By KAT MALLARY ’17
Assistant Arts Editor
Renowned British street artist Banksy took up residence across the pond in New York City during October, installing a new piece of graffiti or performance art every day of the month. As usual, many of his pieces were witty re-imaginations of, or odes to, existing landmarks—the type of sprayed paint that might even make a native New Yorker chuckle during their morning commute. However, those pieces found themselves in the minority of Banksy’s work as he, in true snarky fashion, overstayed his welcome.
It’s pretty obvious that Banksy knows the value of publicity by now. Controversy breeds debate and notoriety. It’s driven him to dabble in political art before, experimenting with everything from painting on live animals—to provoke animal rights activists—to painting on the Israeli West Bank wall. More mundanely, the debate over his right to vandalize privately-owned buildings or public spaces has helped propel him into quasi-stardom, mostly because it’s a question no one can really answer (although editorial after editorial will try to).
And it’s true—the biggest problem people usually have with Banksy is that he’s a bit of a vandal. In New York, though, he made sure to change that. We know that Banksy’s a political guy who likes to go out on an argumentative limb on every topic that comes his way. But New York didn’t come to him. He came to New York, and assumed he had implicit credibility as a public figure that gave him the right to comment on issues at the heart of the city. And we all know what happens when you assume.
Banksy’s work in the city started off tame, closing out the first week with the now-iconic painting of a bandaged, heart-shaped balloon. But by mid-month, he was in over his head. On Oct. 15, he painted a two and a half foot high, all-black image of the New York skyline, featuring the two World Trade Center towers that were destroyed in the September 11th terrorist attacks. The most offensive aspect of the work was not that it was painted in a miniature scale, so close to the ground it was practically hugging the sidewalk, but that, in the center of the second tower, Banksy placed a red and orange dahlia. Meant to look like a little floral explosion, the dahlia was a cutesy rendering of the deaths of almost 3,000 people.
And so began Banksy’s last 15 days in New York, spent making sardonic snipes at parts of the city’s identity that he had no right to comment on, or to make light of. On Oct. 27th, he released an editorial he had submitted to the New York Times, but that they had, tastefully, declined to publish. Known as “Shyscraper,” Banksy makes jab after jab at the colloquially known “Freedom Tower,” the 104 story building currently being erected at One World Trade Center, the former location of the first tower hit in the attacks. He refers to the emblem of a city trying to rebuild as a “[clear proclamation] that the terrorists won.”
His argument in the rest of the editorial is oddly framed, referring to the new tower as an awkward, gangly child, declaring that “the glory days of New York are gone.” If nothing else, these critiques make one wonder if Banksy has ever seen One World Trade Center, which is already a forceful beacon in the skyline and, when completed, will be an unmistakable reminder of New York’s willingness to fearlessly rebuild.
Banksy’s ham-handed attempt to involve himself in politics that are clearly nuanced above his pay grade isn’t just embarrassing for him, it also detracts from his other attempts to ingratiate himself into the city. He augmented an existing piece of graffiti, reading “Occupy!” with “the musical!” Normally, that would just be dismissed as Banksy being cute, but, extrapolating from “Shyscraper,” he clearly has a lot to say about city politics, so one wonders if he’s caught up on the status of Occupy Wall Street. Could he even find Zuccotti Park, where the movement started, on a map?
Likewise, Banksy chose to take a political stance even in his farewell message, adding “Save 5pointz. Bye” to his website on Oct. 31. 5pointz is a street-art landmark in Long Island City, potentially slated to be torn down and rebuilt as a high-rise apartment building. Wanting to save the heart of graffiti art in NYC is all well and good, but now he should tell us which guidebook he read about the issue in.
In a genre of art that is all about being honest, upfront and true to who you are, Banksy has crossed the line—in a bad way. A British graffiti artist presenting himself at a New York insider is disingenuous at best and offensive at worst. New York is a city that appreciates good art, but it is also one that doesn’t need foreign editorializing. So, thanks for the paintings, Banksy, but—in the future—just leave New York to the New Yorkers.