Not so long ago, if someone sprayed graffiti on your garden wall you’d have reported it to the police and got out your bucket of whitewash. Today you’re more likely to be calling Christies for a valuation – it could be a Banksy!

Picasso was so right when he said ‘Every act of creation begins with an act of destruction’. Yesterday’s criminal vandalism has evolved into art as collectible as a Jackson Pollock. Instead of being given an ASBO, some ‘perps’ are making small fortunes in commercial spin-offs from their illegal daubs. Banksy’s net worth is estimated to be $20million and he started out not even trying to make money.

Graffiti flourished in the petri dish of 1960s social unrest when it was associated with yobbery, illiteracy, obscenity and terrorism by paint gun. The anarchic punk rock and hip-hop movements of the 1970s and 80s gave it wings and the hit-and-run ‘throw-up’ gave way to detailed stencils and mega-scale murals that even the most unappreciative members of the public could recognise as art. Wikipedia lists several hundred ‘notable’ artists who began their careers defacing walls and are now showing at mainstream galleries under ‘tags’ (signatures) like Mr Brainwash from Los Angeles and Lady Pink from New York.

But no one has done more to shake up the snooty art world and raise the street cred of the graffiti artist than Banksy, Britain’s mysterious guerrilla El Greco who strikes with his stencils and spray paint under cover of darkness or walks brazenly into museums to hang hoax pieces in broad daylight. The audacious artist has not only legitimised criminal damage but made it a credible career choice. In art circles they call it ‘the Banksy Effect’.

“He’s constantly in the headlines and that’s reflected in how his work sells,” said Gareth Williams of Bonhams, which started selling Banksy paintings in 2003 for under $2,000 (now you need to add three more noughts). “Buyers love his work, but also love the story of this unknown artist who’s taken on the art world and succeeded.”

His self-destructing Girl with Balloon canvas that shredded itself in its frame as the gavel came down at Christies last October was a fine example. Sold for $1.2million, the tattered version was retitled Love is in the Bin and is worth double.

The world has turned polychromic from the outpouring of art on city streets, now used to promote everything from Visit Britain to Game of Thrones to American presidential campaigns. Far from getting out that bucket of whitewash, cities from Auckland to Zeebrugge are dipping into the public purse to beautify their ugly concrete with murals – some of such scale they would have terrified Michelangelo. Banksy walking tours in Bristol, his supposed home town, draw thousands of tourists.

Meanwhile, paint and spray guns have become way more sophisticated and many of the artists themselves are going legit and applying for permits for the spaces they paint. Graffiti may have lost some of its outlaw cool but the answer to the million dollar question – Is it art? – is more likely to be a ‘Yes’.

Who is Banksy?
He’s the Scarlett Pimpernel of anti-establishment urban art everyone’s heard of yet nobody knows. Active for three decades, Oscar-nominated (for his documentary Exit via the Gift Shop), 2014 Webby Awards Person of the Year, his identity remains a mystery to all except, perhaps, the taxman. Apparently even his parents think he’s a painter and decorator. The best guess is he’s Bristolian Robin Gunningham, born in 1974, expelled from public school onto the streets which he proceeded to cover with his witty anti-establishment satire, soon turning to speedier stencils to avoid the clutches of the cops. The Guardian newspaper claimed a rare interview in 2003, prior to his first gallery show, describing him as ‘white, scruffy-casual, silver tooth, …a cross between Jimmy Nail and Mike Skinner of the Streets.’ Banksy – if indeed it was he – told them the high he gets from his clandestine career was ‘better than sex and drugs’. His darkly humorous manifesto has covered every social scandal, from child abuse in the Catholic Church to slave labour in the rag trade, worked in monochrome with an occasional splash of colour. He’s given us rats with drills, monkeys with weapons of mass destruction, Samuel Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction firing bananas instead of guns – or just words, puns, ironies, incitements… He often signs ‘This wall Is a designated graffiti area’ and within hours it’s covered in tags. His image of guerrilla artist with a social conscience is carefully cultivated but despite his antipathy for the traditional art gallery system, he also works for money (Dennis Hopper and the Pitt-Jolies are former clients). He is his own agent, selling only through his online Pest Control Office – the only official body that can authenticate your Banksy print – IF it was produced for commercial sale. His free anarchic stuff that gets chiselled off walls with diamond chain saws by crack teams of masked ‘art gatherers’ will never get one. Not everyone loves Banksy – including ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who set NYPD’s anti-vandal squad onto him during his uninvited ‘artist’s residency’ in 2013, when the renegade artist staged one America-shaming ‘spectacle’ in the city a day. But how times change. When he returned to the Big Apple last year to wreak more artistic havoc, most of his work was left intact.
You’ve been Banksyed
His high-profile stunts are legendary. The first three are from his self-proclaimed New York ‘residency’. No wonder Mayor Bloomberg was rattled!

Sirens of the Lamb – A slaughterhouse delivery van filled with squeaking soft animal toys touring the meatpacking district, sirens full blast.

A fibreglass sculpture of Ronald McDonald with a human shoeshine boy polishing his toecaps, parked up at a different branch of the burger joint every day for a month.

The Central Park pop-up stall selling ‘100% authentic original signed Banksy canvases’ for $60 each. With no signposting or gallery cache, only eight paintings sold – estimated worth $200,000 apiece.

At London Zoo, he climbed into the penguin enclosure and painted ‘We’re bored of fish’ in two-metre high letters.

He planted fake cave art at London’s British Museum. The lump of concrete depicting a prehistoric figure pushing a supermarket trolley remained there for three days before anyone noticed it.

He distributed 500 hoax copies of Paris Hilton’s debut CD, Paris, to UK record stores featuring the socialite’s head replaced with her chihuahua Tinkerbell’s. Music tracks were given titles such as Why Am I Famous? Several copies bought before stores could remove them resold on eBay for up to £750.

In 2017, he opened the Walled Off Hotel just metres from the West Bank Wall separating Palestine from Israel. Advertised ‘the worst view in the world’, it scores 5 star reviews on Trip Advisor.

Street Talk

Street art has its own language. Here are 10 terms you should know:

A Hat A trustworthy artist (acronym for Honour Among Thieves) Heavens Spots that are challenging to acquire in extremely desirable locations Lock-on Sculpture in public spaces, generally padlocked or chained to street furniture Massacre When municipal authorities take down or paint over the art Mural Large scale wall art that requires significant skill to paint Stencil Designs pre-cut out of cardboard or similar to reproduce quality images quickly and repeatedly Subvertising Making satirical alterations to advertising hoardings Tag A stylised artist’s signature Throw-up A quick-and-dirty style of design, handy if the cops are about. Yarn bombing Covering street furniture, trees or railings with crochet

Street Artists to Watch


The pioneer of anamorphic pavement art in the early 1980s, his jaw-dropping work draws the viewer in literally. The Michigan artist creates a grid of the painting and reproduces it on the ground square by square to achieve the illusion of soaring heights and depths on flat surfaces. His 2014 Guinness World Record-breaking megalodon shark, a quarter of a mile to walk around, is to be reprised for another record attempt at this year’s international Sarasota and Venice Chalk Festivals in Florida.


The father of stencil graffiti, 66-year-old French artist Xavier Prou has inspired a generation of artists including Banksy who said: “Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out Blek le Rat has done it 20 years earlier.” His tag references French cartoon Blek le Roc and he considers the rat (an anagram for art) as a symbol of freedom and the street art movement.


The poor kid from São Paulo grew up to be one of Brazil’s most celebrated street artists. His murals are instantly identifiable for their massive scale, kaleidoscopic colour and photo-realistic effect. He uses his art to campaign against pollution, global warming, deforestation and war. His mural for the 2016 Olympics in Rio holds the Guinness World Record for the largest piece of graffiti art.

4 – STIK

His work commands six figure sums but he once lived rough on the streets of his native East London where his monumental-sized stick figures first attracted attention, creating a narrative without words. Today he works worldwide, frequently on self-funded social projects in aid of hospitals, charities and homeless organisations. He only authenticates his work when 100% of the money goes back into the community.


This South Carolina Fine Arts graduate got into street art through his passion for skateboarding and punk rock. He became a household name for his Barack Obama Hope poster, which the Democratic candidate adopted for his electoral campaign. He has designed ads for Pepsi, record covers for Led Zeppelin and The Black Eyed Peas and his work is hung at The Smithsonian, the MoMa and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Where to See It

1 – Berlin The city’s East Side Gallery along what remains of the Berlin Wall is still a graffiti icon. The 1.3km stretch was gifted to artists when the rest was torn down in 1989 and it’s constantly changing as famous murals are retouched and new art added.
2 – Worldwide US artist Robert Wyland’s Whaling Walls was a monumental 27-year quest to promote marine conservation with 100 life-size whale murals around the globe. One of the largest art-in-public-places projects in history, spanning five continents, 17 countries, and 79 cities, the last whale was completed in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.
3 – The Bowery Wall, New York This massive wall on New York’s Lower East Side has become the Holy Grail for street artists since the late great Keith Haring painted it unofficially in 1982. Today it’s a seasonally-changing invitation-only space. Banksy has had that honour as did American artist Ron English in 2015 with his Incredible Hulk baby, Temper Tot.
4 – Rio de Janeiro Olympic Boulevard showcases the world’s largest mural – a 3,000m2 billboard depicting five indigenous tribes based on the five Olympic rings. Created by Eduardo Kobra for the 2016 Olympic Games with 500 gallons of liquid paint and 3,000 cans of spray paint, it’s the crown jewel in this Brazilian city of street art gems.
5 – Melbourne The city is known as the Stencil Capital of the World but Hosier Lane is the showpiece. Covered in wild wall-to-wall graffiti, tourists make a beeline here to walk along its cobbled bluestones. Better still, every other gaudily-painted building is a cocktail bar.
6– Valencia, Spain The city is such a hothouse of talent that everyone’s commissioning artworks to brighten up their drab façades – including the Cruz Roja. In 2017 local artist Jandro DKR created this stunning mural to draw attention to its relocated HQ. We think it worked!