Banksy has become synonymous with boundary-pushing street art and anonymity. But for those in the know, the mysterious street artist is a philanthropist. As his latest (aptly-titled) work, Game Changer demonstrates, many of Banksy's work is more about activism and giving back than anything else.
Just earlier this week, Game Changer, the painting honoring UK healthcare workers, sold for £16.7 million ($23.1 million) at Christie's in London. Not only did the sale set a new record as Banksy's most expensive artwork to auction, but it was also entirely charitable with all proceeds going to the NHS.
The painting depicts a young child who has ditched his Batman and Spiderman figures to play with a toy Red Cross nurse wearing a cape and face mask. Banksy donated it to the University Hospital Southampton (UHS) in May of 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic with a note reading, "Thanks for all you're doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it's only black and white."
It's a modern Robin Hood-type story, the enigmatic artist who makes clever, politically charged artworks, which raise millions for charity. Banksy has been outspoken on many prescient social issues, including gang violence, homelessness, state surveillance, and war, and Game Changer isn't the first time his social commentary has gone hand in hand with benevolence.
While he may hide behind a concealed identity, in his work Banksy has always advocated for an artist's social duty, especially now that there is more access to art. "There’s a whole new audience out there, and it’s never been easier to sell [one’s art]," Banksy has maintained. "You don’t have to go to college, drag ’round a portfolio, mail off transparencies to snooty galleries, or sleep with someone powerful, all you need now is a few ideas and a broadband connection. This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people. We need to make it count."
At Christmas in 2019, a mural appeared in Birmingham of two reindeers pulling a bench with a homeless man on it. A film accompanying the piece appeared on Banksy’s social media showing unsuspecting locals giving the man, Ryan, food, and drinks. Banksy wrote, “God bless Birmingham. In the 20 minutes we filmed Ryan on this bench passers-by gave him a hot drink, two chocolate bars, and a lighter – without him ever asking for anything.”
It turned out Banksy had created T-shirts and merchandise for a concert to raise money for homeless charities in Bristol, including The Wild Goose, 1625 Independent People, Feed the Homeless Bristol, and Somewhere to Go. Then when the piece was finally protected, it sold for £2,300 (approximately $3,160) at Fellows Auctioneers in Birmingham with all proceeds going to Midland Langar Seva Society (MLSS), an organization helping homeless people in need in the UK.
A further Banksy work dedicated to helping the homeless is the 2014 oil painting entitled his . Banksy bought the original oil painting for $50 during his New York residency at Housing Works Charity shop and reworked it by painting a Nazi figure into the landscape. The finished work was sent back to the charity shop anonymously with a letter explaining it was a Banksy original. It later sold at an online auction for $615,000 with all proceeds going to Housing Works Charity supporting the city’s homeless.
Another issue that has inspired several Banksy works, the migrant crisis – and Europe's mishandling of it – has also been the theme of much of the artist's philanthropic work. For instance, his 2015 sculpture How Heavy It Weighs helped raise money for a charity helping refugees. The remote-control boat overloaded with asylum seekers is a powerful commentary on the plight of refugees making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. The sculpture was made using materials from a dismantled theme park and all the remaining wood and structural elements were donated by the artist to The Jungle refugee camp in Calais to build refugee shelters.
In 2018, Banksy announced via Instagram that his sculpture of the boat was up for grabs for anyone who made a minimum donation of £2 ($2.50) to the Help Refugees charity. For a chance to win, participants were asked to guess the weight of the piece to the closest metric unit until the lucky winner was chosen. According to Choose Love – Help Refugees, Banksy’s campaign raised as much as £90,000 ($123,580) for the cause.
How Heavy It Weighs demonstrates how intrinsic goodwill is not only to Banksy's charitable pursuits but to the art itself. While he may be one of the most-hyped contemporary artist of all time, Banksy’s work has always sought to serve a social purpose. Through his continued charity projects, Banksy will always be bigger than his art.