Born in Bristol in 1974, Banksy started his career at 14 as a standard-issue spray-paint vandal before switching to stencils. "I wasn't good at freehand graffiti," he says. "I was too slow." Soon Banksy had made a (fake) name for himself with wry images like schoolgirls cradling atom bombs, British bobbies caught snogging, and Mona Lisa shouldering a rocket launcher. These paintings contrast sharply with the usual all-but-unreadable scrawls. "Most graffiti is like modern art, isn't it?" he says. "People are like, What does it mean?"
Banksy's messages are far more accessible. He once painted a thought bubble on the wall of the elephant pen at the London Zoo: "I want out. This place is too cold. Keeper smells. Boring, boring, boring." The difficulty of that job gained the respect of the graffiti community but, more than that, it caught the imagination of the public, which was happy to empathize with the elephants.
Banksy has a thing for animals. In much of his graffiti they serve as thinly veiled stand-ins for humans. Rats, that other species struggling to subsist in our dirty, dangerous cities, show up a lot. Armed with radio transmitters, personal flying devices, and, natch, paintbrushes, many seem to be waging a covert war against some unidentified authority. One image depicts a rat swept up in the melody of its own violin-playing, trying, it seems, to carve a bit of art out of a sterile environment.
Which is pretty much Banksy's mission, too. Noting that he's not without altruistic impulses - "I always wanted to be a fireman, do something good for the world" - Banksy says he wants to "show that money hasn't crushed the humanity out of everything."
I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tatooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.
We need more people like Banksy, so get off your backside and do something instead of just thinking about it.