At a 2018 Sotheby’s auction, one of English street artist Banksy’s more well-known pieces, “Girl with Balloon,” sold for $1.4 million. Much to everyone’s surprise, the piece instantly self-destructed the moment the deal was made, dropping through a shredder that had been built into the bottom of the frame. Sotheby’s, who was none the wiser to this occurrence, described the exact moment as “instant art world history.”
It is this trickery and rebellion that has rocketed Banksy to fame. Part of the intrigue? His identity remains unknown.
Starting December 3, over 80 genuine and authentic pieces produced by Banksy are finding a temporary home in the City of Brotherly Love. Produced by Exhibition Hub, Banksy Was Here, an unauthorized exhibition, is making its world debut in Philadelphia.
Executive producer John Zaller has been exhibiting for 20 years. “Philadelphia is the perfect city to debut Banksy Was Here because of its love of art and its gritty personality,” he says. “Philadelphians know what they want, and they take pride in knowing who they are, just like Banksy.”
Spanning across 30,000 square feet in Philly’s Fashion District, the exhibit allows visitors to step into Banksy’s world. “Banksy has become this symbol of self-expression, questioning the status quo and art by any means possible. That’s what this experience is all about,” Zaller says. “Everyone comes out with something to talk about.”
As you make your way through the exhibit, you’ll notice themes of speaking out against capitalism and authoritarianism. Created in 2004, a displayed piece entitled Barcode depicts a leopard walking away from a barcode cage that has been pried open. First appearing on the side of a home in the artist’s hometown of Bristol, the piece serves as a reminder to break free from the cage of consumerism. The work later became one of his best-selling prints.
Banksy often utilizes stencils in his street art, which can then be used to create limited edition prints sold to the public. “We have some pieces right on concrete or wood,” Zaller describes. “Other pieces are prints and limited-edition posters, like the Bansky vs. Bristol Museum posters.”
These four posters are promotional pieces from an exhibit Banksy ran at the Bristol Museum in 2009. The museum was not particularly well attended, but Banksy’s exhibit—which was paid for primarily by the artist himself—brought in more than 300,000 people in its two-and-a-half-month runtime. “It was a great way to give back to his hometown,” says Zaller.
Banksy first made a name for himself through graffiti. Though New York City is credited for the rise of the art form in the 1960s, the techniques were quickly adopted in Philadelphia, and the city hosts some 10,000 more graffiti writers than New York. “Despite what they say, graffiti is not the lowest form of art,” Banksy writes in the foreword of his photo book Wall and Piece. “Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum, it’s actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission. A wall has always been the best place to publish your work.”
A highlight of the exhibit is the virtual reality room, where you can don a VR headset and walk the streets of Bristol to truly immerse yourself in the art. “We’re always trying to push the limits of how exhibition is experienced, and VR is that next thing,” Zaller explains. “You’re walking the streets of Bristol, and Banksy’s works are appearing in front of you, almost like he’s two steps ahead throughout the tour.”
So, who is Banksy? “There’s so many different theories,” Zaller replied when asked for some hints as to the artist’s identity. “It could be you.”