L ove is in the Air is a quintessential Banksy painting. The image of a masked militant poised to hurl a bouquet of flowers has become synonymous with the artist's indelible graphic style. One of Banksy’s most coveted works on canvas, it is an archetypal example of the artist’s use of dark humour, satire, and his perceptive, stimulating commentaries on contemporary political and social events. The work shares its title with the 1978 hit song by John Paul Young, emblematic of Banksy’s wit and expressive of the positive message of the work. The iconic flower thrower has become a powerful message expressing the absurdity of war and the artist’s vocal advocacy for peace.
In its original guerrilla iteration near the West Bank Barrier, Love is in the Air testifies to Banksy’s unique ability to activate urban environments and public architecture in a way that supercharges his message, lending his images a searing immediacy which extends far beyond all those who live in or visit the region, juxtaposing the active gesture of protest with the reconciliatory symbol of a flower bouquet. The image illustrated the front cover of Banksy’s 2005 monograph Wall and Piece, and within the book, it was accompanied by a passage on the toppling of the regime of President Ceausescu of Romania as told by John Simpson for BBC News.
“I like to think I have the guts to stand up anonymously in a western democracy and call for things no-one else believes in – like peace and justice and freedom.”
Banksy is known for his striking, tongue-in-cheek street art and pacifist images. Opposition to militarism and war are key themes explored throughout his oeuvre, juxtaposing symbols of peace with images of violence to jolt the viewer from complacency. This can be seen in many of the artist’s graffiti works, particularly in those executed in the early 2000s, from the image of Mona Lisa holding a rocket launcher which appeared on a wall in Soho in 2001, to the little girl cradling a missile in Banksy’s iconic Bomb Hugger, and the banana-wielding protagonists of the artist’s Pulp Fiction. The anti-war sentiment of Love is in the Air is compounded by the work's visual echoes of the flower power movement and the student protests which took place in France and American in the 60's. The youthful subject throwing flowers as his weapon reminds us of the famous 1967 photograph of a young protester placing a flower in the barrel of a rifle pointed at his head during an anti-war demonstration. With this now-iconic image, Banksy offers us a universal message: that we must harness the virtues of peace in order to overcome the division and conflict that surround us and look ahead to a hopeful future.
The imagery of Love is in the Air first appeared on the side of a garage in Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town east of Bethlehem, close to 708-kilometre wall that separates Israel from the West Bank territories of Palestine. Banksy executed a number of graffiti works on the wall shortly after its construction in 2002, calling out social and political injustice and the effects of terrorism and militarism. Banksy has been very prolific and active in the region, dedicated in his mission to highlight the militarism and division caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many works by the artist have popped up in Gaza and the West Bank since the mid-2000s, and in 2017, Banksy opened The Walled Off Hotel alongside the Barrier Wall in Bethlehem, billing it as having “the worst view of any hotel in the world”.
“All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.”
The radiant, hand-painted flowers of Love is in the Air are a unique feature rarely seen in Banksy’s oeuvre. It presents a contrast between the softness of the artist’s delicately painted flowers and the sharpness of the spray-painted militant figure, reminding us of the artist’s hand in the quasi-mechanized process of creating stenciled images. The use of stenciling and spray paint evokes graffiti’s association with underground political movements and punk culture, and its employment in grassroots activism.
Executed in 2006, Love is in the Air was created after Banksy’s foray into oils in his series of vandalised oil paintings, Crude Oils: A Gallery of Re-mixed Masterpieces, Vandalism and Vermin (2005), a departure from his signature street interventions and archetypal graffiti using spray paint and stencils. In Love is in the Air, Banksy uses both oil paint and spray paint within the same image, making it one of the artist’s most cherished works on canvas.
With works such as Love is in the Air, Banksy joins an important lineage of artists who have used their art to comment on pressing political and social issues, from Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, created after the July Revolution of 1830 as a symbol for liberty and democracy; to Andy Warhol’s use of stencils to subvert often highly political images from popular culture, as seen in Race Riot from 1964; and the many artists who have taken to the streets to disseminate their message for the world to see. The imagery of Love is in the Air has been frequently replicated and reproduced in popular culture, making this work an important, highly-sought after example from the illustrious street artist’s compelling, thought-provoking oeuvre. Today, the powerful message of Love is in the Air remains as pertinent as ever.