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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, December 27, 2005
    Wall and Piece

    Powerful thing, graffiti. As Banksy shows in his book Wall and Piece, which someone who knows me very well imagined I would enjoy this Christmas. I'm a bit wary of Banksy now that the mainstream is embracing him (books, Sunday supplements, gallery shows) but I bet nowhere near as wary as he himself is of being caught in the deadly embrace of the establishment. But meanwhile he continues subverting urban space, and it's good.

    Graffiti changes things. When Banksy stencils THIS WALL IS A DESIGNATED GRAFFITI AREA on white space it soon fills up with other people's tags; when he stencilled DESIGNATED RIOT AREA at the foot of Nelson's Column it was removed by nervous security personnel in just four minutes. The book features a photo of a stencil onto the sand at Weston Super Mare, X - BURIED TREASURE. You can bet there were bounty-hunters there within minutes of that picture being taken. One of my favourite urban interventions in Wall and Piece is the sign he glued into St James' Park lake in 2004 stating, DANGER - CONTAMINATED AREA - RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL. He writes, 'The Metropolitan Police made it look far more realistic by stationing a community support officer on the bridge nearby telling people not to be alarmed.'

    Banksy is a subvertiser - keen to challenge the hegemony of The Advertisers who 'abuse you everyday ... butt into your life ... leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small ... [are] on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. ... However you are forbidden to touch them ...' Banksy wilfully ignores intellectual property rights and sets about altering ads to make passers-by stop and think ('They never asked for your permission, don't even start asking for theirs'). It's the Adbusters approach and it offers deliverance from the oppressive mental environment The Advertisers cage us in.

    But Banksy is so much more than just a subvertiser. His art does complicated things. Like the cashpoint belching out Princess Diana-faced tenners onto Farringdon, the stencil WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? facing a CCTV camera in Marble Arch, the love poems he pastes on the side of street furniture, the traffic cones he reassembles on some of the world's busiest streets, beautiful scenes painted onto the Palestine 'peace wall', a dead rat in sunglasses displayed inside a glass case at the Natural History Museum bearing the phrase 'our time will come'.

    We're not supposed to know who Banksy is, which is part of the appeal. It's also because if the authorities knew who he was he'd be inside. Maybe he's more than one person; perhaps he's a movement. It's worth considering just why his work is considered illegal, by whom, and to what purpose, and it's worth approaching the world with critical humour, as he himself seems to do:

    'They say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic of the decline in society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the mind of three types of people: politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers.'