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Hannah Jones

Celebrating the art world’s favorite mystery — The art of Banksy

Banksy's Girl With a Balloon began as a stencil series on the streets of London, and a later version was famously shredded at an auction. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones)

Who is Banksy? For most of us, Banksy isn’t a person but an idea. Each art piece urges us to go against the status quo, and by separating themselves from the constraints of fame, Banksy is truly embodying the messages in their work. There is no Banksy — just the art.

“Banksy is the first artist to really kill his own ego,” Guillermo S. Quintana told the crowd during an early showing of The Art of Banksy: “Without Limits” exhibit at Underground Atlanta.

To Quintana, this is what makes the famously anonymous artist’s work so ingenious, adding, “We are the PR for Banksy all of the time — all of us.”

Quintana played many roles in creating the Atlanta exhibit, leading as the curator, art director and creator of concepts. 

The exhibit features over 155 pieces of multimedia art, including 27 original works purchased by a private collector, and many reproduced pieces created by five Atlanta- and Mexico-based artists.

The first few steps into the exhibit transport you into a cardboard version of airport security so realistic that you wonder about emptying your pockets before stepping through the metal detector.

The room is a replica of a scene at Banksy’s “Dismaland,” a dystopian theme park. 

A video rendition of Banksy’s “Devolved Parliament.” (Photo by Hannah E. Jones. Scroll to the bottom to check out more of the exhibit in Kelly Jordan’s photo gallery.)

After passing through the faux airport screening, the main room is filled with paintings, prints, a destroyed phone booth and a video of Banksy’s famous self-destructing painting

There’s a series of rooms along the main room, with each door serving as a portal into a different universe — a bathroom featuring Banksy’s classic rat stencils or a five-minute digital version of “Devolved Parliament,” which replaces British politicians with chimpanzees.

Banksy’s themes are controversial, making bold statements about political structures, the environment and social norms. Take “Red Lenin,” for example, which shows Vladimir Lenin wearing Nike rollerblades. Banksy uses absurdity to question authority and political leaders.

(L to R) Reproductions of Banksy’s “Red Lenin” and “Barcode Leopard.” (Photo by Hannah E. Jones)

Animal liberation is also a constant theme in Banksy’s work. “Barcode Leopard” features a leopard freed from its barcoded cage, advocating for the humane treatment of animals.

Quintana believes that we, as viewers, should’ve heeded Banksy’s warnings long ago.

“I think right now, with this pandemic thing… we as human beings are [thinking] there is so much we need to change,” he told SaportaReport. “And the things we need to change are things Banksy said a long time ago, like the treatment of the animals, the environment and our own relationships as human beings.”

Banksy’s strong messaging and aversion to the public eye intrigued Martin Biallas, founder and CEO of SEE Global Entertainment, to head the North American tour. 

“Through his work, he’s giving us a strong ‘edutainment,’ as you say. It’s a strong political messaging but also primarily [focuses on] us as a society and the condition of the world,” Biallas said. “It’s criticizing, yes. It’s provoking, yes. But there’s still that cute little moment that comes with it.”

If the messages embedded in the artwork aren’t clear enough, the Banksy sayings spray-painted along the walls of the main room really drive the message home.

One wall reads, “A wall is a very big weapon it’s one of the nastiest things you can hit someone with,” and another says, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

The Atlanta showing is the debut of the North American leg of the exhibition’s tour, which has spent over five years in parts of Europe and Australia. Underground has been itching for a new life, and hosting an exhibit that has already sold at least 10,000 tickets is a step in the right direction. 

“We are giving again life to one of the oldest streets in Atlanta,” Guillermo Quintana said. “Underground is a good place to create community.” (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

“Underground has needed revitalization for quite some time,” Underground Atlanta Creative Director Kris Pilcher said. 

“This Banksy exhibition is just our first milestone…in three months, you’ll see some really exciting developments down here,” he added. “The streets are going to become more colorful, more vibrant and full of life. We want to spread the message that Underground is not the same Underground Atlanta that everyone is familiar with; it is a new space that is inviting and safe.” 

Biallas sees the “hugely unique venue” as a perfect host for the famous street art, although the exhibit itself is unauthorized by the artist.  

“How can you authorize something when you really have no copyright? You know, it’s just not possible,” Biallas said. “This exhibit is a celebration of him as an artist and his work.”

While the artist wasn’t involved, the team was intentional about making the exhibit authentic to Banksy. 

Guillermo Quintana wore a mask covering his face during the Banksy exhibit debut. “I’m the messenger, you know, I’m not important,” he said. “The important thing about this exhibition is Banksy.” (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Back in 2018, the Art of Banksy – another unauthorized homage to the anonymous artist – was shown in Berlin, where Quintana lives. He visited the exhibit and walked away feeling disappointed; it wasn’t the ode to Banksy that he expected. 

So he walked up to the manager and gave them a laundry list of things to change.

“There’s no respect for street art. This is not a real thing about Banksy,” Quintana said. In turn, they offered him a job.

Quintana wants to do Banksy’s work justice because, in a few ways, they seem to be cut from the same cloth. Whenever Quintana hosts an exhibition or gives an interview, he wears a mask to conceal his face. During the Atlanta opening, he wore a mask that read, “For every person unhoused, we lose a part of our humanity.”

Quintana invites Atlantans to come to the exhibition with an open mind, ready to listen to what Banksy is trying to tell you.

“Come like a kid with a curiosity and the nice feeling that you want to learn something, that you want to enjoy something because when we lose that part of our life,” he said. “Curators, we are architects. And I love to build bridges. For every time that I can make an exhibition, I build a bridge between the artists and the visitors.”

Now that you’ve read all about Banksy in Atlanta, click here to check it out for yourself.

Click here to see more Banksy action in Kelly Jordan’s photo gallery.  

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native who recently graduated from Georgia State University, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah is excited about the opportunity to serve the City of Atlanta and its people. Hannah can be reached at [email protected]

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