At Large  June 29, 2017

The Man of Mystery—Banksy Balloon Girl

‘Balloon Girl’ by Banksy (2004, screenprint) is offered in the forthcoming 20th Century Contemporary Art and Design auction on 11 July. Ahead of the sale, we speak to Head of Department James Nurse about the burgeoning market for secretive street artist Banksy’s work.

‘Banksy remains very much an influencer of the underground subversive culture in Britain’ – James Nurse

In ‘Balloon Girl’, a girl releases a heart-shaped balloon. This early and iconic work balances longing and whimsy, innocence and experience – all of which coexist in Banksy’s work. Banksy rose to fame for his provocative stencil work in the late 1990’s and since then, the mystery surrounding his identity has deepened.

‘Nobody ever listened to me until they didn’t know who I was’ – Banksy

Internationally renowned for his subtly subversive, satirical and controversial artworks, which range from smiley faces, rats with drills and policeman walking poodles, to puns and incitements, the artist’s body of work spans conceptual sculpture, film and graffiti that spreads as far and wide as Bristol, Vienna, San Francisco, Detroit, Barcelona and Paris.

‘As soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.’ – Banksy

As an artist, as well as political activist and film director, Banksy’s unique stencilling technique, developed for speed when doing street art, handles art, philosophy and politics. After launching his career during Bristol’s urban-culture renaissance of the 1990’s, Banksy moved to London in the early 2000’s. In 2005, he travelled to Palestine and the West Bank, where he stencilled nine images on the Israeli- West Bank Wall. At this time, Banksy’s silkscreen prints and stencil paintings were achieving record results under the hammer, which marked his breakthrough into the commercial art world. In 2010, Banksy received acclaim as director of ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’ – a documentary that tells the story of French immigrant in LA, Thierry Guetta and his obsession with street art.

James Nurse personally admires Banksy’s work and has from the beginning. He recalls his first experience of seeing the artist’s work in 1992 – Billposters with his name on stuck to the bridge outside Ladbroke Grove tube station. These remained in place for at least 5 years and became an iconic part of the landscape.

‘Banksy’s popularity resides in a few different elements – the simple, yet satirical nature of the imagery that visually captures the current zeitgeist via instantly recognisable messages, his exploration of universal experiences, from lost love to surveillance and the mystique behind his long standing anonymity’ – James Nurse

Banksy’s anonymity may be crucial due to the illegality of much of his work, yet in this age of mass surveillance his anti-persona is as much a part of a witty social commentary on the modern day as his anti-establishment imagery.

By the late 2000’s, several of Banksy’s works had been removed from their original settings and sold. For example, Kissing Coppers (2004), originally on the wall of a Brighton pub, sold for $575,000 in Miami in 2014.

 ‘The prices collectors will pay have reached heights no one would have predicted and show no sign of slowing. In addition, low production levels mean his market remains buoyant’ – James Nurse

Banksy has risen through the ranks to become one of the world’s most renowned street artists, in part by an obsessive pursuit on behalf of street art devotees to understand his enigmatic identity, which continually delivers yet simultaneously leaves them wanting more. With an entire art subculture dedicated to his work, Banksy’s art can impact any location at a given moment.