How Banksy’s ‘Balloon Girl’ Became an Icon of 21st Century Art

art market

justin camp

Photo by Dominic Robinson. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Twenty years ago, on a whitewashed storefront wall in Shoreditch, London, anonymous street artist Banksy stencilled a simple, innocent image: a young girl, windswept and monochrome, reaching out hand towards a bright red balloon in the shape of a heart.

At the time, Banksy was still far from a household name. He was a niche artist, loved by Bristol underground taggers and increasingly known for the cheeky large-scale murals he produced in Bristol and London. Two decades later, he’s a (still unnamed) global superstar, and this simple Shoreditch stencil has become one of the most indelible images of the 21st century.

girl with balloonThe rise to icon status began slowly. After the initial Shoreditch stencil and another version at Southbank in London, which appeared later in 2002, the work has remained little more than a piece of local street art, attractive to passers-by but unknown to the cultural milieu in the sense wide.

It’s only two years later girl with balloonin 2004, that Banksy embraced the image’s potential for large-scale reproduction: he partnered with the Pictures on Walls imprint of photographer and curator Steve Lazarides to release the only existing print edition of girl with balloon. The duo produced 600 unsigned and unnumbered prints, 150 signed and numbered prints, and 88 colored artist’s proofs, which the artist sold online and in an annual “squat art concept store” called Santa’s Ghetto. Signed and numbered editions sold for £150, unsigned prints for £75. Banksy also painted reproductions, including an edition of 25 spray paint on canvas girl with balloon more limited works and prints spray painted on metal.

“Banksy, in 2004, had a very niche following,” said Yessica Marks, senior specialist in Sotheby’s printing department, in an interview with Artsy. “He was not yet an international superstar. I don’t know, but I imagine the editions didn’t sell, and I imagine the cheaper unsigned edition was more sought after at the time.

According to Marks, the market for girl with balloon, and Banksy works at large, didn’t take off for a few years. Indeed, when the first girl with balloon the print came to the secondary market in March 2005, with an estimate of £300-400 it went unsold. This lack of market enthusiasm is unimaginable now, when prints of the unsigned edition regularly sell for over £100,000 at auction and artist’s proofs have sold for over £1million. .

girl with balloonThe path from a lot bought at auction to a reserve of £100,000 followed both a general trend for the print market and a unique trajectory for the artist. “The print market grew significantly around 2007,” Marks said. “It’s no coincidence that the following year, 2008, Banksy launched Pest Control to authenticate his works and prevent counterfeits, because there were quite a few.”

The Pest Control website advertises itself as the “parent/legal guardian of the artist Banksy” and remains the “sole point of contact for the artist”. With its authentication processes in place, collectors could be sure of the legitimacy of Banksy works they purchased on the secondary market, especially print editions. The market continued to grow, with unsigned editions topping the £1,000 range around 2008. Around the same time, limited edition painting editions of the work began to enter the secondary market and, in 2008, a girl with balloon canvas sold for $158,500 at a Phillips auction.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Although Pest Control’s authentication measures may explain some of the girl with balloonanother key factor was Banksy’s growing engagement with (and criticism of) popular culture and the media throughout the 2000s and 2010s. girl with balloon repeatedly over the decades, often using the simultaneous whimsy and solemnity of the image to address contemporary social issues. He painted a version on the border wall between Israel and the West Bank in 2005. In 2014, he painted a version on various international monuments that commemorated the victims of the Syrian refugee crisis.

girl with balloon has become more than an evocative image; now it was an instantly recognizable symbol of social inequality and lost innocence. Banksy himself increasingly embraced the role of commentator-slash-provocateur over the same period: his 2010 documentary Exit through the gift shop and set up 2015 dismal both undermined large-scale and visible artworld structures.

By the late 2010s, Banksy’s status as a global icon was solidified, and his works were regularly selling for millions at auction. In this climate, a fateful auction of a girl with balloon the web again changed public perception of Banksy and sent his market spiraling ever higher.

At a Sotheby’s autumn sale in London in October 2018, an anonymous collector bought a girl with ball painting for £1.1 million ($1.4 million). Shortly after the sale closed, a mechanism hidden within the frame of the painting activated, shredding the artwork live on the podium and sending the tattered strands to the ground. There was widespread press coverage of the stunt, which Marks said led to perhaps the biggest expansion yet of Banksy’s secondary market presence.

Banksy, Love is in the trash2018. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“The major event was undoubtedly the shredding of 2018 – there was a direct impact,” Marks said. “Customers called us the next day saying, ‘I have a print of the 600 edition, if I tear it up will it be worth more?’ It was such a sight; there was such a surge of interest in the subject afterwards.

Since 2019, a majority of girl with ball prints have sold for six-figure prices at auction, and a number of color artist’s proofs have sold for over $1 million. A print in the gold colourway sold for £1.1 million ($1.5 million) at a Sotheby’s auction in March 2021 and set the current record for a Banksy print; interest in work has been sustained, if not heightened, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As for the painting that shredded at auction? It sold, in its tattered form, with the new name Love is in the trash (2018), for $25.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction in October 2021. This set a brand new auction record for Banksy.

It’s a good estimate for where girl with ball is today, in both popular and market consciousness: fashionable, but incisive. “The market is still very strong,” Marks said, pointing out that 40-50% of buyers at Sotheby’s two annual Banksy sales are new to the auction house. “I think the prices for girl with ball really peaked in 2020 and 2021. We saw a proliferation of unsigned prints in the market towards the end of [2021], leading to a slight decline in the market for these prints. The market has stabilized, it’s still his most wanted draw and he’s still hugely popular.