Banksy, street art and globalization

8 minutes to read
Article
Sophie Hines
18/06/2021

Revered by some and reviled by others, the anonymous Banksy is one of the most famous street artists in the world. Starting out as a graffitist in Bristol, UK, in the 1990s, Banksy has since become a regular media figure thanks to his high-profile pranks and satirical reflections on modern life. As an activist, his works typically carry a social or political commentary on subjects ranging from Western consumerism and capitalism to the lack of empathy towards migrants and refugees. In this way, it is possible to view Banksy through the lens of globalization.

While difficult to define, globalization generally refers to the "increasing economic and political connectivity" between countries as well as "a collective awareness of growing global interconnectedness" (Nederveen Pieterse, 2009, pp. 16-17). This article will discuss the ways in which Banksy explores global issues in his work, while also examining how globalization has played a role in his success.

Street art

It is important to reflect on the power relations at play in the production and consumption of street art. Street art "has become a global sensation since the end of the 1990s" (Molnár, 2017, p. 385 ). Its popularity, perhaps surprisingly, rose in tandem with increased control over and privatisation of urban public space (Tunnacliffe, 2016). Urban environments and their users have become subject to higher levels of surveillance, while gentrification and its attendant norms of ‘cleanliness’ and ‘orderliness’ have served to render activities like graffiti ‘criminal’ – stemming from a belief that this aesthetic control equates to social order (Molnár, 2017, pp. 385-386). Street art is thus often described as an attempt by urban inhabitants to "[re-socialise] public spaces," challenging the power exerted over these spaces while at the same time prompting consideration of the ways in which we experience them (Tunnacliffe, 2016, p. 1).

With the streets as canvas, street art is consequently regarded as inherently more democratic and egalitarian than the institutionalised contemporary art world. It is neither reserved for the elite nor curated for exhibition to gallery-goers but intended for consumption by the everyday person (Tunnacliffe, 2016). Street art aims at a wide audience, which is significant given that it is often underpinned by an activist message, conveying both local and global issues (Tunnacliffe, 2016). Central to the ethos of many street artists, for example, is the rejection of commercialism, consumerism, authority and the establishment. 

Anti-consumerism and anti-capitalism

Street art provides an alternative to the ubiquity of advertising and global corporate brand imagery in urban spaces (Molnár, 2017). As Banksy writes in Wall and Piece, “the people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff” (2006). In his work, Banksy explores consumerism in an explicitly negative light. Moreover, his critique of Western consumerism and capitalism forms part of a wider condemnation of the negative impacts of globalization. 

Nederveen Pieterse (2009) discusses three main frameworks through which globalization can be understood, one of which is the McDonaldization thesis. McDonaldization, proposed by George Ritzer (1993), "is a version of the recent idea of worldwide homogenization of societies through the impact of multinational corporations" (Nederveen Pieterse, 2009, p. 51). It has its basis in ideas of Westernization or, more specifically, Americanization, suggesting the worldwide spread of Western companies and, with them, features of Western culture. Two obvious examples of the globalization of American culture are the brands Disney and McDonald’s – both of which have been targeted by Banksy.

"The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff." (Banksy, 2006)

Although not produced on the street like the majority of his works, the screen print Napalm (2004) nonetheless retains Banksy’s recognisable style. It features three figures: Mickey Mouse (representative of Disney) and Ronald McDonald (representative of McDonald’s) smile as they walk on either side of a naked, screaming young child. The child's image is taken from the famous photograph of a girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald are typically associated with childhood joy and excitement, yet here they take on much more sinister connotations.

Although open to interpretation, Banksy’s print can be read as an indictment of the "global sweep of consumerism" and of American capitalism (Nederveen Pieterse, 2009, p. 44). By positioning a well-known image of suffering alongside these consumerist and capitalist figures, Banksy forges an association between them, drawing a line between the United States' military and culture imperialism. Banksy therefore suggests in this print that the globalization of American capitalism and consumerist habits is a cause of unhappiness and suffering, rather than a way to alleviate them.

Banksy's 'Slave Labour' (2012)

Meanwhile, Banksy’s Slave Labour (2012) provides a more explicit commentary connecting Western consumerism with the darker side of globalization, namely the unevenness of its nature and the presence of global inequality (Korzeniewicz and Moran, 2007, in Ritzer and Dean, 2015). Indeed, "while globalization has linked countries from around the world into a global economy, many nations or even many people within rich nations have not benefitted from this tremendous creation of wealth" (Ritzer and Dean, 2015, p. 360). 

Slave Labour features a young child kneeling before a sewing machine, sewing Union Jack bunting. This piece appeared on the outer wall of a Poundland shop in the UK during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the run-up to the London Olympics. The location of the piece is significant, implicating Poundland in its criticism: the shop was selling decorations like those depicted and had previously been linked to the use of child sweatshop labour. Banksy therefore uses the piece to draw "attention to the conditions of production of these disposable nationalist icons" (Hansen and Flynn, 2015, p. 901), prompting the viewer to reflect on their consumerist habits.

The refugee crisis

As previously mentioned, globalization partially refers to a "collective awareness of growing global interconnectedness" (Nederveen Pieterse, 2009, p. 17). With this awareness of global relations comes consciousness of global issues. This concern with global issues, as we have seen, is evident in Banksy’s work – particularly that which concerns the European refugee crisis.

"Taking a long view, globalization and migration are twin subjects" as "in a historical sense we are all migrants because our ancestors have all travelled to the places where we have come from" (Nederveen Pieterse, 2009, p. 35). While Nederveen Pieterse (2009) discusses whether the nation state is dwindling in the face of growing human integration, Banksy’s street art criticizes the attitudes towards migrants and refugees that frequently put this idea into question.

Banksy has created a number of works about the refugee crisis and that advocate for greater empathy in Europe towards those crossing the Mediterranean. In 2016, he reproduced the image of a young girl from Les Misérables on the French embassy in London to draw attention to the use of tear gas in the Calais “Jungle” refugee camp: the girl cries as tear gas surrounds her, while a QR code directs viewers to a video confirming the allegation. Similarly, Banksy painted a portrait of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, on a wall in the same camp to address negative perceptions of migrants and refugees: “We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources, but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company [which] only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs” (Banksy, 2015).

Banksy uses this piece as an example of Nederveen Pieterse’s assertion that "migration is a major site of cultural creativity and economic stimulus" (2009, p. 36). Alongside these artistic responses, Banksy also donated the infrastructure from his 2015 Weston-super-Mare Dismaland exhibition to build housing in the camp and has more recently funded a refugee rescue boat, the 'Louise Michel’.

Banksy's 'The Son of a Migrant from Syria' (2015)

Banksy's global success

Despite commenting on the impact of globalization in his work, Banksy's worldwide recognition and success is arguably a product of globalization. Although the exact starting point of globalization is contested, recent technological advances have facilitated its acceleration significantly (Nederveen Pieterse, 2009, p. 39).  Street art is intrinsically ephemeral, subject to erosion by the weather, removal by authorities, or alteration and erasure by other artists. However, the rise of Web 2.0, social media, and smart phones has meant that street art is now commonly recorded and preserved digitally (Molnár, 2017).

The Internet - which has "expedited the globalization of many different things and is itself a profound form of globalization" (Ritzer and Dean, 2015, p. 251) - enables the wider visibility of street art beyond the site of its production. Uploaded to dedicated blogs, social media sites such as Facebook or Instagram, and news media platforms, photographs of street art from around the world can be viewed by anyone, anywhere.

Technology has afforded widespread recognition of Banksy, which, alongside the allure of his anonymity and the merits of his work, has contributed to his status as one of the most famous street artists in the world.

There are numerous blogs devoted to monitoring Banksy, and the artist has his own website to document and authenticate his activity alongside an Instagram account followed by 10.9 million people. Banksy is a consistent feature in the UK and foreign press, especially when a new piece of his appears somewhere. His ability to travel beyond the UK and leave his mark in various places, such as the United States, France, Palestine, Canada, and Australia further reflects the impact of globalization. Technology has afforded widespread recognition of Banksy, which, alongside the allure of his anonymity and the merits of his work, has contributed to his status as one of the most famous street artists in the world.

The increased connectivity between countries has led to significant advances in transnational communication, allowing for, among other outcomes, the marketing of products on a global scale and the establishment of global brands (Nederveen Pieterse, 2009). Banksy has (ironically, given his self-professed aversion to them) become one such ‘global brand’ (Feiken, 2017). "Banksy’s art – operating in the same landscapes as advertising and addressing the same people – relies on similar strategies of communication as the corporate capitalism it is so often directed against" (Feiken, 2017, pp. 227-228).

The success of his ‘brand’ and the fame that goes with it has led to Banksy’s street art entering the commercial, institutionalised art world. As an increasingly popular art form, street art has been commodified in recent years, manifesting in its exhibition in galleries and its sale at auctions or online (Molnár, 2017). This is especially true for Banksy, whose works are often taken from their original site and sold for thousands, even millions, of pounds, often without his permission (Blanché, 2016).

In many ways, then, Banksy can be seen to reflect our "global age" (Albrow, 1996, in Ritzer and Dean, 2015). From the international events he discusses in his work, to the widespread recognition of his personal 'brand', it is evident that globalization has played a considerable role in the career of this world-renowned street artist.

References

Banksy (2006) Wall and Piece. Century.

Blanché, U. (2016) Banksy: Urban Art in a Material World. Translated from German by Blanché, U. and Jonas, R. Tectum.

Feiken, B. (2017) ‘Answering Back! Banksy’s Street Art and the Power Relations of Public Space’, in Delaure, M., Fink, M. and Dery, M. (eds.) Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance. New York University Press.

Hansen, S. & Flynn, D. (2015) “This is not a Banksy!’: street art as aesthetic protest’, Continuum, 26(6), 898-912.

Molnár, V. (2017) ‘Street Art and the Changing Public Sphere’, Public Culture, 29(20), 385-414.

Nederveen Pieterse, J. (2009) Globalization and Culture: Global Melange (2nd edn). Rowman & Littlefield.

Ritzer, G. and Dean, P. (2015) Globalization: A Basic Text (2nd edn). John Wiley & Sons.

Tunnacliffe, C.M. (2016) ‘DPU Working Paper: The power of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences’.