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What Is Banksy?

Since the early 1990s, the hyper-anonymous street artist Banksy has been upending our collective notion of art, vandalism and politics with both formal and informal exhibitions across the world.

The mystique that surrounds Banksy certainly adds to the hype—only a few people have actually seen him—but it’s his artistic lexicon that has carried him from a graffiti writer from Bristol to the force of art that he is today.

Banksy’s work is not quite graffiti. It is vandalism, in the strict sense that it’s often put up on walls or other spaces without permission, but it shares more in common with street art than the traditional letter-focused graffiti. His wall pieces are most often stenciled figures—policemen, children, rodents—and they interact with the immediate environment in surprising ways. A series of paintings on the West Bank barrier wall that separates Israel and Palestine exemplifies the power in simple images: a young girl using a handful of balloons to rise above the wall; a man pulling back a panel on the wall as if it were a curtain, revealing paradise beyond.

In addition to political commentary, Banksy has also challenged our ideas of the commercial value of art. Fragments of the walls where his stencils have appeared have sold for millions of dollars, but during an appearance in New York City last year, he set up a pop-up stall in Central Park selling his own paintings for $60 dollars. Most people assumed these were run-of-the-mill reproductions, but it turned out these pieces were indeed Banksy originals—and some of them are now selling for upwards of $100,000.

The buzz surrounding Banksy can often feel like a slight to traditional graffiti writers. In general, when we see a piece of graffiti, we have to process through several steps to even arrive at the question of its artistic merit—with Banksy, we recognize immediately that it’s art, even if we might not appreciate its illegality.

Which means the typical question, “Is graffiti art?” turns into, “yeah, that’s art-- but is it graffiti?”