Grin Reaper is a limited edition screen print by Banksy that was released in 2005 as an edition of just 300 signed prints. It is one of the artist’s earliest and most recognisable works, depicting the skeletal figure of the Grim Reaper.
Holding his traditional scythe and seated casually upon a large clock face, the traditional hooded visage of Death has been disconcertingly replaced with a bright yellow smiley face. Banksy originally painted this image on Old Street in East London, the same neighbourhood where the artist first tagged with the DryBreadZ Crew. Unfortunately, the original mural was whitewashed in 2007.
Grin Reaper is rendered in the artist’s iconic style, consisting of black and white stencilled forms on a monochromatic background. The clock, imitating London’s iconic Big Ben, reads five minutes to midnight, as if the Reaper is waiting for the hour to strike before carrying out his morbid duties. The flat, yellow smiley face stands out as the only brightly coloured element of the whole screen print.
Generally associated with ’90s rave and acid-house culture, the smiley face presents the sinister Reaper as a pseudo-friendly character, playing with the boundaries between good and evil. In fact, this mask with its empty grimace could be seen as equally menacing.
Banksy’s satirical twist has been read as a didactic metaphor for the contribution of human activity towards impending global catastrophe. This is implied by the time on the clock, which conveys that an irrevocable end is nigh. The predominance of black in the composition further reinforces this gloomy message.
The smiley face, a recurring theme in Banksy’s art also seen in Flying Copper and Have a Nice Day, mocks the doomed audience and their inevitable fate. The Reaper figure is another recurring theme for Banksy, who has frequently revisited the figure of death throughout his career, for example as a sculpture for the artist’s New York residency Better Out Than In, and as another important graffiti piece The Grim Reaper which is painted on the side of the Thekla social boat in Bristol.