Painted on a monumental scale, Toxic Mary, 2003, is a forceful, rousing work from the infamous street artist Bansky, whose identity, even after more than twenty years of guerrilla graffiti on walls around the world, remains anonymous. Toxic Mary, Banky’s reinterpretation of a Renaissance Madonna, is one of the artist’s most iconic motifs, first appearing in his clandestine exhibition Turf War, held in London’s Dalston neighbourhood in 2003. In the present work, he has depicted the Virgin Mary cradling baby Jesus, here shown as a double image that has been mirrored across the canvas. Both Marys feed their babies from orange hazard bottles, and, in the sky above, a ring of stars hangs as airplanes roar below; set against a gleaming white, all connotations of virtue and purity traditionally associated with the colour have been purged from the canvas. The work not only satirises the seemingly unimpeachable relationship between mother and child, but also the role of religion more broadly, which, viewed through Bankys’s sardonic eye, is presented not as sheltering force, but as a social poison. If astral imagery has historically been use as a symbol of the heavens, in Banky’s rendering, the divine circle has been broken; the corona borealis of Toxic Mary conjures an unreliable and noxious presence.
Instantly recognizable, Banky’s signature style resulted from an altercation with the police at age eighteen. Fleeing the officers one evening, the artist hid beneath a garbage truck, where he studied the lettering on the side of the cabin door. Using both stencils and spray paint, he has developed a highly legible visual idiom evident in Toxic Mary. The resulting lines are matte and sharp, befitting an approach that is daring, brazen and political. Indeed, part of the appeal of the stencils comes from the inherited history of the repeatedly traced image: as the artist explained, ‘As soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars’ (Banksy quoted in W. Ellesworth-Jones, ‘The Story Behind Banksy’, Smithsonian Magazines, February 2013). Certainly, his subjects and philosophies are refracted through a wry and derisive lens through which myriad meanings unfold. For the artist, graffiti serves as both a tribute to the present moment and an outspoken demand for revolution. As Banksy said, ‘Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw wherever they liked. Where the street was awash with a million colours and little phrases… A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business’ (Banksy quoted in L. Collins, ‘Banksy Was Here’, The New Yorker, 7 May 2007).