Banksy’s “Steve Jobs” and the Tradition of Political Street Art


Banksy is a name known far beyond the artistic community — he made a career out of memorable and sometimes subversive art, often in an attempt to draw attention to political and social issues.

His most recent piece, which sprang into being overnight at a refugee camp in Calais, France, depicts the late Steve Jobs, in trademark black turtleneck, with a rucksack slung over his shoulder and an early Apple computer in his hand.

The work is a significant image: Steve Jobs himself was the son of a Syrian immigrant.

Banksy’s message is clear, and he elaborated further in a statement to The Independent: “We’re often led to believe that migration is a drain on the country’s resources, but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7 billion a year in taxes — and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.”

Banksy has a powerful argument, certainly. It’s significant that Banksy is attempting to communicate with the developed world using the things we take most seriously: money and stuff. He couples the economic impact of incoming refugees (largely positive, according to history and modern research) with an even simpler message: Without immigrants, you wouldn’t have that sleek and sexy iPhone in your pocket right now.

Maybe Banksy missed the point, though. Although the economic argument is important as the United States comes to terms with the Syrian crisis, for someone with Banksy’s skill and reach, it feels just a bit like low-hanging fruit.

The Syrian refugee crisis is not a test of our financial savvy — it’s a test of our character. It’s not a question of economic benefit. It’s a question of ethics.

And although Steve Jobs was, and continues to be, an inspiration to millions, invoking his image is practically passé, just a couple short years after his death. It’s too easy, and perhaps our artists need to think a little further outside the box.

Street Art Is Alive and Well

While Banksy’s recent piece of art is effective, if a little simplistic, he’s hardly alone in using street art to celebrate the immigrant.

The cover of New York Times Magazine recently showcased another great example of politically-minded street art. This one was the brainchild of an artist called JR, who’s made a name for himself pasting photographs onto surfaces in urban settings all across the world. He worked with the Times on their Walking New York issue, and the result was something unprecedented for this up-and-coming artist.

JR took photographs of Elmar, an immigrant from Azerbaijan, who became an American citizen after winning the green-card lottery last year. JR then blew up Elmar’s likeness to hundreds of times its original size and pasted the resulting image onto the sidewalk in Times Square.

At ground level, you might miss the installation entirely, since you’re literally walking on the photo. From an aerial view, both the image and its message are unmistakable.

Unlike Banksy’s work, JR’s final product was a little more subtle: It suggests that immigrants are all around us, woven into the very fabric of American society. However, sometimes we must take a step back to appreciate this fact fully and objectively.

“A Shout Painted on a Wall”

Naturally, street art is flourishing in other countries as well, as a form of political and social protest. France in particular has a long history of street artists using their talents to draw attention to abusive corporations, corrupt politicians and other matters of interest for the average citizen.

Mexico is also home to an abundance of politically-charged street art, much of which highlights the country’s troubled history when it comes to political and social issues. The Guardian recently ran a profile on two such artists: Rosario Martínez and Roberto Vega. What Martínez had to say on the subject of street art was particularly illuminating: “Stencils are harder to remove […] Painting a wall red says more than a little poster can — it’s like people said at the time, ‘It’s a shout painted on a wall.’”

That’s a powerful idea, and one that will almost certainly inspire street artists for generations to come.

The purpose of art has always been to act as a sort of time capsule for the common frustrations and movements of the day. Even at a time when museum admissions are down and the role of the traditional artist seems to be in decline, street artists have a unique opportunity to capture the mind of the public.

They might even have an obligation, as well. It’s no secret that, by and large, people have lost faith in their politicians and the political process as a whole.

Discovering a bold message that seems to be on your wavelength, right under your feet, while walking the streets of New York? Something that expresses a concept that time and frustration and ennui have buried deep down? That’s a powerful experience.