15 June 2023

From shredding iconic works to taking on the Catholic church – here are the 5 most controversial Banksy moments

In celebration of the elusive street artist’s upcoming Glasgow exhibition, we’re counting down his most divisive work.

Banksy has cemented himself as one of the modern era’s most iconic artists. The anonymous street artist’s first piece of freehand graffiti appeared in Bristol in the 1990s before he started using stencils to create his own distinctive styles towards the end of the decade. Since then, Banksy has risen as the posterboy for the street art movement – quite the mean feat considering he’s never shown his face. 

Over the years he has captured the public’s imagination with controversial murals and thought-provoking installations. Having developed a cult following, he is widely recognised as one of the most important artists of our era. There’s arguably no other contemporary artist who uses the power of street art and design to produce accessible and thoughtful political statements quite like Banksy. Now, the artist is celebrating his rich legacy by announcing his first solo exhibition for 14 years – taking place at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art from Sunday (June 18th) until August 28th. The show aims to reveal the whole behind-the-scenes process of how his works are made, with original sketches on display as well as the stencils, which have been painted on to give them a new lease of life. In celebration of Banksy rearing his head from the dark once again, we’re counting down his five most controversial moments.

5. Slave Labour (2012)

Amidst all the London 2012 Olympics celebrations, Banksy was on hand to dampen the mood with his anti-consumerist attitude, using his art to bring attention to sweatshops. Slave Labour was spray-painted on the side of a Poundland in Wood Green. It portrays a young child using a sewing machine to produce Union Jack flags, acting as a stark reminder of the dark, inhumane measures taken to produce mass merchandise for the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the London Olympics.

4. I remember when all this was trees (2010)

The city of Detroit has gone through major economic and demographic decline in recent decades. In 2010, Banksy delivered a poignant message for the ongoing social and economic hardship within the city when he painted “I remember when all this was trees” in red letters beside an image of a young boy who confronts the viewer, holding a paint can and brush. Spotted on the side of a derelict building outside of the deteriorated Packard Plant; the creation highlighted how after mass deforestation and loss of nature, Detroit has devolved to dust and is nothing like it ever was.

3. Girl With Balloon self destructs (2018)

‘Girl With Balloon’ is one of Banksy’s most popular paintings. The mural of a monochrome little girl reaching for a red heart-shaped balloon represents love, hope and innocence. In 2018, the piece self-destructed moments after selling for more than £1m. Banksy had installed a shredder into the frame prior to the auction and the shocked Sotheby’s crowd watched on as the painting slowly shredded into a dozen strips. This Banksy stunt was one of the finest moments in auction history. It offered a criticism of the sky-high prices his work is starting to realise and how art has become a commodity owned by the rich. But ironically, some experts say the piece is worth even more now. 

2. Dismaland (2015)

In 2015, Banksy installed an eerie amusement park in Somerset called Dismaland. Available to experience for £3 per person, prominent features included a carriage-crashed Princess Cinderella, a warped version of the mermaid-queen Ariel and a refugees boat game. The pop-up exhibition acted as a burst of reality, encouraging visitors to take a real look at the world we live in, instead of the Disney perspective, with a clear emphasis on refugees in aid. All building materials used to create Dismaland were recycled into shelters for homeless migrants.

1. Cardinal Sin (2011)

In 2011, Banksy decided to attack the Catholic church. Cardinal Sin was unveiled at the Walker Art gallery in Liverpool in light of the child abuse scandal within the Catholic church and its subsequent cover-up. He re-designed a replica 18th century stone sculpture of a priest, replacing its face with pixelated tiles, giving the impression of a suspected criminal. If the design wasn’t enough, the tagline “it’s easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity – lies, corruption, abuse” is a wildly controversial attack on what Christianity stands for.

  • Writer Chris Saunders

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