100 Works of Art: (Visual) Kissing Policemen, Banksy

For an overview of why these posts are full of personal anecdotes rather than academic analysis, please see the first post in the series.

12. Kissing Policemen, Banksy (c. 2004-2005)

Banksy passed his hipster credibility peak at least six years ago, and it is now frowned upon and considered lame to like his work: this is excellent, as it means I can enjoy stencil graffiti by Banksy and various other artists without wankers from Hoxton getting in my way and talking about how “innovative” or “ironic” it is and generally making everything worth looking at into a nightmarish experience being elbowed by the cultural dregs of humanity.

I was introduced to his work by a flatmate of mine in the (extremely eventful, for me) summer of 2003: poisoned with ennui, broke, and subsisting on a diet almost entirely comprising of banned substances, I was not in the most fabulous of mental states and unwanted medical issues and upcoming surgery only compounded it. My dear, lovely flatmate, an unwaveringly sweet and very tall young man from Washington State, decided that the solution to this was to take me on a Banksy tour of the city, and find every single rat stencil he could.

For that day at least, it was an effective anti-depressant.

Kissing Policemen, Banksy
Kissing Policemen by Banksy

Continuing the theme from Matthew Woodson’s X-ray, if I own a print of a piece it merits automatic inclusion in this series. I have one small block print of this piece, which until I moved house hung directly opposite the entrance to my flat; it also features in the book Wall and Piece, which I also own. Wikipedia informs me it’s visible in the to my mind sadly underrated dystopian film Children of Men.

I love graffiti in general, and not just “artistic” graffiti, nor only fêted artistic graffiti. While I like a good municipal mural as much as the next person who got Stockholm Syndrome in the underpasses of central Plymouth as a child, it’s not the artistic intent or social commentary (both of which feel rather forced in commissioned community art anyway) that appeals in graffiti but the illegality and individuality of the act.

Not everything people choose to express when they have two seconds and a marker pen or an entire night and several cans of motor spray paint is an opinion I can get behind: I think it doesn’t really need stating that my opinion on people who spray-paint “PAKI” on someone’s house or daub swastikas anywhere is that they need to be re-educated, preferably with a Doc Marten applied with some force. In graffiti, as in most art, I think it is important to my enjoyment of it that the content, if not the action, is without malice.

The quality of the graffiti itself does not need to be up to an arbitrary artistic standard, as an acquaintance of mine argued, for it to cease to be “ugly vandalism” and become “a work of art”. It is both ugly vandalism and a work of art: the typical purpose of graffiti is for the artist to make their mark on the world. TOX, whose tag populates the railway cuttings out of London in several directions, does nothing more than tag and date; they are making their mark.

Banksy, whose work is varied and lengthy and popular, makes his mark and leaves his opinion, but the point is the same: I am here. I have been here. 

Graffiti, especially tagging, is a paradoxical statement. The intention of marking the universe is to draw attention to the presence of the transient self and, as with other forms of non-performance art, to establish in the mind of the artist/tagger some sense of external permanence. I am here, I have been here. The identity of the tag may be individual or communal but the statement is always individual: I have been here. Nowhere is this more evident than in the archetypal “BAZ WOZ ERE”, the toilet-door message boards.

What makes these statements paradoxical is that the majority of graffiti, more so than other forms of art, is by its illegal nature more transient than the artist and by its illegal nature necessarily also anonymous. The audience and the artist remain forever parted, unable to acknowledge each other directly. The futile cry of I am here is washed away in minutes or days, and the artist’s “I” can never be fully-realised. (This is not always the case!)

Graffiti is used to spell out strongly-held sentiment on the face of the earth and on the sides of buildings, be those sentiments “No Nazis in Bradford” or “M Khan is bent”, or a more naked admission of the original cause: I was here.

This specific piece of graffiti appeals to me for very childish reasons: I grew up with a healthy distrust of authority figures and uniformed ones the most, but I also respect the notion that law enforcement officials are human beings and as such have lives and loves. As such, this work both tickles me because people find it “disrespectful” to suggest that statistically there are going to be some gay serving police officers who are attracted to each other, and also soothes my sense of unease with the profession by depicting law enforcement in entirely non-threatening, humanising activity – specifically one which almost inevitably improves my view on the individuals involved.

I choose to have it on my wall because it is playful, upbeat, political only in a very vague and non-specific sense, and far kinder than it might be. It demonstrates a faint undercurrent of “love is important”, and in its original form – as graffiti – it adheres to the theme I follow in a lot of my favourite art: individual humanity struggling with the notion that one day we will not longer exist.


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