There is something subversive and secretive about graffiti—even when its artist is world-renowned. Banksy, an anti-authoritarian graffiti artist, understands this phenomenon. He skyrocketed to international fame in the early 2000s for his cutting edge masterpieces in spray paint, which led TIME magazine to name him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010. In order to maintain his anonymity, however, the photo that he submitted for the magazine biography featured a recyclable paper bag covering his head. His fans loved it, as many of them do not wish to know his real identity. In fact, the only biographical information that is commonly attributed to Banksy is that he is an artist from Bristol who started painting walls in England in the 1990s. Banksy himself calls these paintings “bombings,” and he has since “bombed” walls from London to Vienna to New York City. He uses a distinctive stencil technique, which he developed while working with a gang of other street artists in the 1980s. He preferred this method both because it was faster than free-hand spray art and because it connected him to a history of revolutionary artists who used the same method. Banksy has continued to use stencils for his graffiti art and over the decades has expanded his media to include interactive sculpture, wall paintings, film, and more.
Banksy’s art almost always has a controversial social or political theme. He styles himself a “quality vandal” because he challenges both the right and the left for their political authority and and institutions. In July 2003, Banksy’s exhibit “Turf War” hit the London art scene and caused a major breakthrough in his popularity. “Turf War” featured live cows emblazoned with the faces of Andy Warhol, Queen Elizabeth II disguised as a chimpanzee, and other prominent figures. The show was staged in a former warehouse in Hackney, and cultivated a carnival-like atmosphere. His most recent film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, commented on the commercialization of art by profiling the work of world-famous graffiti artists. This film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011 in the documentary feature category, although many considered the prospect of this major award ironic because of Banksy’s “outsider status.” One of his most elaborate works to date, Dismaland, turned Weston-super-Mare, England into a temporary amusement park that was intended to be a “family attraction that acknowledges inequality and impending catastrophe.” As Shepard Fairey, creator of the 2008 Obama Hope poster, wrote of Banksy’s art for TIME in 2010, “it’s accessible, public, not locked away. He makes social and political statements with a sense of humor.”
Separation Barrier in Bethlehem, by Sarah Tomas Morgan (7 June 2016)
For some time now, Banksy has had a presence on the West Bank side of the barrier wall between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In 2005, he stenciled several iconic images on the barrier wall itself. One portrayed a soldier with his hands in the air receiving a pat-down from a small girl. Another showed children playing on a barren patch of land while a tropical paradise is glimpsed through a painted hole in the wall behind them. Intricate and colorful images cover large sections of the wall in many places, including the “wall museum” area of the barrier in Bethlehem where Banksy chose to leave his mark. These images have become a sobering tourist attraction for visitors to the West Bank, and local entrepreneurs now sell the images emblazoned on magnets, shirts, and posters.
Despite the commercialization of these images, however, the painting of the wall remains highly politicized and controversial. Many of the images are created by Palestinians to express the hatred and fear that many feel for the barrier and their hope that it will one day be removed. Other images are added by visitors who may spend no more than a few days in the West Bank and fail to understand the gravity of the canvas on which they are painting. This has led some residents to resent the proliferation of wall art in recent years. Meanwhile, Banksy claims a kind of personal allegiance to the medium of the wall, telling The Guardian “walls are hot right now, but I was into them long before [Donald] Trump made it cool.”
This interest has led to Banksy’s latest and perhaps most elaborate project yet: The Walled Off Hotel. This hotel, which sidles up along the barrier wall between Israel and the West Bank, claims to have “the worst view in the world.” Now, it has the additional attraction of a makeover engineered and executed by its owner, one of the world’s most famous street artists. The hotel has a “dystopian colonial theme,” which its creator sees as a response to the 100-year anniversary of the British takeover of Palestine and a reminder of the chaos that it brought to the region. The tea-room evokes a gentlemen’s club, even as the fire in the grate flickers under a pile of concrete rubble and the marble bust on the mantelpiece is enveloped in wreaths of tear gas from a canister. Each bedroom is decorated with original Banksy installations, such as a mural of a pillow-fight between a Palestinian protester and Israeli soldier and, in another room, a bookshelf featuring carefully curated titles such as A Room with a View and Cage Me a Peacock. Each decorative choice is calculated to leave a lasting impression on visitors. “I would like to invite everyone to come here, invite Israeli civilians to come visit us here,” the hotel’s manager Wisam Salsaa said. “We want them to learn more about us, because when they know us it will break down stereotypes and things will change.”
The opening of the hotel on 20 March 2017 did indeed gain significant international attention, and the fame of its artist is likely to keep every room booked for years to come. Legitimate concerns raised by other residents of Bethlehem about the venture have not garnered the same amount of coverage, however. In response to questions posed by the writer of this article (18 March 2017), Bethlehem resident Tarek al-Zoughbi noted that the power imbalance between Palestinians and Israelis is largely ignored in the installations and messaging of the hotel. According to him, the pillow-fight mural is an example of the suggestion that both sides come from equal positions of influence and capability, and reduces the conflict to a land dispute in which Israelis and Palestinians are capable of forgetting an history of entrenched physical, psychological, and economic suffering and coexist on less violent terms. “As a Palestinian who has lost friends to Israeli soldiers and violence,” al-Zoughbi said, “I find the mural offensive and problematic.”
Furthermore, it should not be assumed that the invitation to Israeli visitors is echoed by all Palestinians. Indeed, Israelis cannot legally enter the West Bank, although many still reside in settlements there in a breach of international law. According to al-Zoughbi, “[Banksy’s] statement ignores the power struggle in which Israel has complete control over the borders and gives permits, visas or other forms of legal permission to all who enter.” Because Israeli visitors would need to obtain permission from Israeli authorities to visit the hotel, this invitation could easily be seen as an affront to the Palestinian right to control their own borders.
Certain off-hand comments made by Banksy himself could leave some to question whether the artist understands this dynamic. Indeed, he effectively reduced the sensitive subject to a commercial problem when he told The Guardian, “My accountant was worried some people will be too scared to travel to the West Bank, but then I remind him – for my last show they spent a whole day in Weston-super-Mare.” This comment raises yet another concern, which is that visitors to the hotel will be more interested in the fame of the artist than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As al-Zoughbi points out, “it leaves great room for ill-informed or ignorant visitors.” He notes that this situation either presents a great opportunity to inform visitors or the perpetuation of stereotypes about Palestinians by short-term, disinterested visitors.
Thus, Banksy’s latest project is a subversive undertaking that satisfies few and leaves many unsettled, uncomfortable, or even angry. This confused response, however, is the stated goal of the “quality vandal.” Frustration has long been the outcome of the barrier wall between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories for locals. At the very least, perhaps the Walled Off Hotel will serve as a catalyst for that feeling within visitors from near and far.