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Breaking the Banksy: a blessing or a curse?

Writing: Carlos Finlay

Illustration: Carlos Finlay

In November last year, North London residents were furious to see that a Banksy painting, ripped from the back wall of a Poundland store, had been sold for over half a million dollars at an auction in Miami, Florida. Having drawn significant attention to the borough of Haringey, and particularly to its branch of the discount superstore, questions were raised over the street art’s ownership and the injustice of its robbery. The community had seemingly been blessed by the anonymous appearance of this painting but disheartened at its sudden vanishing – to what extent can we value a Banksy if its presence can beckon such trouble?

Banksy’s fame not only arose from the poignancy of his street art, but from his sustained anonymity. The unexpected appearance of his paintings frequently makes the news with any unassuming street wall having the potential to transform into an urban canvas. Last year, another Banksy piece appeared on the side of a garage in the Welsh town of Port Talbot and instantly became a local spectacle. The work of an acclaimed artist like Banksy is sure to conjure excessive public wonder; the owner of the Port Talbot garage had to sell the work as he was unable to sustain the thousands of visitors wanting to get a glimpse of the young child playing with a skip fire. Although Banksy’s hand regenerated Port Talbot’s cultural legacy, the expenses incurred through its protection and safety have become contentious within the community.

Banksy is, after all, controversial. What would otherwise be simple graffiti, or even vandalism, has instead propelled his throng of spray-paintings into stardom. His subjects, often sharp critiques of capitalism and human rights, are acclaimed for their unforgiving portrayals. In October last year, his work Love is in the Bin shredded itself in front of a live audience as the gavel went down on a bid of one million dollars at Sotheby’s, New York. All this oddity and spectacle adds to the mysticism of his anonymous persona, but the effect on the local communities that house his work is much less glamorous.

Banksy is no unassuming street artist – he’s fully aware of the reputation his work upholds. The opening of his ‘bemusement’ park Dismaland drew in record crowds, and its financial success is still benefitting the host coastal town of Weston-Super-Mare. However, to continue painting on the walls of unsuspecting communities is to actively launch them into cultural stardom and all its associated ugliness. Port Talbot has been left bemused by the influx of fame it received and struggled to contain the immense crowds beckoned to admire a Welsh garage wall. The locals of Haringey are still attempting to decipher the bewilderment at their own Banksy piece vanishing and reappearing in Miami.

Is Banksy more selfish than his works suggest? At first glance, the appearance of a painting can be a brilliant opportunity to bestow art onto a community. However, with such works, Banksy simultaneously offloads the baggage of criticism and curiosity that follows the wake of all his street art. To consider an unexpected Banksy piece a blessing is to acknowledge his fame as an artist, and to acknowledge that fame is to realise that soon, a piece of your garage wall could end up in Sotheby’s next open showroom.

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