I first heard of Banksy back in 2018, when the famous painting, Girl With Balloon, was shredded for the world to see, right after it was sold for $1.4 million at an exclusive Sotheby’s auction. From then on – like many of us – I was captivated by both his art and the secrecy of the man behind it. Who was this mysterious man whose ‘urge to destroy’, as he himself explained it, was not only artistic but loyal to his apparent mission of making art accessible to all and, most importantly, making art a changing force?
Banksy’s street paintings have always been characterised for challenging the status quo, and raising important questions around politics, inequality and culture. More importantly, his pieces are often ones that inspire the viewer to reflect upon our world and the way in which it works. Unlike other artists, Banksy has become an inspiring figure whose actions show that the time to wait for government action has passed and the power to create change lies in every single one of us, a belief reflected in his recent purchase of a vessel dedicated to help immigrants stranded in the Mediterranean Sea.
A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of migrants sailed across the Mediterranean in search of a new life in Europe. On August 27th , a former French navy ship, the Louise Michel, funded by Banksy, took 89 migrants on board and another further 130 people. At that point, the ship with 10 highly qualified crew issued a distress call due to overcrowding issues. The vessel, which was near the Italian island of Lampedusa, a place that has become a common target for many migrants, initially received assistance from SeaWatch 4 and had to wait until later that same day to finally receive help from the Italian Coast Guard, which then only took in 49 of the passengers in the most critical conditions. Banksy did not let the opportunity to make a statement through his art pass, and so spray painted the Louise Michael to create the image of a girl in a life vest reaching for a heart-shaped lifebelt – resembling the renowned piece – a picture that is frightening to see given it depicts the conditions of many children aboard these vessels.
Banksy also took to social media platforms to condemn the lack of proper assistance for migrants in these desperate situations. On his own Instagram account, he posted a video that showed a tiny lifeboat, overcrowded with migrants, in distress along with an important message: ‘Like many people who make it in the art world, I bought a yacht to cruise the med. It’s a French navy vessel we converted into a lifeboat because EU authorities deliberately ignore distress calls from ‘non-Europeans.’ The video clearly addressed the double standards in both the artistic industry and governmental institutions, even showing a sleeping officer apparently ignoring a boat’s emergency call.
But why is it important to look not just at the current situation of Banksy’s boat but the intention behind it? While unfortunately his post was certainly met with negative opinions, with many people asking who would later provide shelter or jobs to these people or why should countries that are closer to the coast take the biggest intake. Within this context, Banksy has most certainly provided these people with a humanitarian hand but more importantly he is spreading a message of hope and cultural understanding, highlighting both through his acts and art that we can not wait with our arms crossed for others to implement change. At the same time, Banksy is becoming a symbol of what movements driven by young people around the world are so desperately fighting for as we are seeing in the case of BLM for social justice or Extinction Rebellion for climate action. And the common denominator between all of these causes is that they are sending the needed message that governments will finally have to act according to the people’s requests if enough individuals demand change.
The immigration crisis has become a challenge that we face as a collective and global society aggravated by the lack of international cooperation and specific guidelines to address the complexities that come with it. Just last year, more than 110,000 migrants attempted to reach Europe, with at least 1,200 deaths reported according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Additionally, as 2020 continues to show us with a series of massive fires from Australia to the US, climate change is also threatening to displace many people from their homelands and this time underdeveloped nations will not be the only ones affected. It is, therefore, our collective responsibility to look not only for answers but to create a space in our societies to be inclusive of people with a different cultural background than our own. Perhaps it’s precisely this that Banksy is trying to convey through his art and even his secret identity, showing that every individual is worthy of fundamental human rights regardless of nationality or race.
While there are certainly many unanswered questions surrounding the crisis, it is also true that many countries often turn a blind eye to plausible solutions, such as the implementation of quotas that can be tailored to each country´s economic situation, income per capita or even extension. A policy that could not only alleviate the economic burden of immigrants but could also soften some of the tension that often comes with blending two different cultures together, an issue that has proven catastrophic when not addressed properly, such as in the case of the emergence of neo-nazi parties in Germany as a response to the high intake of Syrian refugees. At the same time, in the case of Banksy’s boat, EU authorities were deliberately ignoring emergency policies under international law that aim to support immigrants in critical conditions. The EU is an organisation that above all fosters integration, solidarity and inclusivity and they should live up to those preaches.
No matter the cost or challenges faced with migration, there is no doubt Banksy has made us all ask ourselves: what would we want other people to do if it were us on that boat? More importantly, Banksy is also a symbol of what younger generations are repeatedly standing for: equality, freedom and justice and the added value of his anonymity is perhaps that anyone could be a Banksy, anyone can be a voice for those whose prayers are unheard. Perhaps the world could use another Banksy or two.