Brendan O’Neill

What’s up with Banksy’s mask propaganda?

Banksy's Tube carriage mural
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Is Banksy a Tory propagandist now? His latest juvenile stunt suggests he might be. On the day the government announced that it will soon be mandatory to wear face masks in shops, Banksy released a video showing himself daubing a Tube train carriage with pro-mask slogans and images. Way to stick it to the man, Banksy!

Banksy's latest act of politicised vandalism really sums him up. He dressed up as a cleaner, went Underground, ordered Tube passengers to move out of the way, and then got to work on his latest sneer at the masses. He stencilled rats inside the Tube carriage. One rat is sneezing. Another is struggling to put on a surgical mask. Another is clinging to a bottle of anti-bacterial gel. That's us, that is: rats. 

What a terrifying, possibly unwitting insight into Banksy's brain. We now know what he thinks of us. We're diseased rodents. Rats who must have our infected mouths gagged. 'If you don't mask, you don't get', Banksy wrote in his Instagram post promoting the video.

We shouldn't be surprised by the rats, of course. He's always drawing rats, to symbolise the dehumanising impact of 21st-century consumer society or something. He's sending up the 'rat race', innit? That mad, rushing, conformist world us tragic normies inhabit. A few years ago in a busy part of London he painted a giant rat telling the dim workers who passed by it every day: 'It's not a race.' Well, that's easy for a graffiti artist whose work sells for millions to say.

Banksy has been an establishment figure for a long time now. The Hollywood elite loves him. Art dealers spend a fortune on his stuff. The stiff art world squealed in delight when his painting 'Girl With Balloon' self-destructed in Sotheby's shortly after selling for £1m. Of course the shredded painting will be worth even more than the intact version. This is irony, I think. Someone at Goldsmiths is probably writing a PhD about it. Banksy mocks his own establishment status and that makes the establishment love him even more and it's all such a pile of self-congratulatory awfulness that you find yourself wishing for End Times.

But now, with his haughty instruction to the Tube-using masses to mask up, Banksy's position as a stooge of the elites has been well and truly confirmed. Witness Transport for London fawning over his vandalism. Yes, TfL cleaned up the Tube carriage, but it also praised Banksy for his 'sentiment of encouraging people to wear face coverings'. It also invited him to do a repeat of his rat-infested mask propaganda in a different place: 'We'd like to offer Banksy the chance to do a new version of his message for our customers in a suitable location.'

This is bonkers. I thought it was illegal to daub graffiti on TfL property? And yet TfL responds not by condemning Banksy for polluting a Tube carriage with his sixth-former-style blather, but by pleading with him to do it again somewhere else. If other people get the idea that it's kind of acceptable to scrawl messages on Tube trains, it will be TfL's fault.

Of course, the reason TfL loves Banksy's latest piece is because the message in it is entirely in keeping with theirs, and with officialdom's outlook more broadly. Banksy is essentially a government graffiti artist, or at least the vandal of choice of the chattering classes. From his anti-rat-race stuff to his consumerism-bashing to his utterly inevitable mockery of Brexit, he has been the mysterious mouthpiece for the cultural elite's prejudices for ages.

And now he'll probably do something having a pop at TfL for inviting him to do an officially approved piece of graffiti, and TfL suits will chuckle along, and Dalston youths will say it's all so meta, and the rest of us will carry on dreaming of End Times.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

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