banksy London street art walking tour

Image credit: Mark

Banksy is on sale again. It’s Sotheby’s this time, exhibiting 70 pieces of his work under the title ‘Banksy: the unauthorised retrospective.’ The £288,000 that was fetched at auction for his work ‘Space Girl and Bird’ in 2007 could be nearly doubled if buyers meet the price on some of the sale tags this time round. We Insider London guides continue to be asked volleys of questions about Banksy: the history goes back 25 years now and the mysterious man in question is characterful and humorous, making for some fun anecdotes. Unfortunately, he’s become so famous that in Shoreditch’s street art hotspot, most examples of his work have either been sabotaged, removed or over-tagged.

Banksy street art walking tour

Banksy under Plexiglass, Cargo, London

‘London is poorer for the loss of all these pieces’

Sotheby’s exhibition is curated by Banksy’s former manager, Steven Lazarides who remains defensive of the artist’s own perspective on this latest ’bout of Banksy profiteering and will only exhibit prints that were intended for sale. Meanwhile, prospectors are prepared to destroy entire buildings to safely remove and sell his actual street art. In a Guardian interview recently, Lazarides explained: ‘I think it’s morally wrong to take these pieces off the streets. They were put there for the general public, not for one person to take away. I think London is the poorer for the loss of all these pieces. As for the argument that they’re being removed to protect them, that’s just bullshit.’

Like it or not, though, Banksy will gain from the exhibition: 4% of the sale price goes his way. That said, this is capped at £9,000 which is surely sensible; some prints are on sale at £500,000 and he can hardly expect to get as much as £20,000 for a single piece, can he? Come on, now. That would be silly. Who does he think he is?

We should all go shopping to console ourselves

In fact, it’s probably only because Banksy does think it’s silly that people can make so much money from his work. The Sotheby’s sale includes two prints of an image the artist created in 2007 which depict a crowd of buyers at an auction bidding to purchase the framed words, ‘I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit’. It’s fair to say that self-irony will need to feature as a dominant characteristic of the eventual buyers. Banksy himself is somewhat resigned to the commercialising of street art. In his bestselling book, Wall and Piece, he proclaims, ‘We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.’

Blek le rat london street art walking tour

Blek le Rat, Leake Street, London. Image credit: Erik Lin

‘I’m not sure about his integrity’

It’s pretty much accepted now that Banksy was responsible for putting the UK on the street art map, which in Europe had hitherto been dominated by French and German artists, our street art walking tours show just how culturally diverse and genuinely global the scene has recently become right here on our city’s doorstep. This diversity and expansion has clearly done nothing to threaten Banksy’s profile but with the advent of increasing numbers of fine artists taking to the streets – artists such as Borondo – Banksy’s rise to fame could, paradoxically, be put down to his persistent determination to remain anonymous, rather than to the innate quality of his art. Another accusation that has been flung in his direction for many years is that his work is heavily derivative of French street artist Blek Le Rat. Monsieur Le Rat (if I may call him that) is on record as saying, ‘If I’m an inspiration to an artist that good, I love it’. Mind you, he’s also more recently said of him, ‘When you have a style and you see someone else is taking it and reproducing it, you don’t like that. I’m not sure about his integrity’.

Returning to Banksy’s perspective on the sale of his art – and remembering that we can’t be fully certain of this perspective while he remains so undercover – I can’t help wondering how glibly dismissive of potential capital gain he would be if he was still spraying walls in Bristol and trying not to get caught.

In truth, though, my conscience pricks me as I raise this question because, I know for sure that if I were a rich man, I’d gladly go shopping on his recommendation and pay handsomely for a print of his work. I think his images are about as powerful as any form of art can get when it comes to humorously nudging the dark side of society’s mechanics into our collective consciousness. And if his principles prevented him taking much interest in his share of the profit, I don’t think I’d complain.

Find out more: Banksy: the Unauthorised Retrospective is at Sotheby’s, London until 25 July. Admission is free. Or join us on one of our London graffiti and street art walking tours