The Best Banksy Controversies… So Far

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[Editor’s note: This post was originally published April 14, 2010.] Whether you consider him an overrated prankster or an innovative artiste, Banksy has managed to leave his (literal) mark around the world. Best recognized for his stenciled graffiti, which makes use of existing architecture, urban decay, or political canvases, the anonymous street artist has become a globally recognized phenomenon for his subversive satire and Carmen Sandiego-esque mysteriousness. Ahead of Banksy’s film debut, Exit Through the Gift Shop — described as “the world’s first street art disaster movie” — which hits select theaters this Friday, here’s a look at the controversial marksman’s most notorious and amusing stunts.

The Value of a Queen Currency notes are just a government-issued IOU — replete with patriotic political figures, monarchs, symbols, and token glorified landscapes — but Banksy gave the British pound a whole new meaning when he replaced the picture of the Queen on several £10 notes with an image of the late Princess Diana. The altered bills were distributed at a London carnival in 2004 and several eager recipients tried to use them in local shops before discovering their lack of value. This is one case where it would have helped to read the fine print: instead of “Bank of England” the bills were marked as “Banksy of England.”

Paris Hilton, “Why am I Famous? (Danger Mouse remix)” When Paris Hilton released her debut album, modestly titled Paris, in 2006, Banksy took the opportunity to turn the tables on the pop culture scourge. He replaced real editions of the CD in 48 different record stores in the UK with approximately 500 doctored copies. The altered editions featured cover sleeves with the heiress appearing either topless or with the head of one of her pet dogs as well as songs remixed by Danger Mouse with titles like “Why Am I Famous?,” “What Am I For?,” and “What Have I Done?”

Disneyland Goes Guantanamo Not long after his Paris Hilton stunt, Banksy turned his attention upon another pop culture institution: Disneyland. Visitors who waited in the zillion-hour-long line for the park’s Big Thunder Mountain ride were surprised by an unlikely addition to the Old West-themed scenery. Standing amid the cacti, mining dams, and archaic machinery that the ride’s runaway train passes on its brief journey was the unmistakable figure of a detainee from Guantanamo Bay. Dressed in an orange prison suit and wearing a cryptic black hood over its face, the inflatable dummy remained on site for 90 minutes before the ride was shut down to have the figure removed.

Midday at the Museum The world’s most prominent museums have received unsolicited visits and “submissions” from the anonymous artist. Rather than contacting curators and going through the bureaucracy of acquisition, however, Banksy has secretly hung his altered versions of classic paintings at New York’s MoMA and Brookyln Museum as well as European institutions including the Louvre. Though most of the guerilla pieces were taken down upon discovery, the British Museum ultimately added Banksy’s cave painting of a hunter pushing a shopping cart to its permanent collection after the work was found in one of its galleries. And in a particularly impressive security breach, a Banksy-made rural scene with police tape stenciled over it went undetected at London’s Tate Museum until the adhesive with which it was clandestinely hung gave way and the painting fell to the floor.

Breaking Down Barriers

On a visit to the Palestinian territories in 2005, Banksy left his mark on the West Bank “security barrier.” Though the works included seemingly banal images like a horse looking through a small window, a dotted cut-out box, and a child carrying a shovel and pale against a blue sky, the political message is more obvious in the image of a tropical beach that’s visible through a fake hole in the concrete, a ladder climbing over the wall, and the silhouette of a pigtailed girl being carried upwards by a cluster of balloons. Banksy later explained in a statement: “[the wall] essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison.”

Living Barnyard Canvases With approval from the RSPCA (that’s the “Royal” SPCA, for non-Brits), Banksy painted several live animals with “animal-friendly” inks for his five-day warehouse exhibition Turf War in 2003. The decorated livestock included a cow with Andy Warhol’s face all over it, pigs in police colors, and sheep in concentration camp stripes. Naturally this stunt elicited considerable outrage among animal rights activists and members of the public — one woman even chained herself to the railing around the cow’s enclosure in protest — but it nonetheless illustrated Banksy’s unwavering dedication to pissing people off.

City Council Approved Vandalism Not all of the guerrilla graffiti artist’s work is painted away or denounced, however. The city council of Bristol, Banksy’s rumored hometown, left the fate of one graffitied image to the voting public, of which 97% of online voters were in favor of keeping it. The politically sanctioned act of vandalism depicted a suited man peering out a window while his lingerie-clad, presumed wife stands behind him and her naked lover dangles by one hand off the window ledge. Though the city left the mural as a work of public art it was later vandalized with paint.