Posted October 25, 2013

Beautiful Games: Taking Stock of Banksy’s Sports-Themed Art

Art

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Acclaimed street artist Banksy has New York abuzz with “Better Out Than In,” an October-long, city-wide “residency” during which he has unveiled a new piece of work each day. His tour of NY has compelled fans to swipe souvenirs, seen the launch of a one-man restoration society, and drawn ire from more than a few haters. It also led one art dealer to pay workers to move Banksy’s replica of the Sphinx, made out of cinder blocks and styrofoam, from its roost near CitiField in Queens.

Working in the shadow of the Mets’ home is as close to sports as Banksy has come on his current trip, but he’s played with games many times in the past—and always to powerful, albeit often undefined, effect.

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Hackney Welcomes The Olympics :: 2012

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Banksy swapped a javelin for a missile in one of two pieces he created during the lead-up to the London Olympics. Just as the location of the work is unknown, the message is equally unclear. Some observers suggested that Banksy was paying homage to the strength of the competing athletes; others saw a political statement, citing the British Ministry of Defense’s suggestion to install missiles atop residential buildings. Given that the Ministry of Defense was eying the London borough of Hackney as a potential site to start the missile program, those speculators may be closest to home.

Also unanswered is the question of the “1468″ on the thrower’s singlet. Members of banksyforum have floated a handful of ideas about its meaning, including:

  • “1468 could = ONE FOR 68 = Black power salute” (a reference to Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the 1968 games)
  • “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in 1968″
  • “1468 was the athlete number worn by Osleidys Menendez in the 2008 Olympics. She competed in javelin and represented Cuba. … Cuba -> missile crisis -> it’s a stretch but you never know.”

Another theory was posted on a Banksy-themed Flickr group:

  • “The town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire is the birthplace of Dr William Penny Brookes, who inspired the modern Olympic Games and founded the Wenlock Olympic Society. They hold their own Olympic Games every year. Also, the 2012 London Olympic Games have named one of their mascots Wenlock. Much Wenlock was granted its royal charter as a borough in 1468.”

In other words, we got nothin’.

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Going For Mould :: 2012

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The other pre-Olympics work (also in an unknown location in the UK), “Mould” features a pole-vaulter clearing a rusty barbed-wire fence en route to a decrepit mattress landing pad. The stencil paints the Olympics in an unflattering light, which is in line with Banksy’s subversive, anti-establishment viewpoint. Reactions were mixed: Some critics heralded it as a deserved slap to the face of the Olympic organizers, who were working endlessly to remove (and prevent) graffiti around London so the city would seem squeaky-clean to Olympic visitors. Others found symbolism in the derelict surroundings and chalked it up to Banksy’s presumed outrage that millions of dollars were funneled into beautifying Olympic sites while ignoring the plight of nearby residents.

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Tightrope Rat :: 2010

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Tightrope Rat was one of the first of a series of bombings done by Banksy after jumping across the pond to Detroit in May of 2010. The rusted chain was real, and strung across a vacant warehouse, leading some people to think the work is a commentary on the economic decline of the city and the flailing industrial titans there. By design, viewers had a clear line of sight of both the rat and General Motors’ Tech Center—though not for long, as Banksy’s rat barely made it a month before the wall was repainted. Quipped one resident: “This is why you can’t have nice things, Detroit.”

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No Ball Games :: 2009

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This piece popped up on the side of a shop in Tottenham in 2009 as an expanded iteration of a smaller rat version (see top of post) that Banksy had created years earlier. The simple irony of the work is enjoyable on its own, though if you dive into forums you can find some bizarre theories behind the work. One equates the children to Adam and Eve and the “ball” to the forbidden apple, drawing a parallel to sinning. It became a marquee attraction in town, leading to quite the kerfuffle this past July when it was ripped from the wall to be auctioned off in 2014 for charity. Many residents decried that an iconic piece of their community had been “stolen” from them.

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Nighthawks :: 2005

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In 2005, Banksy had his first gallery show in London, wherein viewers were treated to the artist’s first foray into oils. The piece was part of a collection he dubbed “Crude Oils: A Gallery of Re-mixed Masterpieces, Vandalism and Vermin,” and it lived up to the title. Based on Edward Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks” painting, Banksy’s version included an angry football fan, clad in Union Jack boxers, who had just tossed a chair at the establishment. The calm demeanor of the patrons inside the diner seems to indicate that they’re only mildly interested in the belligerent hooligan, which could be a commentary on how the masses view over-zealous soccer fans.

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Bomb Middle England :: 2003

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Though “Bomb Middle England” never appeared on a building, the canvas painting nevertheless set a new record for Banksy’s work when it sold for $165,000 at Sotheby’s in 2007. With the three pensioners, clad in hats that could double as Army helmets, playing bocce with lit bombs, the possible subtext runs the gamut: Is it Banksy’s take on traditional-yet-anarchistic Britain? Is he saying there’s always fun in chaos? Or that the government thinks war is a fun pastime? Might he even be suggesting that the middle class should revolt?

Some critics pointed out that Banksy chose to sign the work under the bombs, indicating he’s clearly on the side of promoting disorder. At this point, ten years later, there’s no question about that.

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