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A new mural by Banksy appeared on the exterior wall of a defunct prison in Reading. (all images via Banksy’s Instagram)

Blockbuster street artist Banksy has laid claim to his latest work of public art — an olde tyme prison escape stenciled on the wall of the defunct HM Reading Prison in Reading, Berkshire, England. The prison, also known as Reading Gaol, was built in 1844 and operated until early 2014. Until this week, it was perhaps most famous for housing writer Oscar Wilde during a two-year imprisonment (1895-1897) after a conviction for “gross indecency.” Following his release, Wilde published The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a poem that narrates the 1896 hanging of Charles Thomas Woodridge, convicted of murdering his wife.

The Banksy mural features a figure in prison stripes and a cap. He appears to be climbing down the exterior brick wall on a rope ladder instead of a ream of paper, anchored by a typewriter. The image is likely an allusion to Wilde as Reading’s famous inmate and his subsequent poetic work that both documents Woodridge’s hanging while also identifying with him as a fellow prisoner.

A video released on March 4 documents the elusive street artist applying the mural.
Though the figure on the wall can only be thought to resemble Oscar Wilde in the most generic terms, the presence of the typewriter and written sheaf of paper indicate the connection.

The artist left his work open to speculation for a few days before taking to Instagram with a video documenting the mural’s clandestine application, with narration supplemented by overlay from Bob Ross’s famous public access painting program, The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. The audio selections first seem to merely narrate the creation of the mural, details of which are captured in the tight halo of the artist’s headlamp, but once we cut to shots of the mural in full view the following day, the audio clips telegraph the artist’s statement on the work.

The prison, which was decommissioned in 2013 and put up for sale by the city in 2019, is now being considered as an arts building.

“Painting, to me, represents freedom,” says Ross, as we watch our escaping inmate and take in the full scale of the wall meant to contain him. “I can create the kind of world that I want to see and that I want to be part of.”

A drone shot pans up and over the wall to show the empty prison yard with wire-topped fences.

“We just want to show you a technique and let you loose on the world,” says Ross. “Just absolutely let you loose on the world.” The video cuts to police officers encountering the mural.
“That really is the fun part of this whole technique,” Ross concludes.

Oh, Big Brother, Banksy is watching you!

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....