Banksy vs. Ron English: Who Has the Hardest Style?
We talked to two of our favorite art experts to tackle the tough topic of who has greatest style, Banksy or Ron English? Check out their thoughtful debate.
Image via Complex Original
When thinking about the artists who changed street art, there are two names that inevitably come up—Banksy and Ron English. Both made art for public benefit on streets around the world and have shown in museums and galleries, elevating the status of the medium and proving its ability to operate effectively outside of the traditional art system.
A central thread between their art is a critique of injustices; for Banksy, this usually manifests itself in site-specific stencil works, and for English, it occurs in pop art collaborations and altering existing work. Banksy often tackles global politics head-on, while English employs subtle subversion to reveal untold stories of lies and greed. A key difference between the artists, however, is that Banksy remains faceless and anonymous, while English maintains a public appearance.
Though they are by no means in direct competition, it’s worth debating each artist’s influence to examine how they’ve gone harder, created successful careers for themselves, and changed people’s perceptions of street art. We discussed their art based on style, message, commercial success, badassery, and global influence below.
How they make and show art.
Sophia Kritek: The method in which Banksy creates his art has been criticized for its simplicity. Often just spray-painting a stencil—a reflection of his need to work quickly without getting caught—he’s proven that a strong message always trumps an elaborate process. He’s also proven that showing site-specific art in the public domain of the streets is equally—if not more—effective than showing in a gallery or museum.
In recent years, Banksy’s style has evolved and taken on different mediums and formats while retaining clear meanings that are often political in nature. He’s shown in traditional institutions, staged his own exhibitions (including an inconspicuous booth outside Central Park), created documentaries and short films, published books, done sculpture, created interactive, moving pieces, and even built and curated a theme park, Dismaland, over the summer in the UK. All of it began with what he was able to accomplish with a little bit of paint, scissors, tape, and paper, which shouldn’t be undervalued or reduced.
A good example of Banksy’s ability to create strong pieces with minimal material is his Mobile Lovers piece, done in Bristol, England, last year. It’s an obvious visual commentary on modern romance through an image of a couple holding each other while on their cell phones. Though it doesn’t contain multiple colors or lots of detail, its message is clear and poignant, and beyond that, so was its location, on a door outside the Broad Plain Boy's Club in Bristol, Banksy’s hometown. Though the outdoor piece was at risk of vandalism or theft, Banksy clarified in the press that it was a gift to the organization. He wrote, "As you know I recently painted on a doorway near the club...You have my blessing to do what you feel is right with the piece." It sold for over $600,000 to a private collector with all proceeds going to the Club.
Andrew LaSane: When discussing Ron English and Banksy, the term “street artist” is used loosely, maybe more so for English. While his art can still be found on the streets in the form of festival murals and commissioned billboards, English spends most of his time in the studio developing ideas through the process of making. With his hands in so many forms of artistic expression (painting, sculpting, designing for his fashion brand and other collaborations), English is simultaneously the political POPagandist that he was during the height of his billboard liberation days, and a creative who revels in the freedom and ability to make art that doesn’t necessarily exist in that space thematically.
Those who are just discovering Ron English are probably more familiar with his work in the limited-edition art and designer vinyl toy world. The collectibles include vinyl versions of his brand jamming and parody imagery, including MC Supersize and the Cereal Killer series (Fat Tony, Cap’n Cornstarch, Yucky Children Charmer, Sugar Smack, Franken Fat, etc.), original characters borrowed from his work like Temper Tot, Ronnnie Rabbbit, and Cathy Cowgirl, and various pieces based on his “Grin” paintings, which feature recognizable pop culture characters like Charlie Brown, The Simpsons, Super Mario, and Barney the Dinosaur. His POPaganda clothing brand is sold at Zumiez stores around the country, with everything from socks to hats bearing his iconic imagery.
English’s fine art is exhibited in galleries around the world in solo and group shows (like the recent Corpocracy exhibit in Houston), he does signings and print/toy releases at various conventions throughout the year, and gives artists talks. While Banksy’s career is predicated on anonymity, English’s fans like being able to associate the man with his work.
What their art says or does.
SK: Banksy certainly doesn’t make art for art’s sake. Everything he creates has a purpose, whether it is to make relevant social or political commentary, help a community via a site-specific work, or sometimes, display sharp humor that is often lacking in the ever-serious art world. Furthermore, the purpose of a lot of Banky’s messaging has been to elevate art done on the street for public benefit by creating pieces that challenge lawmakers’ stances toward street art being “illegal” or considered “vandalism” (one such piece in London from 2011 humorously said, “If graffiti changed anything, it would be illegal.”). While remaining completely anonymous and continuing to hide his face, Banksy has raised the price of street art in the auction market, thus elevating the status of the medium and paving the way for other street artists to have lucrative careers (earlier this year, Banksy’s early partner Steve Lazarides sold many of his own Banksy pieces at Sotheby’s and was upfront about doing so to test the market).
In earlier years, particularly around when Banksy had his first exhibition in London in 2001 (after moving there from his hometown of Bristol), his commentary seemed much more about the barriers of showing art. The exhibition was held in an abandoned tunnel and cost nothing to set up, yet still over 500 people came to the opening. A year later, he had his first exhibition in Los Angeles, “Existencilism,” where he put up some of his most iconic works to date, including Girl with Red Balloon and Flower Chucker. In 2003, he put up a manifesto on his website for the first time, except it kept changing, providing a paradox of his art both having purpose and lacking purpose.
From 2004 on, Banksy started creating work that gathered more attention than the faceless artist likely anticipated. His art became more overtly political and included things like male policemen kissing each other, Princess Diana on a £10 bill (which he printed and put into circulation as a tribute to her), nine pieces on the Palestinian side of the West Bank barrier wall, paintings that he snuck into the Met and MoMA, a live, painted elephant at his second L.A. show, a painting of pensioners bowling with bombs, and paintings protesting child labor during the London Olympics. In 2008, he launched the “Cans Festival,” stepping into a more curatorial role by inviting other artists to paint a road tunnel in London. By 2009, it made sense for Banksy to formalize his operation and launch what he calls “Pest Control;” the PC team can detect knock-offs of Banksy’s work and is considered the only authorized sellers for new Banksy work.
In October 2013, Banksy launched “Better Out Than In,” a month-long residency in New York where his political messages resonated deeply beyond the city itself. He announced it on his website and launched an Instagram account to mark the occasion, creating a new piece each day in different New York boroughs. These pieces on their own had messages—surrounding gentrification, the art world, Wikileaks, the meat harvesting industry, and more—yet it was the first time the Internet and social media played an extremely central role in the reception and reaction to his work. The world received his new work through social media, people usually had strong reactions to the divisive pieces, and in the end, the responses from New Yorkers who traveled to see the works become part of the art narrative itself. One man founded the Banksy Restoration Society to protect the pieces from vandals, two friends filmed a YouTube series where they drove around to find the pieces, some pieces were stolen, some people were charging visitors money to see the new Banksy pieces in their neighborhood, and ultimately, filmmakers were hired by HBO to create a fully crowd-sourced documentary about the month-long project.
AL: Ron English’s work is largely about subversive imagery, send-ups of pop culture and corporate America, and political commentary in the form of satire, though he has said that he sometimes leans more toward satire than politics. “My stuff is very much like if Walt Disney was a left wing propagandist,” he told Hypebeast. “It’s kind of like visual ecstasy, it’s just sometimes got a darker message underneath.” During a video tour of his home and studio, the artist told Complex: “I’m really not as political or opinionated as I come off in my art...a lot of these issues will fade and the commentary will fade. It’s more about the aesthetic experience now.”
A constant throughout much of English’s career has been his critical (but humorous) view of advertising and corporate America, and how it affects this country. In the mid 1980s and ’90s, he started a personal war against big tobacco, namely Camel cigarettes and their mascot, Joe Camel. English created billboards that addressed what he felt was a blatant attempt to get children hooked on cigarettes by using a cartoon. The images he created included a mother camel that was “smoking for two,” two camels talking about how many kids they hooked that day, and he also turned Joe Camel into the target audience with his “Camel Jr’s” pieces.
In the late ’90s, English began flipping Apple’s “Think Different” campaign and taking it to the extreme. The idea of the campaign was that 20th century icons like Gandhi, Einstein, and MLK all thought outside of the box, so English made billboards with other people who thought differently, including Charles Manson and Apple competitor, Bill Gates. There were other defining moments in English’s career, including the fight with McDonald’s over MC Supersize, and his ongoing love-hate relationship with Mickey Mouse, but English has not been afraid to take on giants even when he knew that there would be consequences. He referred to art once in a Juxtapoz article as something that can “serve a higher purpose than advertising your own career. Art has been successfully used by liberators and dictators alike. It is a powerful tool that is in your possession.”
Collectors, work in museums and galleries, and auction prices.
SK: When it comes to commercial success, Banksy has cleverly marketed his art to ensure that its value increases over time. Importantly, he’s done so without sacrificing the integrity of his art’s message. Some would attribute his commercial success partly to the hype surrounding his anonymity; although people have claimed to “find” Banksy or unearth his identity, he remains faceless and a mystery.
In 2009, Banksy held the exhibition “Banksy Versus Bristol Museum” in his hometown. He presented 100 pieces, 78 of which were new, and donated two to the museum. It broke attendance records with massive lines and over 300,000 visitors over the course of 12 weeks. His exhibition three years before in L.A., “Barely Legal,” made an even bigger splash, revealing that Bansky had celebrity fans and collectors such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Jude Law. In 2008, Banksy and Damien Hirst revealed their unexpected Keep It Spotless collaboration combining Banksy’s stenciling and Hirst’s colorful dots. It sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s.
Banksy’s most commercially successful project is his 2010 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. It made $5,308,618 at box offices worldwide, drawing in viewers who were eager to learn more about the masked artist. Instead, they learned more about street art in general and one of his accidental proteges, Mr. Brainwash, who some consider a less exciting rip-off of Banksy and his work. The film was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, yet did not win.
AL: Since leaving behind the life of a vandal and focusing more on his fine art, English has had consistent success at auction, but he does not always pull the kind of hyped numbers that Banksy does. In 2010, his painting Large Marilyn Red Peach sold for $31,250 with a $10,000–$15,000 estimate. By 2011, English’s estimates had been raised, and an oil painting from the year before titled Slash 'n Friends (Album Cover) sold for $92,500 at Phillips New York. The same year, a vibrant painting of smiling flowers titled Growing Grins also sold for over $78,500 in France at Aguttes. In 2014, his painting Cowgirl Guernica Black and White (inspired by the famous work by Pablo Picasso) sold for $86,500 at Fine Art Auction Miami, nearly $30,000 over estimate.
The website Artsy has an experimental feature that charts the sales of works by popular artists, and while the information displayed is only a sample of all of Ron English’s auction results, it shows that there are collectors of his work around the world. His work even found its way into the 2013 Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy This Is the End, alongside pieces by other legendary and respected artists including Os Gemeos and Shepard Fairey.
In terms of accessibility as a marker of success over individual auction results, English’s toys and clothing have been purchased by thousands of entry-level and veteran collectors alike. Those who can’t afford five-figure paintings can still own vinyl figures and T-shirts in $15–$100 range, which is how things should be.