Finding celebrity as a fine artist these days is something of note. Even rarer is critical and public regard for a man no one knows. Banksy, the notoriously elusive British street artist and political activist, has been using the world’s building facades as his canvas for the better part of two decades. His subversive and often controversial works explore our collective relationship to institutions like war, classism, big government, and love. Banksy’s iconic pieces — the little girl letting go of a heart-shaped balloon, the street protester preparing to hurl a bouquet of flowers in place of a Molotov cocktail, and the child soldier wielding a machine gun loaded with rounds of crayons instead of bullets — all provoke a stirring, almost haunting effect when we see them.
Yesterday, it was announced that a Beverly Hills auction house plans to sell some of the famed graffiti artist’s work, a mix of which comes from Mexico and Berlin and is heavily featured with rats, Banksy’s trademark symbol of modernity. It seems the longer the famously private artist continues to produce his own pieces, so grows our fascination with reinventing his existing body of work. In exploring modern interpretations of his work, you recognize just how much Banksy himself has become a piece of public property – one he has, perhaps intentionally, invited us to reimagine for our own purposes.
The fact that Banksy has always fiercely protected his identity means we are free to remix and reimagine Banksy into whoever we need him to be — activist, comic, poet — which has resulted in a diverse scope of modern reinterpretations.
“I think people have an obsession with both original Banksys and reinterpretations for a number of reasons,” says photographer Nick Stern, whose “You Are Not Banksy” photo series envisions the real-life images that could have inspired the original works. “Banksy is a master at creating images that connect with so many people, both on an artist, aesthetic level and with a deeper political and cultural edge.”
The photographer Jeff Friesen recently recreated several of the artist’s most iconic works using his daughter’s Legos in a series titled “Bricksy.” Rather than creating completely faithful renditions, Friesen allowed himself to imagine what else is happening out-of-scene in some of Banksy’s original pieces. In one of Friesen’s setups, for example, he imagines the iconic bouquet-wielding street protester isn’t engaging in an act of violence, but is instead sending flowers to his forbidden love, a cop. It’s a refashioning that’s playful and wild, and perhaps reworks the original intent of the piece entirely.
Other reinterpretations, like the Serbian artist ABVH’s painstakingly created “Animated Banksy” GIF series, or the illustrator Dominic Oliver’s whimsical reimagination of Banksy works as radicalized Charles Schulz comics, play on things like the pervasive nature of GIFs in modern Internet culture, or the nostalgia of a Peanuts comic, to create interpretations that feel deeply familiar, yet fresh. These interpretations lead you to wonder how larger artistic statements look in the context of innocent pop culture iconography. But retelling the story of art is not a contemporary phenomenon, it’s only unique that our collective reaction to Banksy is happening now, in the moment, as he creates.
“The reinterpretation of art has been going on for as long as art itself,” Stern says. “Even Banksy takes ideas from [Da Vinci, Keith Haring, and Rembrandt] to name a few.”
Perhaps the reason we feel the need to keep reinventing Banksy is because, at its core, all great art is about remixing the familiar to create something fresh and new, something we can call our own. Which is great news for fans of Banksy, who has always been for the streets; he has always called himself our own.