Palace of Fine Arts exhibition ‘The Art of Banksy’ is ironic celebration of artist’s career, compositions

Photo of woman at the Banksy SF exhibit
Kyle Flubacker/Courtesy

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Graffiti art is a subversive, counterculture form of expression meant to thematize rebellion. And while it is an art form no less impactful or important than studio art, it does not exist to be sold or hung on the wall — which is what makes “The Art of Banksy” so complex.

After touring worldwide, the exhibition is now on display at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. “The Art of Banksy” consists primarily of screenprints, prints, some multimedia, some graffiti and a historical timeline of Banksy’s career, asserting itself to be the largest collection of Banksy art ever assembled. Interestingly, Banksy himself has nothing to do with the exhibition — and as his identity is a secret, he couldn’t be reached for a comment.

Garnering worldwide attention from his politically and socially saturated street art, Banksy has used graffiti, film, prints and pranks to make anti-capitalist, anti-war and anti-establishment statements. His signature style derives impact from its stencil form and powerful imagery. Additionally, Banksy’s use of humor has distinguished him as a self-aware critic of the system, as he ridicules the asserted values of Western institutions.

Simply put, an exhibition put together by private art collectors — who Banksy has openly mocked — is the pinnacle of irony.

The exhibition’s beginning chronicles Banksy’s career and most famous stunts. Hailing from Bristol, England, his work was first recorded in the ’90s as part of DryBreadZ Crew, working freehand, until his transition to stencil-style in the late ’90s. Quoting Banksy himself, the exhibition reads: “As I lay there listening to the cops on the tracks I realized I had to cut my painting time in half or give up altogether. … I got home at last and crawled into bed next to my girlfriend. I told her I’d had an epiphany that night and she told me to stop taking drugs cos it’s bad for your heart.” Ranging from inspiring to purely comedic, quotes such as these are painted on the walls throughout the exhibit, conveying Banksy’s humor and determination.

Moving into the second part of the exhibition, the narrow black walls open up into more spacious display rooms adorned primarily with screen prints, which replicate some of his most famous images and themes. However, they also possess a distinct pop-art styling, as bright colors contrast his stencil-style imagery.

Images of apes with crowns critique the British monarchy, while Jesus on the cross holding Christmas presents and shopping bags simultaneously condemns religion and capitalism. Recognizable images of American warfare and police are combined with visual symbolism of greed, innocence and bigotry. While his imagery is stylistically simple, Banksy’s symbolic choices are deeply impactful, whether that impact be through humorous ridicule or critical confrontation. 

“Donuts,” for example, illustrates American police on motorbikes as they provide an armed escort for a donut truck. The image parallels JFK’s police escorts of the ’60s, while also critiquing the priorities of the Western institution. This image clearly intends to ridicule America’s armed protection of capitalist consumption.

In contrast, “Napalm” is a moment of critical confrontation with American capitalism and warfare. The print shows Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald holding hands with a screaming, naked child. Known as the “Napalm girl,” the child pictured is from an image captured by photojournalist Nick Ut during the Vietnam War, depicting children running from napalm bombs with their clothes burned off from the chemical blasts. Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph is often credited with altering the public’s perception of the war. Although many of Banksy’s pieces are meant to elicit laughs or critique through shock value, pieces such as this demonstrate a deeply critical perception of capitalism and warfare.

“The Art of Banksy” provides a unique opportunity to learn more about this artist, his career and his iconic images. Combined with humorous compositions, his critiques of Western systems and institutions offer vast opportunities for critical thinking, self-reflection and active engagement. However, the exhibition also directly opposes Banksy’s values, standing as an explicitly institutional, capitalist creation. So, whether viewers should attend all depends on their personal relationship to the artist, to street art and to Western institutions themselves.

Contact Nathalie Grogan at [email protected].