Banksy is a contemporary English street artist whose graffiti and stencil art appear suddenly, anywhere in the world, and in unexpected places. First noticed in the 1990s, his art comments on contemporary political and social themes. It highlights issues including greed, despair, poverty, anti-war, anti-authoritarianism, hypocrisy, and climate change. Banksy communicates via Instagram and Twitter, and he occasionally gives interviews.
Banksy’s images began to appear in the 1980s as a part the Bristol underground scene. His wall art has appeared in Los Angeles in 2002, New York in 2005, Palestine in 2005, New Orleans after Katrina in 2008, and to mark the end of the United National Climate Change Conference in 2009, and in Ukraine in 2022.
The gymnast doing a handstand (November 2022) (Borodyanka, Ukraine) was painted on the side of a building bombed by the Russians. The female gymnast, painted in Banksy’s familiar black and white, appears to balance on the partially attached fallen chunks of the building. Exposed metal bars curl from the top of the building. Banksy posted on Instagram the image accompanied by women singing Ukrainian folk music.
Borodyanka suffered massive Russian bombardments at the beginning of the war, because it was the Russian main access to Kyiv. It was occupied on February 24, 2022. The gymnast doing a handstand was one of the first images the Ukrainians saw when they returned to Borodyanka after it was liberated on April 11, 2022. The public response was immediate and positive. Messages on social media came from Ukrainians world-wide. “This is such a historic moment for our country, that people like Banksy and other famous figures are coming here and showing the world what Russia has done to us,” a Kyiv resident told Al Jazeera English in a video posted to Twitter.
The painting of martial arts (2022) (Borodyanka, Ukraine) depicts a small boy and a large man, both wearing white martial arts uniforms. The boy easily flips the large man onto the mat. The small boy wins. Although the face of the large man is not distinct, he likely represents Putin being defeated by the smaller force of Ukraine. Both figures wear black belts, but Putin’s was honorary, given to him in November 2013. On February 28, 2022, the international associations of Taekwondo, Judo, Summer Olympics, and Paralympics revoked his black belt status, condemning his war in Ukraine and citing the Taekwondo motto “Peace is more precious than Triumph.”
The painting of the children on the wall depicts them happily playing behind a construction of parts from a destroyed tank and a transport truck as if it were a seesaw.
Banksy painted the woman in hair curlers wearing a gas mask and holding a fire extinguisher on the wall of a bombed house in Hostomel, Ukraine. The Hostomel airport, southeast of Borodyanka, also was destroyed in the early days of the invasion. Banksy carefully selects the placement of his paintings to make significant statements. A real chair is placed on the ground and the woman appears to be standing on it. Remove the chair and she is suspended in space. Her fire extinguisher has not benefitted her. The black smoke on the window and the blackness of the burned interior provides a striking contrast to the bright yellow wall and red fire extinguisher. The cat is not a permanent part of the scene, but in this case, its presence reminds us of beloved pets also in crisis.
A Ukrainian man is now facing a twelve-year jail sentence for stealing this image. He cut the mural from the wall with a wood saw. He was immediately arrested; he said he wanted to save the painting from destruction and to sell it to raise funds for the Ukrainian army. The residents of Hostomel want to keep the mural there. The intact mural is safely stored in the town jail.
If the war in Ukraine were not so terrible, man in bathtub might be funny. In the painting, a bearded old man sits in a claw footed bath tub full of soap bubbles and washes his back. Shredded layers of wall paper clinging to the upper wall of the room look like laundry hung up to dry. Above him are at least four stories of a bombed apartment building, ready to fall on him at any moment.
In the painting of rhythmic gymnast (Irpin, Ukraine) (2022), a Ukrainian girl wearing a neck brace balances on one foot while spinning her satin ribbon in the required spirals and circles. At first, she appears to be standing on a large black rock, but it is a hole blasted in the wall of the building.
On February 20, 2023, the beginning of the second year of the invasion, the Ukrainian Post Office issued a postage stamp with the Banksy martial arts image.
“Fragile” (2023) depicts a Banksy white rat clinging to a cardboard shipping box marked FRAGILE. The rat is one of his iconic images. Bansky rats have appeared everywhere and on everything as social commentary. “Fragile” represents the condition that Ukraine remains in today.
Although Banksy remains anonymous, his art sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The funds raised are dedicated to specific causes. In March 2023. one of Banksy’s anti-war prints was sold at auction for $106,505 to support a children’s hospital in Kyiv. Bansky created “Fragile” (2023) to raise money for the international charity Legacy of War Foundation that supplies ambulances and medical supplies. He announced the project on Instagram, stating there would be 50 prints, each selling for 5000 pounds, targeted for Ukraine aid. Each unique print was signed and Banksy made the rat scratches using a sharpened pizza cutter to make each one unique. More than one million buyers responded to purchase the 50 prints. Banksy wrote, “In Ukraine, I saw a Legacy of War team sweep in and provide medical attention, heaters, fresh water and a friendly face to some very desperate people in a bombed-out building.” He added, “They also lent me one of their ambulances to work from, which turned out to be extremely useful when an angry babushka found me painting on her building and called the police.”
Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, tweeted the following message to Banksy: “Ukraine today is the center of attention, center of resistance, freedom, true art.@banksy confirmed that he created seven murals in different parts of Ukraine, including Borodyanka, Irpin and Kyiv. It means a great deal to us. We are so grateful, Sir!”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.