’s position would do.

There isn’t just one man who can come up with funny stencils…

Stencil by Meek. Photo by Joshua Rappeneker

But regardless who who physically executes the artwork, conceptual artists have long contended that the artist is the one who comes up with the idea of the art, not the one who makes the art. By that standard, what makes a Banksy a Banksy is that he came up with the idea, but he isn’t the only one who could do that. Countless artists emulating Banksy, as well as generations of political cartoonists, have shown that coming up with clever 1-liners isn’t a skill possessed only by one man. Admittedly, I think most people find Banksy’s average success rate with his jokes to be higher than that of a lot the people he has inspired, but that is probably as much about being careful with what you put out there as it is about being clever. Maybe it’s true that no one person will ever be as good as Banksy at his brand of humor and commentary, but a dozen people working together probably could be. But I’ve already made an assumption here: Today, there is only one individual who comes up with all the ideas behind Banksy’s artwork. Again, we have no way of knowing how true that assumption is. Banksy’s cloak of anonymity means that the public really has no idea how many people contribute ideas to the Banksy identity. Today and in the future, the ideas behind Banksy’s art could come from one man or a team of 50 with no input from the original individual who called himself Banksy. How could we tell the difference?

Life after death…

Photo by Jake Dobkin

I’m inclined to think that Banksy, the man, is a hard working guy who does involve himself in the making of the artwork that he signs. But given all the possibilities for others to be involved in the Banksy brand without the public knowing a thing, it is clear that the Banksy brand can continue to create artwork indefinitely with or without the original man behind the name. Like the many boys who took on the role Batman’s sidekick Robin (oh, haha okay I came up with this metaphor days ago and only now as I write it down do I realize the irony given Banksy’s supposed identity. I’m an idiot), an anonymous artist’s name and image can be taken up by any number of people. If the man behind Banksy ever leaves the Banksy organization, or when he dies, will the public ever know? It’s possible that my grandchildren will be able to see “original” Banksy artwork completed a century from now. Banksy seems to have reached the absurd hyperbole of conceptual art: the original artist may not even need to conceive the artwork for it to bear his name. Banksy has finally achieved what Warhol and others set out to: the artist is truly a brand without a human identity.

This isn’t to say that Banksy’s death is impossible. It may happen one day. It seems only right that Banksy the brand dies with Banksy the man and it may very well end there, but it would definitely be possible for his team to continue the brand without the man. Then, the questions become would we notice, would we care and how would Banksy the brand change itself from the original intent of Banksy the man?

What do you think? Does Banksy’s death promise a new frontier for art? Have I completely misunderstood the brand/man that is Banksy? This is a post of questions I’ve been thinking about more than it is a post of answers and opinions, so I’m looking forward to reading other people’s thoughts in the comments.

Photos by eddiedangerous, Jake Dobkin, caruba, Joshua Rappeneker and ahisgett


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  • http://blog.vandalog.com/ RJ Rushmore

    Would you agree that Andrew Warhola purposefully set out to create the Andy Warhol character/brand? That seems to me to be an important part of his art. And that Andy’s Factory was, in many ways, a factory. His style is replicable and the work was possible to be executed by others. But Warhol, living character, was a key part of that factory. Without him, there could be no more Warhol artwork. But if The Factory had been faceless, maybe his assistants could have continued to make artwork after Warhola’s death. That’s perhaps a more detailed explanation of what I meant by that comparison.

  • http://blog.vandalog.com/ RJ Rushmore

    Would you agree that Andrew Warhola purposefully set out to create the Andy Warhol character/brand? That seems to me to be an important part of his art. And that Andy’s Factory was, in many ways, a factory. His style is replicable and the work was possible to be executed by others. But Warhol, living character, was a key part of that factory. Without him, there could be no more Warhol artwork. But if The Factory had been faceless, maybe his assistants could have continued to make artwork after Warhola’s death. That’s perhaps a more detailed explanation of what I meant by that comparison.

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  • http://tezla7.tumblr.com Will

    that’s a different explanation. I can’t say what Warhol purposefully set out to do. Warhol and Banksy have both had a significant influence on popular culture, which is more than most people in the world can claim. You don’t have to explain your main concept, I understood that, that banky’s work could live beyond the grave, it’s a good idea, it’s a thought provoking concept.

    Anyway… you’ve got all sorts of people thinking about it, which is proof of a great idea….that’s what it’s all about, I was just being picky, commenting on a few paragraphs in the article which I didn’t quite follow.

    In relation to that main concept, in my opinion, when people die, so does their action. What lives on is their influence and inspiration in others. Stencil and graffiti writing will always be, in some shape or form, but as for Banksy living on through other people? Na, in my opinion, if I was one of the banksy staff I wouldn’t want to speak for a dead guy, that’d be a little off. I’d gamble Banksy would say the same.

    how do I get the function for people to comment on my posts on my blog? might have to change the theme, it’s just I’m using a custom theme, an if i switch theme i’ll lose all the code. is there summat, a code I can paste in…

    ta.

  • guest513

    cant say ill be upset if he dies

  • Human303

    the hype around mbw is manufactured indeed which in fact created another hype concerning what is true or false in this matter. funny..

    it is a thin line when it comes to art, originality, hype

  • http://twitter.com/elDamo Damo

    Apparently you can find out Banksy’s name …

    http://cgi.ebay.com/Identity-Banksy-/260719875075?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item3cb41d9403#ht_500wt_951

    if you’ve got a spare $25k lying around?

  • http://twitter.com/bzsaw Tim Parsons

    Banksy is dead? Long live Banksy!

  • http://twitter.com/Mr_ADAMWEST Adam West

    Just a quick thought.. Didn’t Banksy create the hype for MBW?? If I recall correctly he publicly endorsed his show, and no matter what he said about it (either good or bad) using “Banksy’s” words create hype. For me that was the most interesting concept in the film. “Banksy” is clearly a master at not only public relations, but creating an open idea. Leaving things open to interpretation may be what he is best at, which is what I perceive as the meaning of art. Only what I love about “Banksy” is that I’m not so much staring at his pieces, as much as I’m staring at him. Really interesting stuff.

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  • ab

    ee hes not ded so

  • elwyn

    What is absolutely genius, is that if we are convinced to believe that he doesn’t paint all his pieces, he could very well get caught and pass it off as if here just some assistant.

  • Bresin

    Which is why all of this banter is more interesting than it’s worth. The fact that he still hides behind the name and refuses to show his face is no longer due to any fear of being caught than it is due to the mystery pushing the form, giving it endurance. Everyone keeps asking, “Who is Banksy, really?” When the answer is, “A guy who went from being a socio-political tagger to an artist.” Who makes any person an artist? The audience. All of us who belch our inner-views of life onto a wall or canvas or cd or a page are only what we get paid to do until an audience pegs us as ‘artists’. You, the ticket-ripper at the theater who goes home to your studio every night to work on your masterpiece? You’re a ticket-ripper until an audience comes along and gives you food for Ramen Noodles, bread, and peanut butter. The same goes for you Waiter or Waitress. Sure, we know inside of us that we are artists, but nobody else does save the group of people who view our work and agree that it’s art. It’s not very surprising to learn that Banksy has stolen concepts – he was a tagger with a message at one point. The expectations that grew from the mystery vaulted him into a world I don’t think he ever planned for, and because of that I frankly don’t think he can keep up with. His ideas are not new, in fact, most are disturbingly cliche’. The phone booth with a pick-axe? The children with paint buckets beneath the hole in the wall showing some tropical vista? The guy ready to chuck a bouquet instead of a molotov cocktail? Seriously? Don’t get me wrong, it’s very intriguing for sure, if anything to make Joe Briefcase stop and think about something deeper in life then his next sales-meeting, it works for that. But I think his mystery is the only thing still driving it these days. And I think if he ever came out of the shadows and stood before his works the prices would decline rapidly. Meh, who knows, maybe all I just said is BS.

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  • Green

    It’s pretty damn presumptuous to criticise Banksy for something something EVERY honest artist admits to doing – “ripping off” others, especially when at least one of the artists you quote has himseld explicitly said that he did not think this to be the case (Blek le Rat). Nothing is original. This is 21st century, any thought worth having as been already thought. Humans take things in and regurgitate.

    Banksy is no more a parasite than any artist, and rather than being a parasitic relationship, I think any artist hopes that they’re (at worst) commensalism, and at best, mutualism.

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  • Pompido

    is hee really dead

  • http://twitter.com/NetherStreetArt Nether Street Art

    Art is only effective it if it able to get to the masses. thats the bottom line and it seems that Banksy and other popularly dissed street artists such as Shepard realize that and are doing whatever they can to get their art to the masses.  Props to them and most of the haters just happen to be those that don’t get up as much.  Their doing what they should be doing, and they do it damn well with their team.  

    This whole topic is kinda funny to me.  Its kinda cheesy how the most “up” street artists get teased for not doing their own work yet one of the core elements in traditional graffiti is trading piece sketches between each other.  Never really understood that.  I wonder why people get mad at Banksy and obey when a lot of these writer’s aren’t actually drawing the shit they get recognized for.  Just an opinion but thats way faker and weaker to me than what Banksy is doing. Let me make myself clear, I’m not a graff writer and i don’t have a problem with trading sketches, the only thing is i don’t see how one can replicate sketches that they didn’t make and talk shit about Banksy at the same time.

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