Who is Banksy?
Banksy, according to some sources, was born in 1974 in Bristol, United Kingdom. He is one of the world’s most secretive artists, most of his fans don’t know how he looks likes. Over the years, Banksy has won over many hearts with his humorous and thought-provoking stencil works, which would appear in public spaces instantly overnight.
Banksy’s artworks are well-recognized in the streets of London and many other public places in the worlds. Some of his works have fetched millions in auctions. Price aside, what is loved most by his followers across the globe is his radical anti-war style of presentation. Banksy, despite being a hugely famous artist, his identity is still officially unknown. Not many know how he looks like, but one can get a sense of what a person he is judging by his artworks.
Early career & Breakthrough
His career started as a graffiti artist working under the group named DryBreadZ Crew. During this time, he created his works freehand, but later started using stencils and people began to recognize his work.
Banksy struggled to get the attention he deserved in the early 2000s, which was only local news coverage. However, his later work on the West Bank barrier at the border of Palestine and Israel received massive media attention worldwide.
Girl with Balloon
One of his most celebrated artwork is the Girl with Balloon or Balloon Girl. Before even going deeper into the meaning of the work, one can easily realize how talented Banksy is when it comes to graffiti stencil. Girl with Balloon grew to become one of the most iconic works by Banksy, something that made him reproduce it again but with a different context.
First stencil, 2002
The first-ever appearance of the stencil version of this work was at the Southbank Bridge in London. Since then, the stencil has been painted over as directed by the city council.
Girl with Balloon was released in 2004/2005 as a small, limited edition print, only 150 signed prints, and 600 unsigned were released. Of the entire artist’s works, this is by far his most sought-after.
The work shows a young girl standing with her dress and hair blowing in the wind, releasing, or reaching for, a red heart-shaped balloon. The toy may have slipped from her hands and flying out of reach or descending to her from above. The girl is kept in black, with red as the only color in the artwork. Girl with Balloon is accompanied by a text “There is always hope.”
Viewers can easily connect with the symbol of the red balloon, which, in this context, is not a child’s toy. The little girl is not trying to reach for her balloon, though not so apparent to many. It would be just a toy had it not been painted red. The red balloon is associated with fragility of dreams, innocence, hope, dreams, and love.
Old Street version, 2004
Shoreditch version, 2004
Banksy later painted another version in Shoreditch, nearby Liverpool Street station. However, the stencil was painted on an unauthorized wall which caused an outrage when the owners wanted to peel it off and take it an auction. The paint was later removed ten years later by Sincura Group. They had previously removed another one of Banksy’s mural, Slave Labor, in North London. The stencil was exhibited at “Stealing Banksy?” where it found a buyer.
Flying Balloon Girl, 2005
Banksy also redesigned another stencil in 2005 on the West Bank barrier called Balloon Debate, with the girl levitating above the wall as she holds onto a bunch of balloons.
“The Israeli government is building a wall surrounding the occupied Palestinian territories. It stands three times the height of the Berlin Wall and will eventually run for over 700km – the distance from London to Zurich. The wall is illegal under international law and essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison.
Girl and Balloon, 2009
Girl with Balloon, 2014, Syria version
In 2014, Girl with Balloon was reproduced again by the artist in commemoration of the Syrian civil war. The image of the art was modified to promote the hashtag #withsyria on social media, to rally support and create awareness about the three years of conflict in Syria.
The work was redesigned to show the girl with a headscarf to depicting the refugee situation in the country. The campaign was against the “years of brutality and bloodshed that have turned Syria into the epicenter of a massive humanitarian crisis.” The work was projected on Nelson’s Column and Eifel Tower.
Shortly after the release of the 2014 stencil, an animated video followed, based on Banksy’s work. The footage had voice-overs from Idris Elba and soundtrack by Elbow.
Later, pop star Justin Bieber got a tattoo of the original work and posted the picture on his Instagram before quickly deleting it. But many people had already seen it, including Banksy who posted the photo on his Facebook with the caption” Controversial.”
Girl with Balloon, 2017
As the United Kingdom was edging closer to the 2017 general election, Banksy reproduced a different version of Girl with Balloon, with the balloon featuring a Union Jack design. Banksy offered to send a free print of the stencil to any registered voters in certain electorates provided they cold photographically proof that they had voted against the Tories. But this offer evoked unrest in some quarters3 as it seemed like a bribe to influence an election. Banksy canceled the offer later after the Electoral Commission warned him of the repercussions, which included election’s results being invalidated in those constituencies.
Girl with Balloon, 2006, shredded at auction
Banksy has been a mysterious man, or woman. On October 5, 2018, a 2006 frame print of Girl with Balloon was auctioned at Sotheby’s. It ended up fetching £1,043,0004, which was also the highest amount any of his work has ever sold for. Shortly after the closing bid, the artwork began to shred itself, employing a hidden paper shredder that was installed into the frame by the artist. The upper part of the paint remained, and later Banksy uploaded an image of the art’s self-destruction accompanied by the words “Going, going, gone….”
This event was typical of Banksy; his ability to leave the audience in suspense was fully showcased, and led to the creation of the term “get Banksy-ed.” The audiences at the auction and outside were left wondering what the action meant. Was Banksy making a severe case about the element of the permanence of apparently timeless artistic works? Or was he just making a pun at the expense of the people buying such artworks? Or even both?
Reactions to the shredding
Speaking about the stunt Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s senior director and head of contemporary art in Europe said, “It appears we just got Banksy-ed. We have talked with the successful purchaser who was surprised by the story. We are in discussion about next steps.”
But not everyone bought the story as many people online claimed that Sotheby’s was part of the stunt. One social media user posted: “How did all of the experts at Sotheby’s who evaluated the piece fail to notice the piece contained a shredding mechanism?” Others went deeper and tried to dig up the real meaning of the shredding: “Banksy was clearly making a statement about anyone who thinks you can actually own his art. He’s essentially saying art is free and isn’t meant to be owned.”
The stunt didn’t escape the attention of tech investors as Deborah Meaden, a Dragons Den panelist, stated: “Banksy is officially the coolest, most poignant person on earth. Of course, it is a publicity stunt, but it’s publicizing the sheer insanity of where we place our values.”
Love Is in the Bin, 2018
The woman who won the bidding at the auction went through and purchased the shredded art. The partially shredded piece has since been given a new name. “Love Is in the Bin“, and authenticated by the artist’s authentication agency Pest Control. Banksy was actually in the Sotheby’s auction, and even took part in designing the action, but he never revealed himself to the audience. Nevertheless, he was the main actor in his dramatic stunt.
The shredding stunt can be interpreted in three different ways. First, it shows that what was once a simple stencil has become a unique piece of art that is in shreds. The spray-painting became a part of a singular performance by the artist, and as “attacked,” make it a target or criminal act that is usually reported by the traditional media. In other words, a prank just turned a painting that cost less than £20 to produce and also less to frame, to a £1.02 million and into work that is now worth two times its selling value.
Many people around the art industry speculated that the stunt could leave the shredded piece to increase in value two-folds. According to MyArtBroker.com, a platform that resells Banksy’s artworks, Girl with Balloon increased its value by about 20%.
“Prices now are regularly exceeding £115,000 for signed authentic prints,” the owner of the website, Joey Syer, said. “The auction result will only propel this further, and given the media attention this stunt has received, the lucky buyer would see a high return on the £1.02m they paid last night. This is now part of art history in its shredded state, and we’d estimate Banksy has added at a minimum 50% to its value, possibly as high as being worth £2m plus.”
Banksy doesn’t see himself as a meaningful artist. According to him, street art is simply a means for the underclass to get revenge on the upper-class society. But in the case of Banksy, he achieves more than just an act of mere revenge with his artworks. His works are always simple but come with a deeper philosophical meaning that everyone tries to decode in their own ways. There is no doubt that the balloon girl is highly though-evoking.
The first thing one notices about the painting is the red color balloon that transcends being beyond the just a child’s toy. The heart-shaped balloon represents the vulnerability of hopes and dreams that every person has in this life. The balloon can also be associated with the loss of innocence or our deep love for life.
Others may interpret the image as the child trying to hold onto a lost parent or a lost childhood as the balloon floats away into the air. Many people still don’t know whether the girl is releasing the balloon, or the balloon has escaped. Or whether the balloon stands for something that child lost; such as innocence, love, childhood. Or is the balloon a gift of innocence from her to the world?
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not provided by Banksy, well at least nothing much other than “There is always hope.” It also does not help that the artist has remained anonymous his/her entire life.
Thankfully, the answers can come from anyone viewing the art. What usually escape the eyes of many viewers are the words that accompany the art. While the words “There is always hope” are separated from the girl, the balloon is part of the dynamics of the image. Perhaps people could have come up with a conclusive meaning of the art had many included the words as part of the overall artwork.
Regardless of how you interpret the artwork, there are two primary options: It either depicts either a loss of innocence or the arrival of love and hope. It is like the glass-full-glass-half scenario, where it doesn’t really matter which side of the interpretation you are. But regardless of how you interpret the image, the artist at least promises us that there is always hope.