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The political significance of Banksy’s stab-proof vest for Stormzy

In an abandoned building below a gym in Croydon, acclaimed street artist Banksy ‘opened’ his latest exhibition entitled Gross Domestic Product. The pop-up shop was created in reaction to an ongoing feud with a greeting-card company that tried to hallmark Banksy’s previous work.

The pop-up shop has been made exceptionally accessible. During the same week as Frieze Festival, a high-end contemporary art exhibition in London, access to Banksy’s shop is free, with all items for sale online. His artwork starts as low as £10, demonstrating that art can be accessible to everyone whilst the artist remains well-respected. 

Centre stage at the exhibit is an item recognisable to many for its appearance at 2019 Glastonbury Festival, worn by one of the UK’s most successful grime artists: Stormzy.  The item seen in an isolated setting is thought-provoking enough, but having been worn by the rapper at such a popular festival, it became a symbol for generational discontent towards social violence in the UK. It is a stab-proof vest with the image of the Union Jack on the front, alluding to the high levels of gang violence across cities in the UK.

Banksy is unafraid to mock those at the top of society

A label describing the stab-proof vest at the exhibit reads “a version of the ‘John Bull’ English gents waistcoat updated for modern times. This customised body armour is capable of stopping bullets up to .45 calibre and is fully stab-proof.” This is powerful, alluding to ideas of traditional upper-class Englishness being contrasted with the need for working-class and ethnic minority young people to wear stab-proof vests because of the high levels of gang crime and violence in their communities. It creates a distinctive parallel and is almost humorous; Banksy is unafraid to mock those at the top of society. 

Yet some question whether the stab vest promotes a culture of gang crime and violence, glorifying it for young people who see Stormzy as an idol and misinterpret the message behind the vest. 

James Benenson, managing director of Urban Nerds, argues that some see the piece as “glorifying gang crime and violence”. Whilst it is understandable that people without context who saw Stormzy at Glastonbury wearing the item might think that this is ‘edgy’ or promoting violence, I doubt there are many who did not understand the political and social messages of Stormzy, an artist who is renowned for his political commentary and very outspoken on social issues. Banksy is an artist whose work constantly tackles a range of socio-economic problems. 

To say that he is reinforcing negative stereotypes misses the mark of the whole piece

Another criticism has been the suggestion that the item perpetuates negative perceptions of young, British, black men, but I take fault with this because the whole point of Stormzy wearing this item is to highlight and address this stereotype. Stormzy highlights the vulnerability of young, black men to becoming victims of knife and gang crime in the UK and his wearing of the stab-proof vest draws attention to how this stereotype of these men as violent is wrong and must be challenged. He is not saying that they are criminals, but the victims. To say that he is reinforcing negative stereotypes misses the mark of the whole piece.

It is important to note that Stormzy has a generally young fanbase, but to suggest that they have misunderstood the purpose of the stab-proof vest is to suggest that they are unaware of the socio-economic problems affecting the country they live in which is inaccurate. Many of Stormzy’s fans may live in areas that fall victim to heavy knife crime, and this is who Stormzy is speaking to and wishing to influence in making society better. It is important to have discussions about gang crime and violence, and art is a great way of doing this. 

The importance of the piece is that conversations are created

Other items at Banksy’s pop-up shop also use art as a medium for expressing social and political discontent. His satirical painting of chimpanzees running Parliament looks at the failure of politicians and is most definitely pointing to the chaos surrounding Brexit. 

As soon as I saw Stormzy walk onto the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury with the Union Jack stab-proof vest, I couldn’t help but applaud him for making such a bold statement. I found the collaboration between Banksy and Stormzy incredibly powerful and thought it was done in such a great way. Concerns with representations of violence and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes are valid, but the importance of the piece is that conversations are created, and that people understand the socio-political significance of the vest.

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