Graffiti art automatically comes with an inherent kind of risk. Not only is there the fact that the process is generally regarded as illegal, regardless of how beautiful the resulting work is, but there is the risk that the piece itself won't survive. Even fame and recognition doesn't seem to be a guarantee against these dangers, as the famous street artist Banksy discovered recently.
One of his most famous pieces is located in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, painted on a the side of a house surrounding a telephone booth. Entitled Spy Booth, it's a critique of the recent revelations of extensive government surveillance and spying that have rocked the world over the last few years.
The choice of location was no accident, as the GCHQ building is nearby, the headquarters of the British government surveillance system. But someone was clearly asleep at the switch when it came time to protect one of Banksy's most famous pieces, for the piece has been removed from its location and destroyed thanks to an unfortunate accident involving an urgent home repair.
Interestingly enough, this isn't the first time Spy Booth has had some trouble. It has suffered numerous vandalism issues, which fortunately were repaired successfully. After the latest danger, the Cheltenham Borough Council decided to grant it retrospective planning consent in 2015, which establishes it as a protected work. In theory, this should make it more difficult to remove - but it can't protect it against accidents.
The council's enforcement manager, Mark Nelson, explains: "We have endeavoured to protect the Banksy as much as possible and to this end the notice required the owner to have due regard for the mural whilst works were being undertaken. We were aware of loose render on that part of the building but the extent and how far it would affect the mural was unknown until work progressed. We would advise anyone against removing any further pieces from the location as this may be classed as a criminal offence."
David Possee, the owner of the house, had reportedly been offered upwards of a million pounds for the artwork, which he declined. Hopefully, this piece can be restored by the council or by Banksy himself, but perhaps it should be regarded as a lesson in the impermanence of the street art medium.
You'll no doubt recall our recent post on Banksy's latest installation project, a massive undertaking dubbed 'Dismaland', a riff on the famous American theme park Disneyland. The project ran for five weeks, from August 22 to Sept 26, and sold out it's 4000 available daily tickets every single day that it was in operation, an impressive feat in and of itself. Banksy apparently called the installation 'crap', but if anyone knows how quickly the public eats up his work, it's him.
Now that the installation has run its course, however, there is a new plan in place for the remnants of the installation. It was incredibly large, though nowhere close to the size of the park it's cheekily mocking, and now Banksy finds himself in possession of a huge amount of raw building materials that can easily be repurposed. So what's a politically aware street artist to do?
It turns out that he's willing to put his money where his mouth is, and has decided to dismantle the park and ship all the materials to Calais, France, where a huge number of migrants fleeing strife in the Middle East have congregated. The camp in Calais, known as The Jungle due its incredibly high rate of crime and terrible living conditions, is temporary home to an estimated 5,000 refugees at the moment, and that number is only likely to rise.
The website for the project, dismaland.co.uk, has now been updated with the photo shown above and a brief message, which reads:
“All the timber and fixtures from Dismaland are being sent to the Jungle refugee camp near Calais to build shelters. No online tickets will be available.”
It's a strange world we live in, where a mock theme park (a 'bemusement park', as Banksy put it) filled with anarchist training courses selling hacking kits run by a political activist artist is going to do more to help refugees than governments do. Admittedly, governments tend to have more hoops to go through, but that doesn't make the human cost any lower. Here's hoping that others will follow Banksy's good example and try to contribute what they can to alleviate people's suffering. Not that he's the only one helping, of course - many brave and compassionate volunteers around the world are helping every day without getting a whit of credit - but it's nice to see people continuing to step up to the plate.
The world just can't get enough Banksy. From fighting over the rights to spraypaint scrawls on walls to outright thefts of public property to million dollar auction prices, Banksy is one of the most well-known disruptive influences in the current art world (whether this is a blessing or a curse depends on which part of the gamut you're in). The satirical lampooning of popular culture and media icons continues in his latest project, a massively scaled installation titled Dismaland Bemusement Park.
Set up in the English coastal town Weston-super-Mare in the south-east part of the country, the grey skies most often seen above the park seem perfectly suited to a grim, bleak mockery of Disneyland, the famous American theme park that refers to itself as 'The Happiest Place on Earth'. The entire place is a monument to the destruction of ersatz happiness: the castle centerpiece of the real Disneyland has been reconstructed and burned down, and the entire place is strewn with the gritty underside of the world - that which we pretend to ignore yet obsess over compulsively, and that which is just downright alarming. Cinderella's coach has crashed into a building and is surrounded by paparazzi, while children are offered advance payroll loans on their allowance.
There's more to the installation than just sending up Disney, however, as there are several galleries contained within the installation itself. Showcasing works from Jenny Holzer, Damien Hirst, and a number of other artists whose pieces were felt to support the underlying premise of the "park", over 50 in total from around the world. Banksy also has several new pieces on display, the most poignant of which is presented as a game, where visitors pilot boats filled with migrants through corpse-riddled waters. Definitely much grimmer than the real deal, it nevertheless sparks much more thought, debate, and dialog. Even the gift shop is more novel, where it's supposedly even possible to pick up a kit designed to hack bus stop billboard displays - no word on the price, however
Tickets to Dismaland are limited to 4000 per day, and cost under $5, meaning that they're likely to be sold out each and every day. It opened on August 22, but it will only be open until September 27, so be sure to get in there while you have the chance. It might not be the happiest place on earth, but it sure is the most interesting for the moment!
For a long, long time, street art struggled to shake off the public perception that it was nothing more than flagrant vandalism with a coat of paint. With the help of a large and dedicated community, along with more prominent individual artists such as Banksy who have grown into almost household names, street art is finally beginning to be accepted as a legitimate art form, one who may be more true to the emotive and impactful nature of art that much of what is being produced in more traditional art spheres.
Sometimes, however, it's impossible to shake off the reality that vandalism, graffiti and street art all share a common root and may suffer the same ills. This was never more true than last month, when the last surviving piece of street art by Banksy in Germany was defaced by a vandal. The piece, a stencil entitled 'Bomb Hugger', found on a concrete pillar in Hamburg, had actually been protected by a local arts group, the Spiegelberger Foundation, in 2011 to prevent just this sort of casual destruction. A piece of clear plexiglass was riveted around the edges of the work, preventing most of the potential damages, but the clever vandal figured out a way around this - using spray paint. The word 'graffiti' was spray painted thickly just above the upper edge of the plexiglass, so thickly that paint dripped down from the letters and seeped in behind the cover to drip down over the stencil itself
While there is a certain frustrating yet undeniable irony that the vandal spray painted the word 'graffiti', some small voice in the back of the mind wonders if this might not be a stunt by Banksy himself in response to the sudden fame that has found him. Alternatively, now that Banksy pieces are becoming quite valuable to collectors, it's possible that someone is attempted to drive up the value of their own pieces by destroying others that are outside of the traditional protections afforded to most artwork by galleries and their accompanying security staff.
It's hard to tell if it's casual insensitivity, a calculated plot, or who knows what, but inexplicable the Hamburg police department insists that the piece was undamaged by the vandalism, although it appears now that the majority of the blue spraypaint has been removed and the piece has been restored as much as possible.
Street art has some truly messy roots, even by the standards of the art world. Essentially starting out of the graffiti movement (if it can even be called that in its infancy), the works were inherently illegal from the very beginning. An entire subculture was spawned outside of the realms of the supposedly civilized art world, and like all subcultures, it developed its own rules and social taboos. One of them involved the taboo of painting over another's work - provided it was a genuine work of art (by the standards of the subculture). It was still done, of course, but it wasn't merely accepted practice but could be taken slap in the face of the artist whose work was being covered up. However, there grows a kind of interplay between the various artists if they don't know each other, a kind of narrative that is established by their interactions with each other through their works.
Banksy, of course, changed the entire world of street art by becoming a valuable commodity. When street art was treated as a public nuisance, nobody in the dominant culture paid any attention to the squabbles of those they saw as essentially criminals. But once Banksy appeared and captured the hearts, minds and dollar bills of the art-loving public, street art suddenly began to get noticed. A number of thorny and tangled legal issues emerged, such as the ownership of a work created partly using materials owned by someone else (say, the wall of the youth centre we mentioned in our last Banksy article). So when Banksy's latest work, Girl with the Pierced Eardrum, a takeoff on Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer, the art world is in a bit of a dither as to how to respond.
Frank Malt, one of the most noted authorities on street art and street artists in the UK, said “Banksy puts the work up for the public to enjoy but people are exploiting it. People think it’s fun to deface Banksy’s work because they may get a name for themselves. Girl with the Pierced Eardrum could have been defaced by anyone – it could have been kids wanting a bit of attention."
The interesting thing is that there has yet to be a reaction from Banksy as to how he feels about the supposed defacement. It's not like he can really place any formal objections to how his work is treated, as it is still technically criminal in nature. However, it would change the entire nature of his work if he started creating it for the express purpose of building a dialog or narrative with other artists. How cool would that be?
By now, it's almost inevitable that you've heard of the street artist named Banksy. Whether just from reading this blog, or your own personal interest in his work, it's impossible to deny the fact that he has been one of the major driving forces behind the acceptance of street art into the world of high culture. After getting a start 20 years ago in Bristol, UK, Banksy has since graced some of the world's leading art galleries and auction houses with his work, all while maintaining a sly sense of notoriety - though whether or not this can be considered more than a marketing ploy at this point is up for debate.
One of the most interesting consequences of his style of work, however, is the question of ownership. If a kid with a spray can and a stencil creates a piece of work, typically it's either ignored, or eventually removed by a town council's anti-graffiti group. When the artist behind a stenciled piece is an internationally renowned figure, however, people start to sit up and take notice.
But who owns the piece? If Banksy had created his work on canvas he bought, naturally he would be considered the owner by copyright law. But considering that he uses real property that belongs to someone else (and without their consent), does the piece automatically become the property of the owner of the building or structure that acts as canvas?
This question was recently highlighted by a Banksy piece that appeared on the wall of a community centre in Bristol, back where the phenom got his start. The piece, which was apparently titled 'Mobile Lovers', was initially released in an Instagram photo, which fans finally tracked down to the Broad Plain Boys youth centre using digital sleuthing techniques that included Google Street View.
Within a few hours of the piece being properly discovered, however, members of the youth centre had removed it from the wall with a crowbar and set it up inside. While they are allowing anyone free access to view the piece, they are requesting a voluntary donation to help keep the centre up and running.
It will be interesting to see what they plan to do with the piece in the long term, as Banksy originals have been fetching large sums of money at auction houses all over the world - although there may be some complex legal implications if they do attempt to auction the piece.
As we mentioned in our previous post, street has come an incredibly long way towards being accepted, albeit somewhat paradoxically, as part of the mainstream art world. Despite being forged in the underground (often literally - take a look at a New York City subway train next time you happen to be in town), it has recently begun to blossom into psychedelically coloured gallery spaces throughout much of the art world, and even reaching film festivals, as we'll see in Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film.
One of the most celebrated art documentaries in recent years, Exit Through the Gift Shop debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 to excellent critical reception. The first feature-length film by the only street artist most people can name, Exit Through the Gift Shop rapidly expanded in fame and prominence. It details the story of a videography-obsessed store owner who happens to be related to an extremely famous street artist who goes by the name 'Space Invader'. Visiting home in France, he films his cousin at work and the work itself, and eventually reaches out to Shepard Fairey, the American street artist, and the two travel across the United States filming a huge variety of work. Eventually, they meet up with Banksy, they put on a show, and all sorts of excellent hijinks ensue that we won't spoil for you here.
The film itself, narrated by Rhys Ifans, is a true joy to watch, and sticks with you for quite some time after the credits roll. Amusingly enough, the real Banksy is slightly less than willing to come right out and say how much of the film (if any) is actually true documentary, or whether the entire thing is actually what's known as a mockumentary (think "This is Spinal Tap"). Considering the sly gutter smirk that barely hides behind every piece of work Banksy has ever done, it's not hard to imagine that the entire film is an elaborate joke being played by an artist who doesn't truly feel - and doesn't want to feel - a part of the more "traditional" artistic community.
The only way to decide for yourself, of course, is to see the film. No matter what you wind up believing (believe that Banksy isn't going to drawn out to say one way or the other), there is something truly inspiring about the types of work that Banksy does, and you may find yourself even more eager than usual to get back into the studio (or the street corner) after you finish watching. Enjoy!