Graffiti is a form of guerilla warfare. It is a way of snatching power, territory and glory from a bigger and better equipped enemy. Banksy once characterised it as 'revenge.'
But revenge against who and for what? In the early 1990s we witnessed the rise to power of a political class based on spin and big smiles. Tony Blair declared the class war over. The idea that all you needed to succeed was a positive attitude took hold in the UK as corporate culture grew more and more dominant. Meanwhile the trains were sold off to make millions for a cabal of financiers, largely at the taxpayers expense.
"Just doing a tag is about retribution. If you don't own a train company then you go and paint on one instead."
Banksy, Simon Hattenstone Interview, the Guardian 2003
Throughout this period Banksy remained steadfast in pointing out that this 'Cool Britannia' thing was all shit. He was the little boy who said that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. His campaign was massive and sustained like a well planned military action. He seemed to be everywhere you looked. He reminded us all that we are the rats.
In the sense of being an underclass he was right, social mobility dropped throughout the New Labour years. The gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots ' rapidly increased. The state surrendered control over capital at the same time as it increased control over civil society under the guise of anti-terror laws. New Labour dismantled civil liberties as enthusiastically as it screwed up the welfare state.
But Banksy's rats celebrated a tough survival instinct too. He made them inventive and cunning - qualities you need in the ruthless culture of today. Not only did Banksy's street work remind you that power does exist and it works against you, but also that power is not terribly efficient. It can be and should be deceived.
Banksy is a thinking street artist.
If he were not would he paint something like this…
"There are crimes that become innocent and even glorious through their splendour, number and excess."
And that is the grand parody in all of Banksy's work. Through repetition and scale, any voice can become powerful. Which just goes to show how flimsy the basis of power really is. We are all vulnerable to this cacophony of noise we hear, this nightmarish choir of ideas directed at us through advertising and mass media.
It's inevitable that it hypnotizes and confuses us. Great street art reveals that process and makes it laughable. It shows how so much of power is just theatre, using a certain symbol, design or way of communicating. By laughing at the spectacle we undermine its power and make room for a bit of original thought.
But just a bit of room mind. No more than an acceptable level of threat.