I feel some discomfort defining Banksy as a brand. On the important attributes I am on solid ground: the artist’s work is distinct, recognisable, and consistently purposeful in message. However, I suspect it is a label that the anonymous street artist who has deemed commercial success “a mark of failure” would dislike a lot.
Labelling aside, Banksy has emerged as a role model for any brand owner. Banksy has retained the surprise, provocation and social activism of his (or her or their) first known street graffiti in 1997 featuring a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail. With work appearing globally he has brought focus to how we see migrants, the impact of mass tourism and global warning. Maintaining his anonymity and authenticity he has created a brand that attracts attention, debate and is increasingly valuable. So strong is the Banksy brand that many of us comfortably disconnect his work from our wider perception of street graffiti.
This value and power is evident in his recent artwork that pays tribute to NHS workers. On display at Southampton General Hospital it will eventually go up for auction to raise money for the NHS. Banksy has brought attention, support and financial benefit to hospital workers.
It wasn’t planned or wanted but Banksy now has both a big brand and commercial success to consider. With unauthorised clothing and merchandise widely available the chance to take control of how and where his work is reproduced may have already gone. Despite being content with the copying of his work Banksy has taken steps to retain his trademark by selling merchandise in his own Gross Domestic Product store. On his website you will also find a list of fake exhibitions.
Ironically, there remains the issue of transparency for the anonymous Banksy. As the NHS donation demonstrates his work can now bring attention to issues and provide financial support to address them. Work has been given to charity shops and proceeds from sales have supported migrants and campaigning against the arm trade. Looking ahead, I suspect there will be more interest and questions on benefiting projects.
Banksy would want you simply to appreciate his work and not buy it. So go outside of this uncomfortable brand and commercial environment to view it: https://banksy.co.uk/