Surveillance Saturates London Streets

This piece was unfortunately painted over by British police, but it marks one of Banksy’s most audacious stunts—a three-story high protest against Britain’s surveillance society just feet from a CCTV surveillance camera.

EYES ON THE STREET - Banksy's work protests the ubiquity of surveillance cameras present on streets and in public places in London.

The guerilla artwork appeared one day on a wall above a Post Office yard in central London. It features a boy in a red jacket painting the slogan “One Nation Under CCTV” in stark white capitals. His actions are filmed by a policeman next to a barking dog.

The secret work is made more impressive by its height, which would have required Banksy to erect temporary scaffolding—all of which went unnoticed by Post Office employees and the London police, despite being watched by a CCTV camera.

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According to the London Evening Standard, London reportedly invested in more than 10,000 CCTV cameras in the late 1980’s in a publicly-funded 200 million euro crime-fighting push. The cameras are erected all over the city, but their effectiveness in stopping crime is widely debated. The Standard reported in 2007 that, “a comparison of the number of cameras in each London borough with the proportion of crimes solved there found that police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any. In fact, four out of five of the boroughs with the most cameras have a record of solving crime that is below average.”

BBC News later reported in 2009 that, “Only one crime was solved by each 1,000 CCTV cameras in London last year, a report into the city’s surveillance network has claimed. The internal police report found the million-plus cameras in London rarely help catch criminals. In one month CCTV helped capture just eight out of 269 suspected robbers.” BBC further claimed that “there’s been little or no change in London’s crime rates since they [the cameras] were more widely installed in the mid 1980s.”

Despite numerous reports detailing unimpressive facts concerning the city’s security system, the number of surveillance cameras has continued to rise over the years, and British citizens are now being watched by an estimated 51,000 police-run CCTV cameras. (The same amount of public money could have funded 4,121 new police officers). However, when including the number of privately-owned cameras and cameras situated in other public places like train stations and bus depots, the estimate is closer to 1.85 million cameras throughout the city.

A FAMILIAR SIGHT to the London populace, this sign warns that CCTV cameras are overhead.

An article published by the Christian Science Monitor in February of this year says that, “Privacy activists are worried that Britain will become the bleak totalitarian society George Orwell painted in his classic novel “1984,” where citizens were spied on and personal freedom sacrificed for the benefit of an all-powerful state.”

The article continues, “The civil rights group Liberty estimates that the average Londoner is captured on camera around 300 times a day while BBW claims Britain has 20 percent of the world’s CCTV cameras and only 1 percent of the world’s population.”

Stencil Speaks On Immigration

There are disputes over whether this piece is a Banksy graffiti or not, and not that I’m any expert, but given the distinctly stenciled design, I’d wager it was.

Reportedly, the first instance of this work appeared in Bristol, England in 2007 but spread to other cities over a period of months. A deal of controversy arose when in 2009, an instance of the artwork in Glastonbury, England was painted over by volunteers as part of the town council’s anti-graffiti agenda. Being a supposed Banksy, the work was allegedly valued at 5,000 euro, and the owner of the wall on which it was painted, Julian Chatt, had requested the image not be painted over.

The stencil pairs Paddington Bear, a classic fictional character in English children’s literature, with the message “Migration is Not a Crime.” Whether the artist is Banksy or not, the meshing of a serious theme with a children’s character is clever. While the message is clearly intended to be political, it is dampened significantly by the presence of Paddington Bear, a harmless persona. In this instance, the visual innocence is a trump card, making it difficult for anyone to get too riled up about the art or the message.

BANKSY OR NO? - It's disputed as to whether this stenciled work is a true Banksy or not. Regardless, the pairing of an innocent Paddington Bear with a serious message is a clever move by the artist.

This is quite a feat considering immigration is a rising global issue today: a problem with no clear solution, or at least not one escaping a swirl of controversy.

Perhaps I’m making the artist out to be cleverer than even he knew, but I find it interesting that this theme of migration, or immigration, is paired with Paddington Bear, who is evidently known in stories for his capacity to find trouble, despite his always “trying so hard to get things right.”

Issues and disagreements surrounding the policies of immigration are not even closely resolved in the United States and in many other countries. But perhaps this artist is proposing that government officials working on immigration laws, restrictions, and requirements take a lesson from Paddington Bear—just try hard to get things right, even if complications inadvertently arise.

Maybe a far-fetched connection.

But maybe not.

Dreams Slashed, Dashed in Banksy Stencil

Banksy is probably one of the most obscure famous people in the world: very few know him, but thousands know “of him.” It’s remarkable, really, given the nature and popularity of his art.

This London piece is another powerful example of Banksy’s identity as an artist. Staying true to his characteristic themes—which often include greed, poverty, hypocrisy, despair, and alienation—Banksy depicts a freshly painted “Follow Your Dreams” inspirational message that is promptly crossed out with a big, fat, red “CANCELLED” sign. Reminiscent of “No Smoking” signs, Banksy’s stencil says it all: dreams not allowed. And the poor painter, looking rather stunned to be standing next to his altered art, is subjected to a harsh reality.

NO DREAMS ALLOWED - Another Banksy stencil graffiti, this one dashes the hopes of Brits without a worry in the world.

Imagine if dreams really could be dashed this easily. Like a class, flight, or CW television show, cancelled with the quick slash of a decision made by someone who cares not. Thankfully, in our world of ideals derived from the ever-inspiring American Dream, such a hope-shattering outlook is unlikely.

A British graffiti artist, political activist and painter, Banksy introduced himself to the art scene in the late 1980’s and has since progressed into a prominent artist, political activist, self-published author, and film director. His politically-charged works typically evoke an array of political and social themes, including anti-War, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, and nihilism.

Considered a common vandal by some and a closet genius by others, he is no doubt a talented artist. Despite his oftentimes controversial opinions and political views, Banksy produces overwhelmingly creative pieces and deserves to be recognized for the contributions he has made to both the political art and graffiti genres.

‘No Future’ Mural Is Short-Lived

Another piece of Banksy genius…

This mural, done in 2010, features a colorless and rather petulant looking child holding a red balloon which forms the ‘o’ in the phrase ‘NO FUTURE.’ It appeared on the side of a private home in an area of Southampton, England known for its lively nightlife and drinking culture. According to BBC News, the mural increased the worth of the privately owned house by 20,000 euro.

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - One of Banksy's most short-lived works, the 'No Future' mural attracted a flurry of attention before it was whitewashed over by an unknown protester hours later.

In 2010, Banksy was still entirely a mystery to the English populace, but his works of politically-charged street art were popping up all over the country. Catching the artist at work proved fruitless, but as people tried to discover the man behind the spray can, it became somewhat of a game to rush to find Banksy’s latest painting.

When this mural was found, it drew the attention of BBC News, the press, the art elite, and pedestrian passerby. Only hours after it was discovered, however, the image of the child was painted over with whitewash and the words changed to “GRAFFITI HAS NO FUTURE.” It is still unknown who censored the graffiti.

As with all of Banksy’s art, the message is quite simple, succinct, and clever while the illustration carries the true message—one of social protest.

It’s a shame, however, that the work was ruined. It only proves all too well that the argument over whether graffiti is art or crime is a potent one. Banksy’s work has on several occasions been called egotistic, with critics saying that his outspoken messages and longstanding anonymity show he has an “I-can-get-away-with-it” attitude and a “look-what-I-can-do” demeanor.

I disagree. I don’t think Banksy is trying to get away with anything. I think, as with all street artists who have social and political messages, he’s trying to let people take away something.

Banksy Documentary Takes Inside Look at Street Art

I mentioned my newfound obsession with Banksy on Saturday. Let me just say: it has grown. That same night I watched a documentary produced by and featuring Banksy called “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Absolutely fabulous. Banksy is not only an artist; he’s a character. Having a naturally sarcastic way about him, his commentary adds wit and entertainment to the 86-minute-long look at some of the most famous images of political graffiti, protest graffiti, and street art.

Banksy produced the documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which takes an inside look at some of the most famous street artists in the world, along with many of their politically-charged works. Banksy is also a subject in the film.

Even more cool, viewers actually get to see three of the world’s most infamous graffiti artists—Banksy, Shephard Fairey, and Invader—at work. Given Banksy’s notoriously camera-shy reputation, the fact that he appears onscreen at all is remarkable.

The documentary begins when a Los Angeles based Frenchman, Thierry Guetta, gets the idea that he would like to film street artists in the process of creating their work. To gain access, he tells them he is making a documentary. In reality, he is only filming endless footage with no intention of making a cohesive movie. Unaware of this fact, many street artists from around the world agree to participate. As Thierry goes out with artists at night, he begins assisting them in creating their designs and even gains insider knowledge about the most sought-after locations for graffiti art.

The documentary also takes a look at Shepard Fairey's "Obey" campaign, and viewers will see him posting his graffiti in many locations.

After following Invader, Fairey, and other graffiti artists for a while, Thierry finally gains permission to tag along with Banksy, so long as he only films his hands working. In interview scenes, Banksy demands to be blacked out, and viewers never see his face. Banksy eventually convinces Thierry to use his footage to make a movie. After six months apart, Thierry returns to Banksy to show him the product of his work. At this point, Banksy realizes that Thierry is an amateur filmmaker at best, but still finds Thierry to be an interesting character—in an odd, yet appealing, way.

Banksy decides to take over the film process and uses Thierry’s footage along with additional material to make his own documentary about Thierry’s journey in this project. Since Thierry spent so much time involved in the process of street art, Banksy also suggests (rather offhandedly) that Thierry become a street artist himself. Not wanting to disappoint Banksy—whose suggestion Thierry takes very seriously—Thierry reinvents himself as street artist MBW, an acronym for “Mr. Brainwash.”

After being on the LA street art scene only a short while, Thierry throws everything into putting on a massive art show showcasing his work. However, as viewers will see, much of his ‘original’ work appears similar to other artists’. Despite the unoriginality, he gains fame and popularity, much to the other artists’ shock.

The film ends with my favorite line of the documentary, said by Banksy:

“I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.”

Watch the trailer for the documentary here: 

Banksy: The Street Art Phenomenon

I’m undergoing an obsession (likely a fleeting one) with Banksy, arguably the most well-known, albeit controversial, street artist in the world.

I’ve mentioned him several times, but to review: Banksy is a graffiti artist from Bristol, England, whose artwork has appeared throughout London and other cities around the world. Despite being wildly popular, he’s managed for the most part to hide much of his identity from the media. Nobody can even say for sure what his real name is, although many assert that it is Robert or Robin Banks. However, he sings all of his works of art with the stenciled “Banksy” logo.

On the occasion that he has agreed to be interviewed, Banksy refuses to call himself an artist, although he is obviously considered as such by other artists and by viewers of his works. His street art style is very unique and most commonly employs a distinctive stenciling technique.

Banksy’s art is often heavily controversial and almost always politically loaded. His works offer commentary on a wide range of societal problems, but tend to focus most on urban decay and subjects in urban environments. His political leanings, which many believe to be left-wing, are often not appreciated by certain members of society. Sometimes viewed in an offensive light, his art is not always received well by older members of society, but he has generated somewhat of a cult following among younger generations.

In addition to his street works, Banksy does paid work for a few organizations and sells some canvases for a steep price.

In 2006, Banksy generated an unprecedented amount of controversy when he stenciled nine images on the West Bank Barrier, the 425-mile concrete barricade separating Israel from the Palestine territories. Israel constructed the wall as a security measure against suicide bombers. Painted on the Palestinian side of the barrier, one image depicts a hole in the wall with an idyllic beach, while another shows a mountain landscape on the other side. Still another shows the head of a white horse appearing to poke through, while he also painted a ladder going over the wall.

Banksy condemned the wall, but also described it as the ultimate holiday destination for graffiti artists.

Here’s a video documenting his work on the West Bank Barrier: 

Here’s another showing a number of his works around the world:

Society May Prompt Its Own Vandalism

Another work of Banksy stenciled graffiti: I’m catching the theme that he’s popular among political street art circles. I’m also catching onto his style (totally called that this was his).

This work (on a street corner in Belgium) touches on the idea of graffiti as vandalism, a topic I’ve previously covered. The art world and the public don’t always see eye-to-eye on the role, purpose, and legality of graffiti in society. Here, Banksy offers an interesting twist to the artist’s argument

On a street corner in Belgium, this is another stenciled graffiti piece by Banksy. It offers the idea that society itself prompts works of graffiti, an act considered vandalism by much of the public.

Protest art is, more than anything, a response. Something spurs it. Artists wouldn’t draw pieces protesting war if there was no war; images of the homeless wouldn’t appear if homelessness was not a problem in society; works favoring or disagreeing with one candidate or another or one issue or another wouldn’t appear if disputes didn’t exist among sides.

In short, politically-charged works of street art tend to emerge as reactions to societal problems and issues. It’s a classic example of cause-and-effect.  Where problems arise, art follows. And the greater the problem, the more likely it is there will be a united and powerful response among the street art world.

Furthermore, works of political protest art and street graffiti are not created simply to express an individual artist’s opinion, but to call attention to what they (and generally many others) view as an injustice existing in society. This ‘vandalism’ then, as many perceive it, is precisely the fault of society: as the acting impetus, it deserves to suffer the consequences.

Street artists will continue to launch responses to societal concerns so long as society remains imperfect. As such, it is unrealistic to ever expect walls and buildings devoid of art.