When I moved back to north London last summer, I noticed a new sign had appeared by the exit of my nearest underground station.
Scrawled on a white board, tube station staff had written directions for those who wanted to find their way to the area’s new – and only – Bansky mural: a stencil of a child sewing together Union-flag bunting. It was seen as a statement on the Queen’s upcoming jubilee and child labour.
The tube-station sign implied there had been a lot of interest in the work, with people going out of their way to see it. “Finally, a tourist attraction in Wood Green!” I joked on Facebook at the time, and duly went to snap a picture, as many other residents had done and continued to do.
The fact that the mural was found here, on the side of a Poundland store, felt like a statement in itself.
A few months later, a work by Shepard Fairey – allegedly – appeared nearby.
Two of the biggest names in street art picking Turnpike Lane, not some trendy part of Hackney? No one could have predicted that. Would others follow? Would this give an often-overlooked area new kudos?
So, what happens when you rip Bansky’s “sweatshop boy” out of context and display it in a flash Miami auction house?
This is where it finds itself today, having being clandestinely removed from the wall last weekend, much to local dismay. In a few hours time, it will be finding its way into the hands of a private collector that has £450,000 to spare.
Like many locals, I was saddened on hearing this. Street art may not last forever (and Bansky himself has said it is not supposed to), but this seems like an unpleasant, money-grabbing approach. (Ironic given the apparently intended message regarding greed and inequality.)
We don’t know who the owner is and so can only speculate. Did they expect the backlash they have encountered? And, realistically, if someone knocked on your door and said they’d give you hundreds of thousands of pounds for a square of the wall you owned, would you be able to take the moral high ground and say ‘no’? I imagine whoever set up this deal put forward a very convincing case, insisting that its removal was necessary for preservation and historical record. Was the owner being greedy and touting it around? Or did someone hunt them down and insist they would be doing art a disservice if they *didn’t* sell?
There is yet more irony in the calls for the so-far-unnamed seller to step out of the shadows, when the artist himself has been working anonymously for years.
But a lot of people here in Wood Green are unhappy. The local councilor has stepped in to arrange protests. He’s contacted the gallery owner, the mayor of Miami, and the Art Council, and asked people to email their objections to the gallery. Yet the whole thing seems to have moved swiftly into farce when a stenciled rat appeared yesterday and people assumed it was a statement from the artist himself. The Daily Mail was among the first to hailed the rat as the work of Banksy; then it realised its mistake and swiftly changed the headline. The council, meanwhile, rushed out to cover it in protective perspex. I’m no expert, but even I could tell this was a really dodgy imitation, done with a very unsteady hand and looking suspiciously like it was created from a Banksy imitation stencil, as sold on ebay for £4.99.
Perhaps the Miami art dealers are now scoffing over their exhibition catalogues. “Ha, these fools don’t deserve decent street art if they don’t know the difference!”
The debate over who owns street art isn’t new. The whole debacle here in Wood Green reminds me of something very similar that happened not long ago in Buenos Aires.
Here’s a small explainer, which I once wrote for a magazine:
Buenos Aires has long had a reputation for its exceptional wall murals, but earlier this year something very peculiar started happened. Someone started stealing parts of them. The culprit would creep up and, using carefully applied resin, peel away key segments, leaving behind painted walls with one glaringly empty patch.
The city’s muralists were baffled. It was only after art had disappeared all over town that the culprit was finally revealed. A conceptual artist came forward and said he was using the jigsaw-like pieces for an exhibition of his own. He said he was exploring the concept of “vandalizing the vandals”.
This angered those who had seen their work ruined. Not because they opposed the idea – many actually quite liked its subversive nature – but more because they were never consulted. On the opening night of the contentious artist’s exhibition, all the works were lined up with hefty price tags and collectors began mingling. That’s when an unknown group decided to take revenge. They gatecrashed the party, set off a firealarm and, when everyone was outside, destroyed all exhibits. You could say they successfully vandalized the vandalizer of the vandals.
The commotion started off an interesting debate in the city about who owns the rights to graffiti. According to local specialists Graffiti Mundo, several Argentinian street artists have already successfully sued multi-national companies who incorporated their art in advertising campaigns without permission. Some of the scene’s key players were also quick to insist that they are not vandals at all and typically knock on doors first to ask if they can use the space.
Graffiti Mundo, who I mention here, run street-art tours and exhibitions, with respect for the artists and the community. On their website, you can also buy works through more legitimate means.
Below is a link to Paredes Robados (Stolen Walls), a fascinating documentary about the stolen graffiti in Buenos Aires.
Meanwhile, over in Miami, Banksy is about to go under the hammer …