Anonymous artist makes his way to Pittsburgh

Hannah Peters | Staff Writer | A wall of projected artwork allowed guests to be immersed in the works of Banksy and explore more than 80 pieces across many different media.

Hannah Peters | Staff Writer

April 13, 2023

Above a bike shop in the Strip District of Pittsburgh, for one weekend only, the art of the elusive Banksy went on display. The show featured over 80 pieces of his artwork in an immersive experience aimed to capture the mystique and cultural impact of the artist.

As part of a 32-city international touring exhibition, the event called ‘Banksyland’ visited Pittsburgh from March 31-April 2 at a ‘secret location’ that was announced only two weeks before its opening. It is the world’s largest exhibition tour, according to its website.

The featured artist, Banksy, is a pseudonymous England-based street artist, political activist and film director. Most famous for his graffiti art style, Banksy gained popularity in the early 2000s and has had works sell for millions of dollars at auction. Despite a 30-year art career, the identity of the artist is still unknown.

His artwork often includes controversial and powerful imagery in addition to satire or dark humor, as many of his pieces are used to engage political themes like war, capitalism, consumerism, hypocrisy and greed. Using a variety of media, particularly stencil and spray paint on public spaces, his artwork can be found around the globe, appearing in Australia, France, Italy, the United States, Canada, Jamaica and Israel.

Banksy has also recently created installations in Ukraine to comment on the war with Russia.

The exhibition tour itself has also garnered controversy due to the fact that Banksy keeps the sale and authentication of his works tightly regulated and never authorized the ‘Banksyland’ tour. However, the company running the tour, One Thousand Ways, claims Banksy is aware the tour is taking place.

In fact, Britt Reyes, vice president of operations for ‘Banksyland,’ informed the Los Angeles Times that ‘Banksyland’ offered 100% of the proceeds to the artist and he declined.

Two ticket options were available for purchase — General Admission and VIP, which included a limited-edition, hand-screened exhibition poster, all-day access and an audio tour. Guests could purchase drinks at the venue and a gift shop was also available.

The art was found in a small, black curtained room lit up by moving projections that created an immersive viewing experience for patrons.

The art collection included original and studio works, salvaged street artworks, and never-before-seen immersive installations, according to the website. Assistant producer of the show, who identifies himself as simply ‘Foley’ explained how the collection process remains heavily classified.

“All the originals are on [loan] to us through private collectors. We don’t even disclose which ones are originals and everybody on our team signs NDAs,” Foley said.

Foley’s favorite piece by Banksy is not just an artwork but part of a humanitarian rescue effort too.

“My favorite is Louis Michel’s boat. He bought a navy cruise vessel and turned it into a rescue boat. They sail the Mediterranean every week with this vessel. Last week they saved 82 lives,” Foley said.

Financed and decorated by Banksy, the 30-meter long vessel is customized to perform search and rescue missions and is manned by a crew made up of European activists who help save the lives of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.

The Banksyland display of this project was composed of a short explanatory video, a picture of the boat, and a doormat labeled with the word ‘welcomed’ in orange.

“This orange welcome mat is made out of the life jacket material from the dead refugees that wash up on shore. He collected them himself and made 8 of these welcome mats and sold all of them at an auction for over a million dollars. He used all the proceeds to make a foundation to give the refugees a second chance at life.”

“Not only does he save them from the waters, but he builds them homes and works to give them a better life.”

It is typical of Banksy to refuse the profits from his artwork and instead donate the money to various charities. Over the last 20 years, it is estimated that he has donated around $30 million to charity, according to MyArtBroker.

This same sentiment is kept by the ‘Banksyland’ tour. Through an Instagram poll and an on-site paper poll, locals are encouraged to participate in deciding which nonprofit the exhibit’s proceeds will be donated towards. A local nonprofit is chosen by voters in each city the tour visits.

This, coupled with the fact that Banksy is aware of ‘Banksyland,’ is why Foley believes that the exhibition tour aligns with Banksy’s philosophy despite the artist’s anti-consumerism and anti-capitalist beliefs. According to Foley, the overall message of Banksy’s art and the exhibition tour is meant to be one that’s thought provoking.

“Formulate your own opinions,” Foley said. “A lot of people have preconceived notions about the world. A lot of people are robots to the world. They just go along with whatever the government or the world is telling them. It’s okay to make your own opinion and Banksy proves that you can do that.”