War-damaged buildings as a canvas: Banksy’s art in Ukraine
The anonymous artist Banksy has confirmed to have made seven new graffiti artworks in the ruins of what used to be Ukrainian cities (Instagram, 2022). Banksy is known for his hint of criticism at the current state of the world in his artworks and photos of his work tend to be shared on the internet and create discussions online. As the war in Ukraine continues to take place, all of us can follow the war online through the use of digital platforms and social media. In this paper, I will analyze the murals done by the artist Banksy in Ukrainian cities and examine how his art offers a critical reflection of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
To do so, I will first provide background information on the Russo-Ukrainian war and its effects, after which I will investigate who the artist Banksy is. Then I will take a look at the murals Banksy has done in Ukraine and examine how art can offer a critical reflection of our present day. I will conclude this paper by diving into the deeper meaning of Banksy’s art and how it offers spectators a chance to reflect on the war.
The Russo-Ukrainian war and its effects
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has stated in his essay On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians (2021) that Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians "are one people" and that "true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia" (Putin, 2021). Putin announced the war on the 24th of February as it is a "special military operation" aiming at the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine (Osborn & Nikolskaya, 2022).
On the 24th of February, Russia invaded Ukraine in a dramatic escalation of the war that has been ongoing since 2014. Both sides have suffered masses of deaths, but numbers remain unclear. The Russo-Ukrainian war has had effects all over the world and has caused Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War (Pita & Sánchez Costa, 2022) as millions of Ukrainians are fleeing the country. A global effect of the Russian invasion is the result of food shortages (Barbaro, 2022).
Next to global food shortages and Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, thousands of Ukrainians and Russians have lost their lives at the front and in cities completely bombed to ashes (The Guardian, 2022). Thousands of people must hide in shelters to escape the bombs that destroy entire neighborhoods (The Guardian, 2022).
The anonymous artist Banksy and his public statements
To understand the political messages in the artworks Banksy did on the Russo-Ukrainian war that I will analyze further in this paper, we first have to understand who the artist called Banksy is and examine his background to be able to relate his art to the war.
Banksy is a pseudonym for the anonymous England-based street artist, political activist, and film director. His real name and identity remain unconfirmed and subject to speculation. He is mostly known for his series Girl with Balloon which are multiple graffiti artworks showing a girl reaching for a red balloon in the shape of a heart. In 2018, a copy of the Girl with Balloon artwork was auctioned for more than 1 million UK pounds (Lawless, 2018). Right after the artwork was sold, a hidden shredder built into the frame activated and began shredding the work of art. The partially shredded Girl with Balloon was then renamed by Banksy as Love is in the Bin (Martinez, 2018). The shredded work live performed has been named Banksy’s most famous artwork, as it is "one of the most widely recognizable images created by Banksy" (Banksy Explained, n.d.).
Banksy creates "urban street art images that respond to a given context and contain some form of social commentary" (Urbanist, 2007). These graffiti works spark discussion and create public debate about what art is, and what its meaning and value are. Because graffiti is vandalism and therefore illegal, Banksy stays anonymous. Although he started in his hometown of Bristol, England, his works have shifted from being locally subversive to globally revolutionary, and his works appear in different parts of the world as well. Banksy has garnered fame for his street works, "which often combine spray paint and stenciling techniques with commercial, political and contemporary imagery, infused with ironic social commentary and humor" (Banksy Explained, n.d.).
Banksy is not new to refugee and warzone artworks. He has painted Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, as a Syrian migrant on a wall in Calais, France, where a camp is set up for refugees from the Middle East (Ellis-Petersen, 2022). This was meant to be a statement about the fact that Apple only exists because "they allowed in a young man from Homs" (Ellis-Petersen, 2022), referencing Jobs’ Syrian background. Banksy has also done works in the Gaza Strip, and later "auctioning paintings to raise funds for Palestinian causes" (McKernan, 2022).
Art as criticism
Art can offer a critical reflection of the present in the contemporary world. As I have explained, the artist Banksy is known for his social and political commentary on the present state of the world in his artworks and now with seven new artworks in Ukraine, he has made another statement of the recent events happening in the Western world. I will introduce the graffiti artworks by Banksy in the bombed cities of Ukraine as they reflect criticism of Banksy to the world’s current state and the war happening in Ukraine.
Banksy’s art in Ukraine
After a series of murals appeared in the city of Borodyanka near the capital Kyiv, it was speculated that Banksy was in Ukraine (Tondo, 2022). Banksy revealed his latest artwork when confirming his whereabouts with a post on Instagram (see Figure 1).
The post shows Banksy’s location in the caption, as it says "Borodyanka, Ukraine". The mural shows a woman practicing a handstand on the remnants of a bombed building.
A second post on Instagram shows a video of Banksy in which seven artworks can be identified, which was a reupload from a video titled Ukraine shared on Banksy’s YouTube channel. The video shows him painting the walls but has as its main focus the context of the art; "which is ruins that were caused by humans, by neighbors, by a nation that liked to say they are brothers" (Dominauskaite, 2022). The video also included short conversations with locals sharing their experiences and feelings about the Russo-Ukrainian war (YouTube, 2022).
The most expressive mural of Banksy in Ukraine depicts a young boy throwing Putin to the floor while practicing judo (see Figure 2).
The graffiti artwork is interesting as it portrays Vladimir Putin in a black belt being thrown to the floor by a young boy. Putin’s honorary black belt was revoked by World Taekwondo because of the Russo-Ukrainian war (Diaz, 2022) and no championships will be held in Belarus or Russia, as well as that "no national flags or anthems from Russia or its ally Belarus will be displayed or played during the organization’s events" (Diaz, 2022).
Where the young boy comes from is made clear as we watch the YouTube video on Banksy’s official channel called banksyfilm. A Ukrainian woman with her young child is being interviewed and says that a bomb has fallen on that place where "many people died" (YouTube, 2022). She then explains that her child used to go to this kindergarten. The young boy is therefore a representative of the kindergarten that used to be in this place, the building that is now not more than a ruin. Through this representation of the young boy playing the judo match with President Putin of Russia, it is made clear that the war is being condemned by Banksy and shows the destructive nature of war.
The destructive part of war is yet again represented in these three murals (Figure 3) that depict the normality of the lives of Ukrainians before the war. The first mural shows an older man taking a bath; however, the graffiti artwork is on a building that is now unlivable as it is completely destroyed by bombs. Banksy’s mural on the normality of life is a representation of the way in which the daily lives of the citizens of Ukraine have been turned upside down, with citizens not being able to live in their own homes anymore, and therefore having to flee their home cities.
The second and third murals show two gymnasts practicing. We can interpret these murals in various ways. It could mean that the young people of Ukraine see their dreams of competing in the Olympics one day getting destroyed. Another interpretation is that the girls "represent the Ukrainian nation trying to keep their feet on the ground while Earth is shattering under them" (Dominauskaite, 2022). Either way, it is up to the spectator to interpret the art and give it meaning.
Figure 4 shows a mural of two small children playing on what are called roadblocks. These roadblocks function as a way to block the roads for tanks and other vehicles. The Ukrainian citizens have used them in order to keep the Russian enemy out of their cities (Tondo, 2022). The two children represent the innocent among the Ukrainian citizens, as well as "the crushed dreams of Ukrainians, their strength and resilience as well as the desire to keep fighting" (Dominauskaite, 2022). It also shows how in every terrible thing, in this case, the war, there is always room for playfulness, joy, and hope.
A critical analysis of art
These murals in Ukraine show that Banksy has a tendency to make graffiti artworks with a statement, whether political or societal. Spectators of his work are being confronted with a message and can interpret this message through the context of the artwork, as well as the current state of the world. By staying anonymous, Banksy allows his artworks to speak for themselves, as "he feels his identity might distract or retract from what the focus should be: his work, and the statements he is making" (Banksy Explained, n.d.).
The meaning of Banksy’s art in Ukraine
We can ask ourselves why it is important that a famous artist like Banksy is paying attention to the war in Europe. The Russo-Ukrainian war is the first large-scale war of aggression in Europe since World War II (Diehn, 2022). And as I have mentioned before, the Russo-Ukrainian war has had its effects not only in the Balkan but in the whole world, as there are food shortages that affect people everywhere. The war has been the cause of Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War and thousands of soldiers and citizens on both sides have lost their lives.
Banksy helped the country of Ukraine at the beginning of the war by selling one of his anti-war pieces painted in 2005 for more than €90,000 (Dominauskaite, 2022). He donated the money to a children’s hospital in the capital Kyiv (Dominauskaite, 2022). By making his art in the ruins of Ukrainian cities, he not only shows what Russia has done to Ukraine, but he also opens up the debate about war and shows his support for Ukraine.
In short, Banksy’s art can be seen as a political statement about the Russo-Ukrainian war and its destructiveness, as well as its effects on millions of citizens of Ukraine. I have examined the murals done by Banksy in Ukraine as an example of criticism of the current state of the world and I have analyzed how Banksy sparks discussion with his works. These Ukrainian murals serve as a starting point for opening up the debate about war and its consequences. Through digital media, all of us can not only follow the events happening at the front, but also see a message in art like Banksy’s and form an opinion through his statements. To conclude, Banksy’s murals can be seen as a prime example of how art can offer a critical reflection of the present.
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