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On the 16th February a Banksy mural entitled ‘Slave Labour’ disappeared from a wall in North London. The word ‘disappeared’ needs to be used here, not only because it sounds excitingly mysterious but also because the piece wasn’t actually ‘stolen’; the owner of the art itself is completely debatable. Does it belong to the artist? The person who owns the wall? Maybe it belongs to the community it was made in, or is it simply anyone’s for the taking?
Residents of Wood Green were outraged at the disappearance and considered the mural a gift, as councillor Alan Strickland told the BBC “Banksy gave that piece of art to our community, and people came from all over London to see it.”
Isn’t it maybe a bit naïve to see the work as a thoughtful gift to the community from big famous Banksy? After all, graffiti in the UK is on the whole considered vandalism, and I’m sure the residents of Wood Green would be more than happy for an angsty teenager’s sprayed discontentment and anger towards the world to be mysteriously whisked away. But this is Banksy we’re talking about here, and Banksy’s an artist so of course everything he does has some sort of deep conceptual meaning; therefore his work is naturally superior to all other graffiti art, right? The mural appeared on a wall of Poundland just before the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee last year, and depicts a small boy sewing Union Jack bunting. Where Banksy’s being all artsy here is that the Poundland where the mural was found was a place of controversy about three years ago, when it was uncovered that a 7 year old child in India had been working over a hundred hours a week to produce some of the goods on sale. Well done Banksy, pat on the back for you.
The vanishing mural was then strangely found in a Modern, Contemporary and Street Art auction sale in Miami, where it was predicted to be sold for as much as £450,000. Through ripping the mural from the humble Poundland setting in North London and shipping it over goodness knows how (I mean, it’s a wall?) to beachy fashionable Miami of all places, it has immediately been taken completely out of context. What is most saddening is that this means that the brand of Banksy alone is worth this much. The perceived power of the graffiti itself is no longer really relevant; as the very point of graffiti in my view is to voice what would otherwise be repressed opinions, bringing the power of art directly to the community – to a free environment not constrained by the white walls and conventions of the gallery institution. What the auction did was attempt to sell Banksy’s street art to a private environment. The artist has previously contested this right when gallerist Stephan Keszler organised and tried to sell an exhibition of Banksy’s work in December, aptly named ‘Banksy Out of Context’. Keszler’s attempt was to celebrate the work of Banksy by taking it away from the volatile environment it was made in, where it could easily be removed by government officials or rival graffiti artists; much like the act of preserving endangered species by putting them in a zoo far away where they can be shouted at by small sticky-fingered children. The title of the exhibition alone shows that obviously Keszler was trying to make a statement about this issue of relevance, but I don’t think that makes the exhibition credible in any sense as a way of exploring the power of street art. Arguably this bold move could be seen as anti-street art, denying it of the context that makes it so formidable and instead propping it up in a false environment with pre-conceived standards and judgements – it’s in a gallery, so it must be art.
The madness only continued when the disappearing mural was withdrawn from the auction at the last minute, after extensive campaigning by the Wood Green community convinced the auctioneers to stop the sale of the artwork. Council Leader for the area Claire Kober said it was “a true credit to the community” and that they will “continue to explore all options to bring back Banksy to the community where it belongs”. It’s all very nice that they so desperately want it back, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a little bit too late. Not only has the site of the original mural already been replaced by a far more ghastly example of street ‘art’, but it has been permanently removed from the wall on which it had most impact, and bringing it back to the community will probably mean it will be displayed in a local town hall or something.
There is no doubt that Banksy’s work will frustratingly continue to be admired, but it will also always be an easy target to be ‘stolen’ and ruined; after all, can you really be punished for vandalising a vandalism? I struggle to sympathise with Banksy because in his self-righteous attempt to keep himself enigmatic and elusive, the only way he can make any money is to sell his work in fancy exhibitions all over the world. With a net worth of $20 million, Banksy doesn’t stick to what street art should be about – the streets, so frankly I’m actually a bit annoyed that the auction was called off.