First Look at the “Unauthorized,” Interactive “Banksy Was Here” Exhibit

Original works, large-scale projection, and interactivity combine at Fashion District to explore the anonymous street artist’s world.


Love is in the Air by Banksy on display at “Banksy Was Here” exhibit / Photograph courtesy of Exhibition Hub

The work of elusive, anonymous street artist Banksy is coming to Philly in an immersive, multisensory exhibit featuring original works, projections, virtual reality and more to plunge you into his world. Running through January 31st at Fashion District Philadelphia, “Banksy Was Here,” the “unauthorized exhibition” features over 80 original works and installations, as well as interactivity, in galleries that pay homage to the artist’s themes, works, and sense of chaos, satire and controversy.

John Zaller, executive producer at Exhibition Hub, the curator and producer of the exhibit, tells me they picked Philly to premiere “Banksy Was Here” because of our “gritty personality,” celebration of street art, and rich collection of public art.

A Banksy quote opens the exhibit, and Zaller commented that it reminds him of Philly:

“Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet.”

In more nods to Philly, some of the graffiti elements re-created in the exhibit were done by local artists, and the antique furniture was sourced from Philly-area shops.

A gallery in “Banksy Was Here” / Photograph by Laura Swartz

Speaking of that furniture, the exhibit communicates the themes of Banksy’s work in a visceral way, down to details like decor. It begins with an entrance reminiscent of a hotel lobby, with ornate wallpaper and lush furnishings. This is repeated in the exhibit’s re-creation of Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel, an actual hotel he opened in Bethlehem, Palestine, overlooking Israel’s West Bank barrier wall.

Re-creation of the Walled Off Hotel by Banksy / Photograph courtesy of Exhibition Hub

The juxtaposition goes deeper, Zaller says, to highlight an oft-repeated Banksy trope: “Old World context with New World problems, many of which were created by the Old World.”

And if you’re unfamiliar with Banksy’s body of work or the themes running through it, the next room will quickly bring you up to speed. This is the room where you’ll be immersed in projection, with an 11-minute animation taking you through the history of the artist’s life (what we know of it, anyway), politics, and major projects (all of which will be explored later in the exhibit). This room will likely be difficult for those with photosensitivity or other sensory issues, as well as children who might find the imagery or noise jarring.

Projection room / Photograph by Laura Swartz

Wait, children? Yes, though your mileage may vary, and you should be prepared to have some interesting discussions provoked by the works. And Dismaland‘s cheeky, twisted vision of a Disney theme park might be a bit startling, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Don’t go expecting Candytopia — the space’s former resident — and you won’t be disappointed. I sneaked in ahead of opening with my eight-year-old, a city kid well-acquainted with museums but who also has a whole lot of energy. The interactive elements keep the experience fresh.

Stencil station in “Banksy Was Here” / Photograph by Laura Swartz

Expect lots of photo ops — including iconic red telephone boxes you can enter — and activities like a graffiti room where guests are encouraged to use Sharpies to make their mark on the exhibit. There’s also a “Stencil Station” with bins of chalk dust and stencils so you can try your hand at re-creating some of Banksy’s most recognizable and classic pieces.

Met Ball by Banksy, made from an old riot gear helmet and disco ball / Photograph by Laura Swartz

For another glimpse into his creative process, you’ll find a Banksy’s studio, painstakingly re-created in impressive detail based on the one he set up in the Bristol Museum for a 2009 exhibit, as well as from images of the studio shown in his 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop. “Banksy fans will love ‘Banksy Was Here’ because of the dedication that our team took to be as true to the artist’s approach as we could be,” says Zaller. “From the moment you enter to the moment you leave, we place you in environments that evoke the authenticity and the irony of Banksy’s works while also curating the collection in a way that is accessible to all.”

Re-creation of Banksy’s studio / Photograph by Laura Swartz

Finally, for yet another way to experience the world of Banksy, the exhibit ends with an optional virtual-reality walk through the streets of Bristol, as his work is animated onto the walls of the rundown cityscape. The VR element requires a VIP ticket, which will cost a little more.

So, why is the exhibit “unauthorized?” I admit, I was slightly hesitant when I learned of this. I love immersive and installation art when it is intentionally created as such (e.g., Wonderspaces), but am generally more skeptical of the recent, Emily in Paris-fueled rise of projection-heavy “experiences” that repurpose work that’s fallen into the public domain. Besides, Bansky does not authorize exhibitions of his art. “They might be crap so please don’t come to us for a refund,” he writes on his Pest Control Office website.

Much like the complex themes Banksy explores, however, I considered the contradiction. He is staunchly anti-capitalist, yet he sells his work for millions and licenses it for merchandise. (The exhibit does have a gift shop, in case you were wondering. And yes, you do exit through it.) And since the works in “Banksy Was Here” are on loan from private owners and galleries, the exhibit is, ironically, the only way the larger public can hope to see them. He’s come a long way from the walls of Bristol, is what I’m saying.

“Banksy Was Here” gift shop / Photograph by Laura Swartz

“Banksy Was Here” runs from December 3, 2022 through January 31, 2023 at 901 Market Street in Fashion District Philadelphia. Timed tickets are on sale, and are $37.90 for adults (ages 13 and up) and $22.90 for kids ages four to 12. (To add on the VR element, get the VIP tickets, which are $49.90 and $29.90, respectively.) The exhibit is free for children three and under, but kids that young likely won’t enjoy it. Walking through the two-floor exhibit will take you about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on your speed and whether you add on the VR part at the end.