What Does Banksy’s ‘Ghetto 4 Life’ Image Say?

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I’m sure if you asked elusive street artist and provocateur Banksy about his latest image, titled “Ghetto 4 Life,” he’d likely say something with a great deal of conviction about the Bronx wall art starting a dialog about race, something, something and more something. The image itself – featuring a small, dark-skinned boy of indeterminate ethnicity tagging a wall while being served by a white butler – would seem to subvert the idea of street artist (particularly one of color) as criminal and place them in the realm of the gentry.

According to The Independent, the image is drawing negative attention from locals, who feel that it perpetuates negative stereotypes about people of color (i.e. blacks = street art = hoodlum).

Banksy's "Ghetto 4 Life" Photo: BanksyNY.com

Initially, I was going to write a piece nodding my head in agreement, questioning how an artist whose very identity is in question could try to posit that which is aspirational for a broad swathe of people. “Ghetto” is one of those words I wince at when non-whites use it, typically to describe something as being lesser, inferior, sketchy, or dangerous. With this image, is Banksy trying to take the word back for “us” (this nebulous mass of non-whites from what would be deemed socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds)?

In a city where being black or Latino is effectively a crime under Mayor Bloomberg, I’m torn about “Ghetto 4 Life.” Yeah, it owns a word which has come to mean “less than” among non-whites featuring the young male of color, a figure who is otherwise marginalized in the city (unless it comes to crime statistics). But then, it’s Banksy, possibly-maybe some white dude creating the image.

It feels alternately like cheerleading and condescension for street art, like an affirmation of the form and the culture that created it by someone on the outside looking in. It’s Jay-Z performing to a crowd of art industry veterans who seem surprised that hip hop is somehow legitimate – how anything created outside of the white “mainstream” is exotic, exciting, but otherwise at the margins unless a white person picks it up.

But then, isn’t the point of the most exciting art to provoke, to draw out, and to divide consensus?

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