Using the work of Banksy within the EFL classroom

Barry Kavanagh (Tohoku University)

Banksy is an enigmatic and prolific street artist who rose to prominence in the early 2000s

with his thought-provoking creations that blend social commentary, satire, and wit.

Many of Banksy’s pieces carry a strong social or political message. He often addresses issues such as war, poverty, government surveillance, and corporate greed. Banksy’s art has reached a global audience and has appeared in various cities worldwide. Despite his anonymity, his impact on the art world and popular culture is significant.

Banksy’s work is primarily found in public spaces like walls, bridges, and buildings. This choice of canvas allows his art to be accessible to a wide audience, transcending the traditional confines of galleries and museums. However, this has sparked debates about the role of street art in contemporary society, the boundaries between vandalism and art, and the power of visual communication to convey important messages.

His artwork can provide an interesting and engaging topic for an ESL class, especially at the University level. Utilizing Banksy’s work can help students explore various aspects of language, culture, and critical thinking. Most university students have heard of Banksy and are familiar with some of his more popular and famous artwork, including “Mobile Lovers” (2014), which depicts a couple embracing while checking their smartphones. It comments on the impact of technology on human relationships. “The Flower Thrower” (2003) is another iconic piece that shows a man in a rioter pose, but instead of throwing a Molotov cocktail, he is throwing a bunch of flowers. It’s a powerful image that contrasts violence with beauty. “There Is Always Hope” (2002) is another one of his famous works, which you can find sold as merchandise. Often referred to as the “Balloon Girl,” this image features a girl letting go of a balloon with the words “There Is Always Hope” next to her. It’s a widely recognized symbol of optimism.

Using Banksy’s art in the ESL classroom can be a creative and engaging way to teach students how to make inferences and learn about connotative vocabulary in context. Banksy’s works often contain social and political messages, making them rich material for discussion and possible interpretation. Students can be pre-taught the vocabulary and the background context needed to interpret his work and then make inferences based on what they see in his artwork, along with the student’s prior knowledge that they bring to their exploration of his artwork.

Students can also be provided with original reading passages covering the polarizing nature of Banksy’s work into passages that praise and are critical of him. It is a good opportunity for students to see how positive and negative connotations are used in context to convey opinions and interpretations of his work. For example, the social commentary of Banky’s work is sometimes described as insightful, but is it thought-provoking or superficial and simplistic? Students can also use such vocabulary to formulate their own opinions, and it lends itself well to student discussion and opinion essays such as ‘Banksy is just a vandal. Do you agree or disagree?

I have used Banksy’s work in the above ways, and students have found it engaging and interesting. If the activities are adequately scaffolded and level-conscious, it can give students a chance to express themselves as well as review language skills such as making inferences and using positive or negative connotations in context.

With the advancement of globalization, one of the objectives of Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology (MEXT) is to nurture globally-minded university graduates who excel in English communication, media literacy, and critical thinking skills.

The emphasis, therefore, is on developing students’ ability to think and express themselves in English. The focus is not only on their acquisition of knowledge of the English language but also on what they can do in English. Using works such as Banksy’s, which address many contemporary and global issues, can challenge students both cognitively and linguistically.