Has Banksy entered the NFT (non-fungible token) art market? That was the question lighting up social media and chat rooms this weekend when it was reported that NFT works inspired by the British street artist have so far netted $900,000. (For an explanation of what NFT art is, click here.)
Initially listed on the OpenSea marketplace, and later on Rarible, the series includes a spin off of one well-known Banksy print, I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit (2007). Another work has been created in the style of Banksy’s Crude Oils paintings.
As one fanciful commentator wrote on Twitter: “What if the ‘OpenSea Banksy’ was actually Banksy but he decided that not telling us he is Banksy and letting us think we were rugged by a fake Banksy was the most Banksy move? Is this Banksyception?”
Banksy’s authentication body Pest Control was quick to quash the rumours, clarifying “there isn’t an affiliation in any way, shape or form” with the NFT series.
Nonetheless, the spin-off works raise several important questions about appropriation and copyright in the NFT sphere. The artist behind the Banksy-style works, known only as Pest Supply, claims to be working in the vein of Elaine Sturtevant, who rose to fame in the 1960s copying and reconstructing other artists’ art starting with Andy Warhol’s Flowers (Warhol would later direct people to Sturtevant’s work when quizzed about his own technique).
Pest Supply says their work examines “how value can be created from satire” and that they “meticulously create art that’s not the exact same copy of Banksy, but with style inspired by Banksy while focusing on different concepts, objects, and events that may impact the society or the artist [sic]”.
Works such as NFT morons “signify the current boom and frenzy within the NFT art market and how many collectors are caring less about works’ provenance and concept but instead more for a quick flip immediately after purchase”, the artist says. “[I am] questioning the legitimacy of NFT art while using the art as a valuable test to test people’s perception of value, all done without mentioning a single word about Banksy or Pest Control.” A percentage of all sales is going to Save The Children.
On the one hand, the fundamental idea of appropriation—that no one can be the singular, original owner of an idea or work of art—feeds into a utopian vision of the NFT art market: one that is decentralised, open source and managed by creators themselves. As Pest Supply puts it (in another nod to Banksy): “Laugh now, but one day no-one will be in charge”.
The graphic designer David Rudnick responded generously when his work was appropriated by an artist who goes by the name of @milshapes on Twitter. Rudnick’s Stem sold for almost $20,000 on Valentine’s Day—an image that @milshapes promptly screen shotted and minted. Rudnick bid $1 for the new work, but offered the creator 100% of the resale.
In reality, the NFT art market appears (so far) to be operating along very similar lines to the traditional art market, not least because it too is dominated by white men. Provenance is still king—all NFT art purchases are recorded on the blockchain, providing a public, immutable record.
Having initially listed Pest Supply’s work, the decentralised NFT trading platform, OpenSea, blocked the artist, which could indicate an uneasiness over the blurry lines between appropriation and rip off. After all, intellectual property laws still apply in the virtual world, even if copyright remains a contentious subject in the street art world where many artists operate anonymously.
So will Banksy wade in? Having recently lost a trademark case involving his Flower Thrower image, it is unlikely. Doing so would only fuel the clicks anyway.