Banksy’s Graffiti Art Reveals Insights about Perceptual Surface Completion

in Art & Perception
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Kanizsa’s square may be the best known example of perceptual surface completion: a whole shape is perceived where only fragments of its bounding contour are present. But surface completion also plays a major role in perceiving whole objects from binarized pictures (‘two-tone’ images) such as Mooney faces. The binarization often causes lighter facets of the objects to merge with the background (or darker facets, for dark backgrounds), yet perceptually those regions appear figural, distinctly segregated from the background. For Kanizsa surfaces, it has been long known that perceptual completion is greatly reduced when the inducers are placed on a patterned background (e.g., a checkerboard). Here we show that patterned backgrounds produce detrimental effects on perceptual completion also in the case of two-tone images. Although this effect has not been previously described in the perception literature, analysis of a large corpus of work by the graffiti artist Banksy suggests that the type and condition of the background wall significantly affected his artistic choices. To minimize on-site production time, Banksy renders his famous subjects (e.g., the rat) by applying single-color paint over pre-fabricated stencils. When the wall is smooth, Banksy leaves the regions previously covered by the stencil unpainted, relying on observers’ perception to segregate figural regions from the (identically colored) background. But when the wall is patterned with large-scale luminance edges — e.g., due to bricks — Banksy takes the extra time to fill in unpainted figural regions with another color. This reveals the artist’s insight into perceptual processing, although it remains unknown whether the knowledge of the crucial effect of background patterns on perceptual completion is explicit or implicit.



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  • Placing the inducers of a Kanizsa square on a patterned background impairs the perception of an occluding square and eliminates its illusory bounding contours. (Adapted from Ramachandran et al., 1994.)

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  • (A) Patterned backgrounds impair perceptual surface completion also for two-tone images such as Mooney faces, hampering spontaneous recognition. (Compare with Mooney’s original image in panel 2B.) (B) The original version of the image shown in 2A (two-tone face #13 in Mooney, 1957).

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  • Examples from each of the four categories [i]–[iv] used to classify Banksy’s artworks, based on how objects were rendered. (A) Single-tone paint applied to a homogeneous wall. (B) Single-tone paint applied to a patterned wall. (C) Multi-tone paint applied to a homogeneous wall. (D) Multi-tone paint applied to a patterned wall. (See online Supplementary Appendix for a complete list of artworks in each category and identification of the examples used here; panels A, B present detail of a larger work.)

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  • In this artwork (belonging to category [iv]), Banksy applies an additional color paint (yellow) as a primer before applying black paint over the stencil. The license taken to leave ‘sloppy’, blurry boundaries may be indicative of the artist’s insight about region-based brain processes (see text).

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  • Careful placement of the inducers on a patterned background can restore perception of an occluding Kanizsa square (panel A, adapted from Ramachandran et al., 1994). But this would not work for voluminous objects, since the image produced by any line marking changes curvature with viewpoint (panel B, adapted from Lanman et al., 2009; here, a grid of straight narrow shadows was cast on the scene from one position, and the photograph was taken from another point).

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  • An early example of a depiction of a Mooney-like face. (Julius Gipkens, ‘Schützt Eure Heimat!’ [Protect Your Homeland]. Germany, ca. 1918–1923.)

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