Banksy: bigger than Jesus?

The famous ‘guerrilla graffiti artist’ and his friends believe their spraying for peace will attract more tourists to Bethlehem than Christ himself.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Banksy, the celebrity-feted ‘guerilla graffiti’ painter and a bunch of other ‘street artists’ are hoping to boost tourism to Bethlehem, the West Bank town revered as Jesus’ birthplace, by setting up the annual Santa’s Ghetto ‘squat art concept store’ in a former chicken shop opposite the Church of Nativity. Apparently, these modern-day Saviours believe Bethlehem residents will benefit from a bunch of ‘subversive artists’ changing their town’s image from a destination for Christians wishing to trace the footsteps of the Son of God to a one-stop shop for worshippers of affordable art.

To launch the opening of Santa’s Ghetto, an art exhibit and shop which over the past five winters has been set up in various locations around London, the media-savvy Banksy revealed six new stencils sprayed onto the security fence – the over 400 mile-long concrete wall that borders large sections of the occupied Palestinian territories. Banksy announced that people should come and see the situation in Palestine for themselves: ‘If it [Bethlehem] is safe enough for a bunch of sissy artists then it’s safe enough for anyone’, he said.

Banksy is often credited with providing stinging social commentary and subversive messages through his ironic stencils. In the Bethlehem images, he combines familiar symbols of occupation and peace in surprising ways. In one, a soldier is being frisked by a young girl, in another a white dove carrying an olive branch is wearing a flak jacket and a sniper is aiming at its chest.

It is not surprising that some locals were offended by Banksy’s image of a donkey having its ID card checked by a soldier. He may want to make the point that Israel is treating Palestinians as animals, but in fact, in his interpretation of the conflict, the Palestinians don’t fare much better. Here, they are represented either as children or as helpless creatures. Many Londoners are familiar with Banksy’s trademark rats, which he has spray painted onto the streets as an apparent protest against the ‘rat race’. Portraying one holding a wooden slingshot (the trademark weapon of young, Palestinian protesters) on a piece of concrete near the entrance to Bethlehem is plain insulting.

Banksy’s wall-painting colleagues don’t seem to have a much greater impression of the locals. One, who goes by the name ‘Paul Insect’, depicts Israelis and Palestinians as black and white reindeers locking horns. Another, Erica il Cane, has painted a giant ant tipping over a row of domino pieces. Her and ‘Sam 3’, who has painted a row of people ascending to the top of the wall on an escalator, are described on the Santa’s Ghetto website as ‘confusing the shit out of the locals’. At the entrance of the exhibition itself, which contains work by Palestinian and international artists, the American Mark Jenkins has placed a donkey whose rider is a stuffed, but empty-headed dummy wearing traditional Palestinian dress.

This is not the first time Banksy has graced Bethlehem with his presence. In 2005, he visited the town, and other locations in Palestine, to paint various graffiti images onto the wall, such as one of a girl being lifted off the ground by a bunch of balloons, and various cracks and openings in the wall showing idyllic images of life outside the fenced-in West Bank. Many peace activists have followed in the footsteps of their anointed Messiah of graffiti – making the wall even uglier than it was from the start by covering it with scrawls and images of angry lions biting into white doves and messages like ‘To Exist is to Resist’.

Grafitti on the security fence in Bethlehem
(picture: Nathalie Rothschild)

The section of the wall in Bethlehem that is just by the exit to Israel, where tourists pass through and which is in full view of Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint, is covered by colourful graffiti mostly made by foreigners. Yet going over to Palestine for days of mass painting is not so much an act of solidarity as an act of self-expression – and a very graphic PR stunt. The spray can-armed Westerners are treating the concrete and steel barrier, which is severely restricting Palestinians’ freedom of movement and cutting them off from each other as well as from Israelis, as their own, private Berlin wall; a physical object to project their frustration and disillusionment on.

Palestine solidarity activists often talk about the importance of experiencing Palestinian life from the inside, to step into Palestinians’ shoes and to feel, first-hand, their pain and suffering. They believe the presence of Westerners will help highlight the Palestinian cause to the outside world and so they act as ‘human shields’ or paint walls or set up Christmas art shops. Yet these escapades into the occupied territories look more like gimmicks, or disaster tourism journeys through which young Westerners try to ‘find themselves’. More often than not, they help perpetuate the simplistic and belittling image of the Palestinians as ‘voiceless’ and powerless victims – or in Banksy’s case, as vermin.

Lion and dove picture on the security fence in Bethlehem
(picture: Nathalie Rothschild)

The Santa’s Ghetto artist collective has decided to donate all proceeds from the exhibition sales to local projects for children and young people. ‘Not one cent’, they say, ‘will go to any political groups, governmental institutions or, in fact, any grownups at all.’ There’s nothing wrong with choosing to donate specifically to children’s charities, but this cheeky comment expresses the artists’ distrust of Palestinian adults, who must be bypassed lest they get up to something dodgy with the money.

However well-intentioned, the sprayers for peace who form the ‘loose collection of idiot doodlers’, as the Santa’s Ghetto artists call themselves, come across as patronising, ignorant and even insulting. Nevertheless, the art is undoubtedly provocative – it really just makes you want to take a plane straight to Bethlehem to tear it all down.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton looked at middle-class Westerners who seek their own personal Palestine. Shirley Dent interrogated the outrage caused by the removal of a Banksy mural. Emily Hill visited Santa’s Ghetto and argued that Banksy insults the masses. Grace Chua watched rebellion become a consumer trend. Or read more at: spiked issues Arts and Entertainment and Middle East.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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