Painted on a monumental scale, Toxic Mary (double), 2003, is a spare, poignant work from the world-renowned street artist Bansky, whose identity, even after more than twenty years of his guerrilla graffiti works, remains unknown. Against a ground of shimmering gold, the artist has painted the Virgin Mary cradling baby Jesus, here shown as a mirror image that has been doubled across the canvas. Both Marys feed their babies from orange hazard bottles, and above their heads hover two rifle sight devices. In the heavens, a single star hangs as airplanes roar below. The work was included in Banksy’s first gallery presentation Turf War, held in a warehouse in East London; the now-infamous exhibition was closed by the police two days after it opened. Hoping to maintain his anonymity, Banksy himself did not attend the exhibition, saying ‘I'm assuming the cops will come down at some point but I'll be long gone by then’ (Banksy quoted in C. Weaver and L. Leitch, ‘Hottest artist around’, Evening Standard, 18 July 2003, https://www.standard.co.uk/showbiz/hottest-artist-around-6964382.html).
Banky’s signature use of multi-layered stencils was inspired by a run in with the cops at eighteen. Fleeing the police one evening, he hid underneath a garbage truck where he studied the lettering on the side of the cabin door. Using both stencils and spray paint, he crafts a highly legible and instantly recognizable visual language evident in Toxic Mary (double). The resulting lines are fiercely crisp, befitting an aesthetic that is brazen, political and outspoken. Indeed, part of the appeal of the stencils comes from the history of the repeatedly-traced image: as the artist remembered, ‘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, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-story-behind-banksy-4310304/). Certainly, his subjects are often wry and sardonic, blending together philosophy, politics and satire. For the artist, graffiti is both a totem to the present moment and a clarion call for change. As Banksy said in a rare interview, ‘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).