Banksy, tube rats, and an artistic lesson in banality

Banksy, tube rats, and an artistic lesson in banality

By Cerys Turner 

A tube carriage, just like a public loo, isn’t quite the same without its share of scribbled expletives, vague tags and nondescript confessions of love. Graffiti has become part of the furniture in urban British areas. 

However, your ordinary commute on the Circle Line would not usually involve sitting next to artwork that, if displayed in an up-market gallery, would go for upwards of £1 million. Bristolian street-artist Banksy, in his typical unorthodox style, has changed that.

While no one is debating the message behind his latest piece (although the meaning of smelly rodents wearing masks could be taken in a few different ways), it was the reaction to the aptly-titled If You Don’t Mask, You Don’t Get – a variety of mask-wearing rats stenciled across the tube carriage -that was surprising. Cleaners removed the graffiti a few hours later, leaving Banksy’s work as a virtual exhibition, shared across social media.

And while his earlier graffiti – such as the two policemen locking lips on the side of Brighton’s famous LGBTQ pub Prince Albert – rocked enough boats in the mid-2000s, time hasn’t necessarily preserved Banksy’s relevancy. Has the Bristolian lost his subversive bite?

Banksy’s no blank canvas

Emerging from the South West underground scene at the end of the last century, Banksy’s V-for-Vendetta image, along with the grungy backstreet exhibitions in Hackney warehouses, cemented him as intrinsic to Cool Britannia. As iconic as Geri Haliwell flashing her knickers in a union jack dress. His pieces were sharp, satirical, and socially relevant, while the man himself? A complete and utter mystery.

Pranks like his 2004 “Mona Lisa Smile” proved Banksy to be one of the guys, yet the political nature of his work caught the eye of curators, who auctioned his graffiti for millions. Meanwhile, the previous bootlegger unassumingly responded “I don’t know” when asked if he was an artist. He was creating British culture by simultaneously giving it the finger.

Once a diamond and now a relic

We are now in 2020 and things have changed. Art is beginning to showcase the works of those who have struggled to get their voices heard, rather than creators who choose to keep their identities secret. Graffiti is still not considered ‘real art’ by some, and those who have not grown up in areas such as Shoreditch, Bristol or Manchester that are deeply entrenched in wall art; may not recognise a Banksy unless it’s on their school syllabus.

And even his brand doesn’t hold the same weight it used to. Although Banksy’s work put many urban artists on the map, they still have to live in his shadow. Let’s be honest – Banksy has sold himself to the art world that he mocks. Look at the way Transport for London responded to his latest stunt:

What other graffiti artist would receive that kind of attention? 

Although assumptions have been made, Banksy’s identity, from his name to his gender, has remained anonymous. This certainly isn’t a new thing in the world of graffiti art – Keizer has been making political pieces in post-revolution Egypt, and Maeztro Urbano defends the Honduras identity with his graffiti activism. However, neither of these artists have achieved such a globally-renowned status as their British counterpart. 

Banksy’s artwork is still great – If You Don’t Mask, You Don’t Get is not an exception to the rule as much as it’s an indication of an era long gone. Like a Gallagher brother fight or a Piers Morgan rant, the Central Line rats are not necessarily any less funny or political. They, and the artist behind them, have just lost their cultural punch.