In May 2020, mid-pandemic, Street Artist Banksy paid a visit to Southampton General Hospital and installed a new artwork. The piece, entitled ‘Game Changer’, was auctioned off in March to raise money for NHS charities, and sold for a record £14.4m. But this was not the first Banksy to appear in Southampton. In 2010, I was a student in this vibrant coastal city and the news went round that a Banksy had been spotted near a local nightclub. As students, we thought this was the height of cool and many of us went to view the piece. However, within 24 hours it had been scrubbed over. Returning to the city ten years later, I was walking the dog past the same nightclub and I noticed the graffiti had been repainted and altered to reflect the ongoing pandemic.
Banksy’s distinctive graffiti has become a well-recognised form of social commentary and aesthetic protest, from paintings on the side of sexual health clinics to images of war. And while his work may divide opinion, it’s become an important part of urban material history. Access to these very public pieces of art is not restricted, meaning that they can be amended over time, as in the case of the piece I saw as a student in Southampton. It’s a transitory art form; there are communities of practice that develop street art, and the areas where it is produced regularly change. This piece is one that has been adapted over the eleven years it has been in place to reflect changing social feeling. Indeed, a look through historic Google Street View imagery shows how the social commentary the artist is offering has changed as the area around it has changed.
It is placed on a wall behind a nightclub in an area of Southampton in which the gentrified student zone borders one of the poorest districts of the city. The image is of a child sat on a pavement holding a balloon with the words ‘No Future’ in red letters above. The text was thought to be a statement about environmental issues, but could equally be a commentary on poverty within the city. If we move forwards in time, we see butterflies being added to the piece as the child is scrubbed out, more tags are added along with other statements, such as ‘Expand your horizons’. The child can still be seen, but she is increasingly overshadowed by other motifs and images.
In 2020, we can see that the wall appears to have been repainted white; the same image of the child is added but instead of a balloon forming the ‘o’ in ‘No Future’, the string leads to a balloon with the words ‘Our Future’ above. The logo of the environmentalist protest group Extinction Rebellion sits within the O, suggesting this is another comment on the climate crisis. As with the previous piece, within months it had been adulterated with a virus being added at the end of the balloon string, the words ‘Our Future’ being painted over and a speech bubble claiming ‘Fuck Banksy’ added.
While Banksy’s pieces are largely celebrated, they sit within a modern form of graffiti that has often been condemned as vandalism. However, we shouldn’t separate the study and consumption of Banksy’s work from generally less-admired piece of historic graffiti. Both the mostly overlooked art form of modern tagging and culturally celebrated street art are still the results of people from a variety of walks of life making a comment about the world around them. And people have been marking their environments in this way for much longer than we tend to assume. Historic sites of incarceration are often adorned with inscriptions from the smallest initial to much more detailed engravings that tell stories of the lives of the imprisoned. The brickwork of Southampton likewise became a drawing board for soldiers awaiting deployment as part of the D-Day landings, and their initials are now being studied for clues about who they were. The study of medieval graffiti has also become the subject of significant research over the last decade (with Champion, Cohen and Wright leading the field). In almost every conceivable historic space, we find people etching little parts of their lives into their built environment. An inscription of a ship in a church might be a sailor praying for safe passage, or an outline of a shoe (Figure 5) giving a nod to the ritual practice of concealing shoes within walls. In these and other intriguing examples, we see the lived experiences of past peoples playing out through their inscriptions, or as Wright puts it “capturing their hopes and fears” using a visual language.
Historians, archaeologists and others increasingly view graffiti as pieces of our collective past and efforts are made to record and study them. However, they have often gone through a process of change and removal. Indeed, medieval graffiti usually has to be studied with the help of raking light sources and close observation. The ship and shoe etchings were originally carved into painted walls, making them stand out, but during the reformation the iconoclastic destruction of religious art in British churches saw the removal of paintwork, and etchings went from being highly visible to faint lines in the stonework.
I find the ‘girl with the balloon’ piece originally produced by Banksy fascinating as the quick adulterations to both the original and the new piece reflect local discontent and highlight fraught social issues within this area of Southampton. While the original might have been a statement on what in 2010 were termed ‘environmental issues’, I feel the choice of location is important. The siting of the piece, between the student run of bars on Bevois Valley and the deprived area of Northam, has meant that we are seeing social tensions play out in the form of addition and removal of layers of paint to a wall. In the same way, we see the city of Southampton gentrifying and residents being pushed out from areas close to both the University of Southampton and Southampton Solent University. Are we seeing here the same inscribing of fears from the artist drawing attention to the climate crisis or the residents of the area being forced to relocate to other districts of the city? Is the quickly changing nature of this piece of street art being subject to political iconoclasm presenting changing values of the local population and a social commentary on an area of change within a city bidding to become the UK’s City of Culture 2025?
Catriona Cooper is Senior Fellow in History, Heritage and Media in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London.