As 1999 drew to a close, an emerging artist who had been cutting his teeth in the Bristol underground scene was invited to southern Spain. A freehand graffiti artist at the time, he was propositioned to paint a Volvo lorry for a warehouse party that would take place on New Year’s Eve, a frenzied Y2K celebration that would usher in the new century and millennium.
On that night, working onstage beneath bright spotlights, the artist began to spray layers of paint onto the large vehicle. But the piece was not completed; over the course of the next two weeks, he continued his work in a prototypical free-hand style, covering the Volvo with images steeped in anarchy and the characters he would soon become known for.
The artist was Banksy, of course, and the Volvo, once completed, became a work of art known as Turbo Zone Truck (Laugh Now But One Day We’ll Be in Charge).
This work of art was commissioned by Mojo, the co-founder of Turbozone International Circus. The company, known for its pyrotechnics, would go on to tour the truck throughout Europe and South America; according to the BBC, it served as part of the transport for Turbozone’s production of Cinderella.
Banksy is known for his defiance of traditional form, shirking white canvas in favour of walls, public spaces, and makeshift surfaces. It is fitting that this piece loses none of its utility in the act of becoming art. The vehicle is a 17-ton 1988 Volvo FL6. Trucks in the Volvo FL series, which the brand has been producing since 1985, are the smallest Volvo trucks and are generally used for local and regional distribution operations, construction, fire engines, and waste collection. It is a symbol of the working class, the sort of blue-collar operations upon which society functions, making it a rather fitting canvas for the artist and activist.
Fans of Banksy’s work over the years will recognize some of his most sought-after characters upon the truck: winged monkeys and SWAT teams, for instance. According to Bonhams, the auction house through which the truck was recently up for sale, these are thought to be some of the first appearances of his now-famous icons. Also present are song lyrics and machinery paraphernalia: wheels, gears, etc. On one side of the truck, a spiky-haired worker wields a mallet over a television set. “In a field dominated by tags and trademarks,” Bonhams describes via the item’s lot, “the symbols of Banky’s practice are fundamental to his formal vocabulary, making this, the earliest iteration of some of these central themes, a truly significant motorcar and work of art.”
While much of Banksy’s work defies the idea of tags and signatures, Turbo Zone Truck is actually signed twice in stencil. It is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Pest Control Office, the cheekily named handling service for Banksy’s artwork. The organization serves as the only official authenticator of Banksy’s work; the artist is not represented by any other gallery or institution. The work is also featured in Banksy’s book, Wall and Piece (2005).
Banksy is, of course, not the first artist to transform a motor vehicle into a work of art. Since 1975, BMW has been commissioning artists for its ongoing Art Car series. An initiative introduced by French race car driver and auctioneer Herve Poulain, the series has produced vehicles transformed by some of the most noteworthy artists of the twentieth century: Henry Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koons, to name a few.
The piece was set at a guide price of between £1m and £1.5m. This would seem to be a fair price, given that his work Keep it Spotless sold at a Sotheby’s New York Charity Auction in 2008 for $1.87 million and Girl with a Balloon sold for $1.4 million before meeting its now-infamous (semi) demise. However, the truck failed to sell at auction on September 14th. According to the BBC, a spokeswoman has shared that the auction house is now considering a number of offers made after the sale.
Curious to learn more about Banksy’s radical work? Check out the artist’s Walled Off Hotel, a controversial hotel in Bethlehem, Palestine, built right beside the West Bank barrier.