Could London's Banksy Be a Closet Buddhist?

Michael Loren
Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Banksy’s controversial street art has been lauded, criticized, and actively analyzed for decades. Yet, the artist remains a mystery — an infinitely wise faceless entity who lives somewhere in London or Easton, Bristol who offers insight into the human condition with spray paint, stencils, and acerbic wit.

Whether or not you’re a Banksy fan, I believe there is one life-changing lesson that underlies most of his/her/their art.

Banksy’s art depicts the human condition as it is — grim, full of suffering, often black and white, and wrought with conflict. Underneath the physical reality of the formidable realities of life, though, inside the minds, hearts, and bodies of many of Banksy’s humans, lies a colorful and beautiful perception.
Photo credit: Author — Print purchased from this site

Photo credit: Author — Print purchased from this site

Looking at works like Gas Mask Boy (above) which was painted in London in 2009 and Beach Boys of Bethlehem that appeared on the Israeli West Bank barrier in 2005 (below), we see the juxtaposition of the world’s perception of the people depicted in the pieces and the vibrant worlds in their imaginations.

Why is this the most important lesson in our lives?

Because our perception is our reality.
Photo credit: Author — Print purchased from this site

Photo credit: Author — Print purchased from this site

Banksy meets Buddhism

Banksy is generally thought to be more of an anarchist than a Buddhist, but I think there’s something much deeper than the bold statements that have been quoted from this artist.

“The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.” ― Banksy

Underneath this disdain for authority, though, lies a passionate heart for the human condition that breaks through in Banksy’s art and quotes.

“The human race is the most stupid and unfair kind of race. A lot of the runners don’t even get decent sneakers or clean drinking water.
Some runners are born with a massive head start, every possible help along the way and still the referees seem to be on their side.
It’s not surprising a lot of people have given up competing altogether and gone to sit in the grandstand, eat junk and shout abuse. ― Banksy

In the pieces of art above, we perceive the people in them to be anarchists, hoodlums, and/or trouble makers (the children look like what Aladdin would refer to as “street rats” and the boy with the can of spray paint can only be assumed to be committing vandalism). We see these people in black, white, and grey because we only see their exterior. And because of this exterior, we make a judgment based on what society has taught us.

Inside these characters, though, Banksy shows that they have a perception of reality that is vibrant, uplifting, and peaceful. They see flowers, beaches, and palm trees. They appear to have transcended both our judgment of them and their apparent status in our society. Their reactions to a world of suffering, to the world outside their brains and bodies, is to step away from them and to manifest internal joy. These walls in London and on the Israeli West Bank depict what should be going on in our brains.

“The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

The first noble truth of Buddhism identifies the presence of worldly suffering. This suffering is brought about by desire and ignorance as identified in the second noble truth. However, this desire for attachment can be overcome and there is a vibrant and peaceful existence on the other side.

The presence of the developed minds of the characters in these two Banksy pieces infers that they have transcended their desires in this world, that they have developed their minds and stepped on the path to wisdom that they have, perhaps, reached Nirvana. The rest of the world may see them in black, white, and grey, but internally, they are living in an enlightened world of color and joy.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” — Buddha

A life-changing lesson

Whether you’re an anarchist, a Buddhist, or any other-ist, I believe that there is an important life-changing lesson we can glean from Banksy’s art and the tenets of Buddhism. This lesson lies in the contrast between the physical (black and white) worlds in these Banksy pieces and the rich tapestry of the minds of its characters. It lies in the transcendence of worldly desire and societally-dictated perception to reach a colorfully exuberant existence.

Here is what we can all learn:

We can only control two things in our lives:

  • How we see the world
  • How we react to it

The rest is out of our control. The rest is not up to us. Everything in the future that we worry about, everything in the past that we regret, and everything in the present that we want to change — all things outside of our perceptions and our actions are outside of our control.

The people who see these paintings in London and on the Israeli West Bank (and the world) may see us as anarchists, hoodlums, or degenerates. The world will inevitably see us in black and white. We can’t control that, though. And, when we concern ourselves with outward perceptions, we only create suffering for ourselves.

It is our challenge to create our own beautiful oasis of color. It is up to us to see the sunflowers behind our gas masks. Because, at the end of the day, we have the power to change how we see the world. And we have the power to decide, then, how we will react.

The takeaway

Is Banksy a closet Buddhist? Maybe. Maybe not. The beautiful thing is that it really doesn’t matter. Because Banksy’s art has done exactly what it was intended to do. It has inspired us to think, converse, and hopefully emerge as a more enlightened society.

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” ― Banksy

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Professional writer and journalist with concentration in data analysis. I specialize in interpreting data to give you unbiased, understandable information related to the state of California.

Los Angeles, CA

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