How the Artist Banksy Helps Us See the Authoritarianism All Around Us

The following is an excerpt from Benedikt Feiten's essay "Answering Back! Banksy’s Street Art and the Power Relations of Public Space" in the new book Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance, edited by Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink (NYU Press, February 2017):

More than five hundred years after its creation, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has become an icon of Western culture. Gift shops sell her true-to-original replications on postcards, posters, and coffee mugs. The lovely lady’s face has been reproduced in more than two hundred paintings and three thousand advertisements (Sassoon 2001, 1). It appears in films and in the fictions of D. H. Lawrence and Dan Brown. Legendary jazz artist Nat King Cole asks in his 1950 hit “Mona Lisa,” “Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa? / Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?” For centuries, the Mona Lisa has been a powerful force in defining artistic and aesthetic conventions.

But some artists disturb those conventions: the iconic painting has been appropriated, altered, and reinterpreted by celebrated greats like Kazimir Malevitch, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Fernando Botero, and Andy Warhol. Their acts of appropriation target not only the Mona Lisa, but also the naturalized values of beauty, composition, and proportion ascribed to her. Marcel Duchamp’s version, for example, is a found postcard picture of Mona Lisa with an added mustache and the handwritten letters “L.H.O.O.Q” underneath. In colloquial French the letters can be pronounced as “Elle a chaud au cul,” which translates to “she is horny.” More than destabilizing the Mona Lisa’s gender identity, what Duchamp (and others) achieved was to “nominate the petrified painting as a center of activity: a subject of debate, parody, paradox, criticism, thought and reinvention” (LaFarge 1996, 380).

A more recent appropriation of Mona Lisa that gained popularity was a work by Banksy, the anonymous and acclaimed street artist from England. While Duchamp manipulated the Mona Lisa in the context of museum art, Banksy abducts her to the streets, where she confronts not museum visitors, but random passersby in London. His early 2000s mural stencil rendition of the Mona Lisa shows her with a rocket launcher—turning her famous smile into an outlandishly menacing grin. Leonardo’s creation has been transformed into an ironic piece of street art by an anonymous author, of whom we know little more than the pseudonym “Banksy.” Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile and the portrait model’s uncertain identity mutate in Banksy’s version. Devoid of demure mystery, her smile is a threatening one, while it is now the creator of the image who is shrouded in mystery.

Banksy’s art seeks to provoke critical reflection upon the ways we consume images and to transform public space into a field for improvisation. He explicitly frames his work as an uncompromising opposition to advertising: “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. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back” (Banksy 2005, 8). Banksy’s art dares to answer back, in what I argue is a form of culture jamming. Mark Dery (1993) describes culture jammers thus: “Intruding on the intruders, they invest ads, newscasts, and other media artifacts with subversive meanings; simultaneously, they decrypt them, rendering their seductions impotent” (7). Banksy’s culture jamming “intrudes on the intruders” on two levels: first, he reclaims physical space dominated by advertisements, and second, he also seeks to liberate the mental space thoroughly infiltrated by marketers. In doing so, he makes clear that street art’s relationship to advertising must also be a struggle about how we perceive images and what room we give them in our thinking and feeling. In order to issue potent answers, then, Banksy’s art has to succeed not only in reappropriating the space advertisements take, but also in subverting the messages they contain.

Banksy’s culture jamming invades commercialized public space and creates disturbances in the ways iconic images are read and perceived. His now famous stencil graffiti style, where he cuts shapes out of paper and then applies them to a new surface with spray paint, quotes not only museum art but also news photography, advertisements, and pop cultural icons. By occupying the public space with reworked images, Banksy adapts the language of advertising to promote a critical reception of those images—a mode of reception that questions their intended meanings. In particular, Banksy’s art cleverly uses its urban surroundings for his cultural criticism and political statements. Sometimes his pieces have a playful approach, sometimes they deliberately irritate, but always they derive their meanings from and within their urban surroundings.

Examining Banksy’s background in graffiti culture and the street art movement allows us to understand how his work can unmask spatial organization and its corresponding power relations and at the same time turn familiar images from sales pitches to materials for playful intervention. As I will argue, Banksy’s critical stance works through ironic self-reflexivity. Robert Stam (1985) defines reflexivity as “the process by which texts . . . foreground their own production, their authorship, their intertextual influences, their reception, or their enunciation” (xiii). Even though Stam uses the concept to demonstrate how reflexivity works as a subversive impulse in literature and film, the nature and function of his examples are strikingly similar to basic strategies of Banksy’s works. According to Stam, reflexive texts “share a playful, parodic and disruptive relation to established norms and conventions. They demystify fictions, and our naive faith in fictions, and make of this demystification a source for new fictions” (xi).

Of course, there are many different kinds and intended purposes of reflexivity. Banksy’s stance is ironic: his reflexivity not only dismantles conventional, hegemonic, and commercialized ways of constructing meaning, but also discloses how they echo through subculture and in Banksy’s own art. Linda Hutcheon (1994) describes irony as “this strange mode of discourse where you say something you don’t actually mean and expect people to understand not only what you actually do mean but also your attitude toward it” (2). Reflexivity and irony both express Banksy’s dual focus on which meaning is communicated and, even more importantly, on how it is communicated. His art lays open the ways in which city planners and corporations shape public space. At the same time, his playful images reanimate space as collective territory that hosts a participatory and ephemeral exchange. Considering Banksy’s work as ironic and self-reflexive also enables us to understand his critiques as being aimed not so much at specific brands or corporation, but rather at the logic behind their marketing strategies and ways of constructing meaning.

Who Do We Talk about When We Talk about Banksy?

Banksy is indisputably one of the most popular street artists today. His choice to work anonymously does not diminish the fact that a carefully constructed and expressive authorship is at work. In his introduction to the exhibition catalogue Fresh Air Smells Funny, Rik Reinking (2008) considers the author-persona Banksy to be a conscious and strategic promotional act (142), more than a means of preserving the anonymity that illegal graffiti writers must maintain. Banksy’s career began as a spray-can graffiti writer in and around Bristol in the 1990s. During the millennial years he switched to what is now his signature stencil technique, which had already been a stylistic feature of French street artist Blek le Rat since the 1980s. Banksy’s adaptation of this recognizable style quickly attracted a great deal of attention in the graffiti subculture, and he soon was organizing exhibitions and selling his art so successfully that Sotheby’s Cheyenne Westphal (2006), when interviewed by Max Foster for CNN’s Your World Today, called the emerging interest in other street artists that derived from his success “the Banksy effect.” In spite of his tremendous popularity, Banksy guards his anonymity cautiously and is the subject of ongoing rumors and speculation. Banksy comments on that hype in one of the pieces in his 2006 exhibition Barely Legal: a television screen shows a deliberate misquotation of Andy Warhol’s famous slogan “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Banksy’s version reads, “In the future, everybody will be anonymous for 15 minutes.” In the digital age when artists and corporations court people to become online followers (and potential customers), Banksy interprets anonymity as freedom, a position consistent with the skepticism his art often expresses toward public surveillance.

Issues of authorship make it difficult to talk about Banksy’s art in terms of “originality”—his production strategies and visual style can easily be copied. That is also why some unauthorized works using a Banksy-esque style could not be identified as original. In 2008, several exhibits could not be auctioned at Sotheby’s because Banksy’s agency, Pest Control, refused to authenticate them (Collett-White 2008). Part of this ambiguity is rooted in Banksy’s style, which necessarily challenges the concepts of originality and authenticity. This is most explicit in the fake artifacts he smuggled into the exhibitions of various museums. In 2005, he hit the New York City Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as the British Museum in London with installations including a stuffed rat with a microphone and a backpack, or a fake cave painting depicting a caveman pushing a shopping cart. All fake exhibits were carefully integrated, mimicking the exhibition style and explanatory signs of the respective museums. A spokeswoman for the British Museum admitted that the Banksy’s caveman “looked very much in keeping with the other exhibits” (“Cave Art” 2005). The artifacts often remained unnoticed for a considerable amount of time, and the caveman in the British Museum even lasted several days. In this way, the installations provided solid support for Banksy’s suggestion that it is not the actual exhibits that determine whether something is perceived as authentic, but rather the institutional trappings of the “museum” and how it communicates to its visitors. By imitating its ways of presenting a certain artifact, even inauthentic objects with the most explicit humorous alterations could pass as a piece of art, or as part of our cultural heritage.

Banksy’s Graffiti Roots

While Banksy today is one of the most prominent figures in the street art scene, his work shows the spirit of a sprayer. Considering his background in graffiti writing helps us better understand the territorial and competitive dimensions of his art. In rare interviews, as well as in his 2005 book Wall and Piece, Banksy positions himself within the graffiti tradition. His art draws upon many different aspects of graffiti writing that go back to New York in the 1970s. Graffiti usually consist of messages and images outside dominant culture and mainstream media. They can serve as a means of propagating political slogans or as a vehicle for achieving underground fame by spreading a name tag all over a city or achieving recognition by conquering spectacular sites. Banksy’s recurring signature, and its visibility on locations like the West Bank barrier, helped create that kind of fame. People have used graffiti for documenting their presence and leaving their traces for a long time. This aspect was especially powerful in the urban graffiti movement of the 1970s, but it is still the main motive behind tagging, and remains an implicit or explicit force behind much of graffiti writing, and Banksy’s art, too. In “Kool Killer or the Insurrection of Signs,” Jean Baudrillard (1993) describes graffiti as a “new type of intervention in the city, no longer as a site of economic and political power, but as a space-time of the terrorist power of the media, signs and the dominant culture” (76). Baudrillard considers the pseudonyms on New York City walls a subversive means for diluting the significations of urban advertising and street signs. What graffiti can achieve, then, is to revive urban space as a “collective territory” (79).

The graffiti culture out of which Banksy emerges is also highly competitive. Conquering and defending urban territories by crossing or painting over pieces made by rival artists is an integral part of this subculture. There was significant controversy over Banksy’s 2009 crossing of a “classic” 1985 piece by acclaimed London graffiti artist Robbo. Even though the original large “ROBBO” was hardly decipherable under scrawny tags by that time, King Robbo considered Banksy’s addition of a man wallpapering the messy graffiti an insult. Robbo and his fellow writers came back and painted over Banksy’s work. A vigorous exchange of blows developed, with Team Robbo attacking Banksy’s pieces throughout London (Morris 2011).

Those territorial tensions around Banksy’s graffiti have their counterbalance in a playful dialogue reminiscent of scribblings, where random readers add their own comments to prior messages. Robert Reisner (1974) provides an example of this kind of multiple, anonymous authorship in an exchange on the wall of a public toilet. “Shakespeare eats Bacon” reads the original scribble, a pun referring to William Shakespeare’s alleged superiority over philosopher Francis Bacon. A subsequent note in different handwriting announces, “It can’t be Donne” (6), adding poet John Donne into the mix. Here, graffiti becomes a game open to everyone, where the greatest control over meaning is appropriated by the latest contributor.

Banksy’s reworking of and commenting upon preexisting images, texts, and advertisements similarly invite people to participate. This process is what Carrie Lambert-Beatty (2010) calls invitational culture jamming, where artists apply pieces in public space that call for interventions by random passersby. In several places Banksy garnished empty walls with a stencil graffiti reading: “This wall is a designated graffiti area.” Above the letters, an emblem resembling the seal of British Royal Warrants adds official pretense: it depicts ornate lions holding a shield between them, adorned by a crown on top (Banksy 2005, 50). The Crown grants this seal to premium products in various categories such as clothing, spirits, groceries, and tea. Using the emblem for his invitation gives the impression that the graffiti space is approved by the Royal House. This plea for interaction was answered when numerous people tagged the walls Banksy had “authorized” for graffiti. Banksy’s art not only calls for creative change; it is itself altered and commented on critically. For instance, Banksy’s Mona Lisa graffito was altered into Osama Bin Laden and then removed a few days later (26–27). Even if the alteration may not be the most creative one, it is intriguing how the exchange mirrors Duchamp’s original destabilization of Mona Lisa’s gender identity and how it expresses the iconic status not only of Mona Lisa but also of Osama Bin Laden’s image. Like everything added to public space in an unauthorized fashion, Banksy’s work runs the risk of being buffed out by graffiti removal, painted over by other artists, or gradually worn away by weather (McCormick 2010, 10). As Alain Bieber (2010) writes, “The ephemeral and anonymous artworks also match the character and rhythm of the modern major city, which demands constant renewal and a constant day-to-day urban praxis” (5). The process of mutual reworkings, comments, and reinterpretations points toward the ephemerality of street art, but also to the fleeting nature of a meaning constructed at a certain moment.

You Wanna Take This Outside?

Aside from occasional incursions into gallery spaces, the street is still the place where Banksy practices his culture jamming in full. While Duchamp and Warhol reconstructed the Mona Lisa in the museum space—in her “home” so to speak—Banksy takes the Mona Lisa out on the street. There, in public space, both street art and graffiti operate in similar fashion, but the two are not synonymous. Whereas graffiti communicates primarily with other sprayers, Banksy’s street art is directed at the general public. As Evan Roth explains, “street artists are more likely to make works intended for a wider audience; whereas graffiti writers are often making works to be deciphered just from [sic] other graffiti writers” (Roth 2010, 334). Banksy’s art self-reflexively negotiates its urban surroundings. The walls of urban space are an accessible canvas and exhibition space outside established galleries; furthermore, the reach of Banksy’s art is greatly expanded by the many blogs and photo-sharing websites where people document his pieces.

These feedback loops, where potential artists can see the work of others right after they have been finished and use these influences themselves in the next moment, make street art a dynamic and very rapidly changing form (McCormick 2010, 11). Furthermore, a multitude of artistic approaches and production techniques makes street art a highly versatile movement. The term “street art” can be applied to any kind of installation in urban space. It can include guerrilla gardening or experimental technologies like that of the LED art in which animations and slogans are projected onto walls by laser by the Graffiti Research Lab, an international art collective. Street art’s urban setting is configured by city planning, architecture, and advertisements. In “Desire,” Alain Bieber (2010) asserts that “so-called public space is, in fact, public only in name, reflecting no reality except that of the dominant ideology” (4). Street art challenges the official and institutionalized control of urban space. Lukas Feireiss (2010) further illustrates the subversive position of street art activists: their “abundance of anti-authoritarian practices in everyday life marks the tactical victory of bottoms-up [sic] approaches in comprehending and experiencing the city over functionalistic top-down strategies of traditional urban planning” (2).

A street artist’s work develops meanings from its specific site of attachment. Günther Friesinger and Frank Schneider (2010) interpret public space as text, explaining that “as text, the public space is an articulation of power relations, an ensemble of hegemonic symbols. ... Or, to put it differently: the public space is ruled through and through; a formation that is economically and politically pre(infra)structured and which, as such, always already precedes our communication, which always already exposes subjects to power relations” (15). What Friesinger and Schneider call “hegemonic symbols” include a stop light, a mail box, a billboard, an overpass, or squares designed by city planners. Street art by definition operates in a setting that has already been created. Urban planning and architecture configure the city space we move in, and street art deals playfully with the shapes, lines, and designs of the urban landscape. All of these factors influence Banksy’s works, and their relationship to the urban surrounding is often motivated by formal association. Bieber (2010) uses the term “urban interventions” for street art projects: “Urban interventions result in the aestheticization of the city and the de-aestheticization of art—which can make exceptional moments the new normality, negating the art by virtually making our whole lives an artwork.” He also writes that urban interventions “subvert the system, persistently throwing spanners into the works, counteracting homogeneity” (5). Bieber’s term fits Banksy’s approach very well. Intervention implies that something is amiss, and that street art is a constructive approach to solving it. Many of Banksy’s urban interventions react to randomly found shapes and designs, as when Banksy added ears and a tail to a hole in a section of plaster, to make it resemble a rat, and spray-painted a stencil of a screaming girl standing on a chair beside that. Another example is the shark fins he installed in a lake in Victoria Park, London. These works plead for interaction, for experiencing surroundings with open eyes, for seeing and reinterpreting shapes in the urban environment.

While this positive and embellishing way of intervening certainly is a big part of Banksy’s work, there are many pieces that create more drastic disturbances in their urban surroundings. For these, Banksy’s stencil technique is important to his approach of interrupting the perception of the random passerby. Banksy uses the technique to create life-sized and realistic images of people, secret guests lurking in the urban surrounding. At first glance, passersby may perceive those works as real persons or objects. For example, a stencil depicting a member of the Queen’s Guard tagging a wall with anarchistic graffiti elicits a moment of surprise (Banksy 2005, 36). A reproduction of a cash machine, also life-sized, pasted up with fake ten pound bills depicting Lady Diana creates a similar disturbance (96). This is not to say that someone would really try to talk to the Queen’s Guard or to push his credit card into the machine’s slot. The point is that these works provoke a double-take. Banksy’s art changes the focus of the passerby and makes her perceive the city and its elements not only in terms of the functions they fulfill, but also as an aesthetic space, open to revision and co-creation.

Some of Banksy’s works intervene still more aggressively in response to their urban surroundings. A security camera aimed at a wall in a seemingly deserted backyard in Marble Arch, London, drew Banksy’s response, “What are you looking at?” written on the wall opposite the camera (86-87). Banksy’s question protests how video surveillance transforms public space into a site of control and surveillance. In Banksy’s interpretation, the camera creates not security, but insecurity; it raises a question; it destabilizes, rather than stabilizes. Banksy’s question implies that the camera is looking at potential crime, even when there is no apparent reason to suspect one. The interrogation, “What are you looking at?” makes passersby aware of the camera and of the fact that there is indeed not much to look at but an empty harmless backyard. The words turn the surveying eye back onto the camera itself and check the power of hegemonic surveillance. Banksy’s paintings on the West Bank barrier, which depict idyllic scenes of life on the other side, work in a similar fashion, issuing a subversive critique of prevailing power relations that are expressed through the organization of space. His disruptions are a provocation to think about the spatial surroundings not as something fixed (static) but as maybe something that needs to be fixed (amended).

“Answering Back”: Advertising and Its Critical Companion

Banksy (2005) explains street art’s confrontation with advertising in radical terms: “Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It belongs to you. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head” (196). Street art as directed explicitly against the infiltration of corporate marketing in everyday life and experience derives from artists like the duo SAMO (Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz), whose works in the 1980s played with branding and marketing, using a © symbol in their graffiti slogans (see Buchhart 2010, 13). However, it is important to remember that the relationship between Banksy and marketing is not merely antagonistic. It is obvious that 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. Recognition value is a critical stylistic goal of both. Corporations and artists use repetition as a sort of “branding” (McCormick 2010, 130). Clearly, Banksy’s art uses seriality as a means for creating a highly successful brand: his pieces have been auctioned for up to $1,870,000 (Sotheby’s 2008).

Damien Droney (2010) recognizes the problematic proximity of street art and branding when he writes that street artists in the Los Angeles area use “a discourse of resistance to advertising while many of them ironically use their art as a form of advertising” (99). Similarly, Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012) proclaims that street art “nurtures a nostalgic dichotomy between the authentic and the commercial, one that relies on street art’s association with graffiti and tagging” (101). It is true that in many cases artists advertise their artistic personas, or try to market their art in the way that Shepard Fairey does, in a far-reaching commercial distribution of their work on print, merchandise, and clothing. Nevertheless, it is the reflexive and ironic aspect that separates Banksy’s work from merely adaptive marketing strategies. The critical force of Banksy’s interventions derives from more than just claiming territory with serial images and making subversive statements about public space. Their critical potential as culture jams lies in the content of his art, in his specific way of reworking images.

Banksy achieves a critical end by appropriating and ironically reworking familiar imagery. Many of his paintings add additional meanings to preexisting pictures and disturb the conventional signification of those serialized images. Banksy’s work quotes culturally charged imagery but also adds something that works against the original. As James Brassett (2009) argues, “His work interrupts mainstream narratives of global ethics, of an unfair world that needs reform, by juxtaposing familiar icons of western capitalism (for example Disney, Ronald McDonald) with icons of western imperialism (for example, bombed villagers in Vietnam)” (232). It often relies on bringing together recognizable binaries to create a moment of disturbance and reflection. Many of the controversies around Banksy derive from these strategies. Cedar Lewisohn (2008) states, “For the people who don’t like it, the message is the main problem; they find it simplistic and patronising. The idea of taking well-known imagery such as the Mona Lisa and juxtaposing it with a loaded image like a rocket launcher has been dismissed as a trite formula” (117).

But Banksy’s ironic mode subverts the simple messages his pieces convey at first sight. They very much conform to Linda Hutcheon’s (1994) interpretation of irony, which “rarely involves a simple decoding of a single inverted message; . . . it is more often a semantically complex process of relating, differentiating, and combining said and unsaid meanings—and doing so with some evaluative edge” (89). In addressing marketing and subversive cultures, Banksy’s pieces unmask the way conventional forms of expression permeate both. Subcultures have their own slogans, and one of the better known might be “Eat the rich,” coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich” (quoted in Thiers 1850, 359). The slogan has become a popular anarchist/leftist credo and also a very common graffiti. Banksy’s version from the early 2000s shows the slogan “Eat the Rich*” painted on a wall in erratic red letters. The asterisk refers to a footnote that adds: “With our new 2 for 1 offer including a choice of wine.” Here Banksy invokes two visual conventions: the stenciled footnote is in a sans-serif typeface resembling Myriad, the font most recognizable for being part of Apple’s corporate iconography. While the lettering and the choice of words in the footnote have an official appearance, the irregular letters and content of the slogan are mimicking an “authentic” subversive voice. Both commands—“Act out against authority!” and “Consume!”—are evoked ironically: antiauthoritarian appeal and marketing depend on their own conventionalized slogans and visual styles, which they use in public space to address the passerby. Here, to return to Dery’s (1993) definition of culture jamming, it is not so clear who intrudes upon whom. Not only does subculture comment upon capitalism, but capitalism also intrudes on the logic of subversive utterance. That influence is self-reflexively and ironically made visible by the footnote: subversive messages come with an asterisk that hints at the dominant cultural, spatial, and communicative relations they are directed against, but also necessarily influenced by at the same time.

A second example is particularly interesting because it combines corporate branding and the punk subculture in an environment that relates to both. Banksy’s IKEA Punk shows a stenciled punk standing beside a box with a logo resembling IKEA’s. The letters have been rearranged to read “IEAK.” Underneath, a label says that the box contains “Large graffiti slogans” and that “some assembly” would be required. Two red letters stick out from of the box. The punk, clearly recognizable with his black hooded sweatshirt, large keychain, and a Mohawk haircut, looks puzzled by the assembly instructions. On the wall behind him, words in the same red letters have been applied. Though they overlap, the words “system,” “smash,” “police,” “no”, “money” and “now!” can be discerned and recognized as ingredients of stereotypical leftist slogans like “Smash the system” or “Smash the police.” While the re-spelling “IEAK” might suggest “eek” as a cry of fear or disgust (see Blanché 2012, 99), other aspects of the image form a more complicated message. A tension occurs between the stencil production technique, on the one hand, and, on the other, the messy spray can letters that mark the piece as street art and the modified IKEA logo, which signifies the brand’s corporate identity. IKEA, of course, is a company that has been operating on a global scale since the 1970s (Dahlwig 2003, 34).

At first glance IKEA Punk is an image that could work perfectly well as a poster in any hip student’s apartment. Putting it in an urban context, however, adds much more to the image. Lewisohn (2008) describes the contested conditions street art finds in London: “Just as art in museums is a reflection of the cultures that produced it, street art reveals the hidden narrative of those who make it. Street art in London, for example, has to compete in an extremely media-saturated environment, and the artists are aware of and responsive to that environment” (65). Banksy positioned the IKEA punk deliberately near billboard signs, thus contesting the omnipresence of advertisements in London. The piece was also located less than a mile from an IKEA store, potentially addressing its customers and thus creating a link between IKEA’s permeation of physical space and its invasion of mental space. Furthermore, the image relates to Croydon, London, as its wider surrounding. London, the city where the Sex Pistols and The Clash originated, is (together with New York) where punk culture emerged. The black clothing and the “do-it-yourself” (DIY) attitude so typical of punk rock (see Grossmann 1996, 97, 21–22) have remained. But Banksy’s work suggests that DIY energy has devolved to an act of assembly that requires merely following instructions to put together prefabricated parts (Blanché 2012, 98). The punk cannot see behind those mechanisms to realize the irony of allegedly subversive messages formed by the logics of corporate communication. In that way, the image attacks the conformity IKEA produces by its global permeation (99).

More than criticizing the omnipresence of corporate advertising, the stencil graffiti also takes aim at the logic behind it. Even though the punk seeks to issue a subversive message, his action is governed by the rules, conventions, and clichés that have been developed by subcultures and are now reproduced with little reflection. This image criticizes a stereotypical position of “counterculture” for operating like corporate advertising, as it relies on recognizable slogans and a rhetoric drawing on a limited yet recognizable word pool. The punk’s insecure and perplexed posture on the one hand alludes to the cliché of IKEA’s impossible-to-decipher instruction manuals, but on the other also suggests the limits and eventual failure of these predetermined paths of expression. The work ironically breaks up a perceived discrepancy between fake commercial IKEA furniture and “authentic” counterculture. It shows their semiotic interpenetration and pokes fun at the fact that, actually, neither one is “authentic.” In his essay on David Fincher’s film Fight Club, Erik Dussere (2006) writes that the film uses IKEA’s presence in people’s apartments to illustrate society’s loss of a private room “outside the reach of consumer culture” (24). In making an IKEA box the source of the punk’s limited vocabulary, Banksy goes one step farther. He suggests that we cannot rely on a commerce-driven culture to provide us with ways of honestly expressing ourselves as individuals. And because commercial culture permeates so many levels of meaning and memory, we cannot intuitively access what we might want to express. In that respect, the ironic reflexive mode is insufficient to solve the deeper problem of how to free ourselves from corporate logics. What Banksy’s art can do, however, is to name and unmask the complex agencies at work in corporate and subcultural discourse.

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Banksy, IKEA Punk, used with permission by Pest Control Department.

Conclusion: Ambiguous Images and Semiotic Interventions

It is a paradox of subversive strategies like street art that where they succeed, they are likely to become embedded into the cultural hierarchical structures they were originally directed against. Corporate marketing strategists have been quick to adapt street art’s visual language and techniques to inflect their brand names with a taste of youth culture. As a part of its “Love, Peace and Linux” campaign, for instance, IBM had icons of hearts, the peace sign, and the Linux penguin spray-painted on sidewalks in Boston, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco (Kenigsberg 2001). Scooter manufacturer Vespa infiltrated the streets of Vancouver with stencils of fashionable young people with Vespa handlebars instead of heads in 2008 (Martineau 2008). Obviously, the plan in these campaigns was to connect the open-source operating system and the stylish motor scooter brand with graffiti and street art’s subversive and anti-authoritarian spirit. In this exchange of ever-evolving street art and adaptive marketing, the aesthetics of both may become similar, but their messages still differ. Vespa’s campaign, for example, interacts with space on a very simple level. It addresses potential customers in hip neighborhoods, with none of the reflexive and subversive stance inherent in street art.

Banksy’s culture jamming, by contrast, destabilizes the signification of visual icons in public space. His blending of graffiti’s and street art’s strategies intervenes creatively in the urban territories shaped by city planning and advertisements. His interventions critically address their urban surroundings, whether contesting the surveillance of public space, the control of urban management, or the ubiquity of advertising. By appropriating and modifying familiar images, Banksy creates a critical disruption that questions closed meanings and opens up urban landscapes to alternative interpretations. Most importantly, however, while Banksy answers back to commercial images, he also discloses how their meanings are produced. It is by means of ironic reflexivity that his art can become a constructive attack, of the kind the Berlin-based street artist and professor of architecture Annett Zinsmeister (2010) promotes when she calls for street art to move beyond merely destructive gestures: “Guerilla art is rather about constructive acts, for instance in the sense of a political, socially critical communication strategy that creates (discursive) added value” (153).

Banksy does not propose distinct counternarratives, but rather creates ambiguous images and semiotic interventions. His works invite participation, discussion, and reflection upon the way messages are produced and how they spread in our modern society. James Brassett (2009) writes that “Banksy may not provide ready solutions to some of the problems he identifies, but he certainly provides credible pointers as to the kinds of power structures and hypocrisy that global ethical agendas must contend with” (233). Banksy’s art undeniably provokes discussions and elicits an observant perception and active experience of urban space. Even though his work quotes corporate logos and images, it is not aimed at specific brands or corporations per se. Rather, it takes aim at the logic behind their marketing communication strategies, whose vocabulary and forms of expression radiate into our thoughts and dialogues. Banksy not only reclaims urban territory but also rescues our collective mental space from the infiltration of consumer culture by provoking a critical and ironic reflection that helps us fend off the messages bombarding us every day.

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