Losing Banksy…

There’s been a lot of discussion since the weekend about what’s happened to the famous Banksy stencil in Melbourne’s CBD. This stencil is famous for two reasons: first because not many of Banksy’s works, painted during a visit here in 2003, remain in Melbourne; and, secondly, because plexiglass plastic had been screwed over the top of it to protect and preserve it, thus singling it out from the mass of stencils and street artworks in Melbourne.

It seems that someone has poured silver paint down the back of the plexiglass, so that the image is now obscured. On top of the plexiglass, the words ‘Banksy woz ere’ have been written in black marker pen.

Here’s what it all looks like (photo sent to me by Miso, who found it on Nice Produce):

img_0389

You can see a news report about this here.

I have some pretty mixed reactions to what’s happened. Yes, it’s definitely sad to see the end of a cute little stencil. And it’s a bit frustrating if the stencil has been destroyed in order to provide whoever did it with a quick thrill of excitement.

But…

There’s a lot more that needs to be said about what has happened. For example, why get worked up about this image in particular? Other images done by Banksy in Melbourne have also been lost over the years, such as this classic ‘Laugh now…’ ape, which I photographed in Richmond back in 2003:

rchbanksy

It is long gone, painted over by Yarra City Council. Its disappearance wasn’t remarked by the media. So why is the loss of the ‘little diver’ so noteworthy now? Ah, but wait…. In recent years, Banksy has been the object of much media interest as well as seeing his works suddenly increase in value (in fact, a version on canvas of the same image that I photographed in Richmond in 2003 sold at Bonhams ‘urban art’ auction in London, in February this year, for 80,000 pounds).

And many other stencils and street artworks have also disappeared, without finding themselves to be the subject of news reports or mass ‘mourning’. Why is their loss not so noteworthy? Works have been put up by local and visiting artists all over Melbourne, only for them to be painted over, or torn down, and thus vanish. Perhaps it’s only the disappearance of Banksy’s work that merits comment in the mainstream media?

I also suspect that the media is reporting on this because the work appears to have been destroyed by an individual who can be portrayed as a ‘vandal’. As I mentioned, Yarra City Council painted over Banksy’s apron-wearing ape, along with rats such as this one…

ftzbanksysten

When a council, or a property owner, buffs street artworks or graffiti, the media doesn’t represent them as ‘vandalising’ the images – instead, no doubt the council would be seen as exercising its ‘graffiti management strategy’ and a property owner would be ‘cleaning’ the surface.

I’m sure a large part of the media’s interest in what has happened to Banksy’s stencil is because it allows them to have their cake and eat it too – they can express regret at the loss of the stencil while implicitly condemning whoever did it.

To me, the whole event brings up a number of issues that are worth thinking about. One relates to the protective plexiglass that was placed over the stencil. The news story that I read stated that it was the building owners who asked for the protective covering; in conversations with people around Melbourne in the past I’ve heard it said that Melbourne City Council decided to protect the stencil. I don’t know which is correct, and in some ways it doesn’t matter, because what interests me is less who put the plexiglass there and more the fact that suddenly there has developed the desire to preserve street artworks along with (apparently) the technology to do so.

I started thinking about this recent phenomenon back in July, when I visited Cargo in London. Cargo is a desperately hip bar in Shoreditch, famous for its courtyard area where the walls have been painted by a range of street artists. Some of its panels get painted over as different artists visit: for example, in July there was a fantastic panel painted by Logan Hicks; by October when I went back, it had gone and a new piece was up instead. Exceptions to this process of renewal are two panels by Banksy, which have been covered in plexiglass. You can see one of these here (and in the photo you can see some weird reflections caused by the plexiglass covering):

cargo-2-cu

The Cargo courtyard demonstrates the emergence of a hierarchy in the way mainstream culture is responding to street art. It’s a hierarchy that is clearly related to ‘the Banksy effect’, in which Banksy’s works are treated differently than others (they sell for more money, they are the subject of more media interest, they are ‘protected’ where others are not).

Leaving the ‘Banksy effect’ aside (and I’m not trying to be critical of Banksy here, since this phenomenon has arisen mainly through the responses of others to his work rather than through direct actions of his own), is the desire to ‘preserve’ street art a good thing?

I have to say I’m suspicious of what the plexiglass represents. It seems like an attempt to pin down something that shouldn’t be ‘frozen’ in this way. And am I sad at the loss of the little diver stencil? I know I have expressed sadness at ‘losing’ an image in the past (see the entry ‘Losing the image’ in October this year), but in this instance I am much more ambivalent. I think what has been done to the image draws our attention to the plexiglass as much as it destroys the image behind it. As such, if it makes people think about what hypocrisy might be present when one work (or the works of just one artist) can be placed behind plexiglass, then perhaps that will assist the public debate that still needs to take place around street art. And as for whether this is an act of ‘vandalism’, well, in some ways it might be, but if we take a moment to look at what has actually been done, then it’s a little more complex than that.

How can we read the meaning of writing ‘Banksy woz ere’? Well, it is quite a funny, literal, demonstration of what has happened. A Banksy stencil was here, and now these words are here instead. Or, Banksy himself was here in person, and is now gone. And of course ‘Banksy woz ere’ evokes the famous ‘Kilroy was here’ graffiti of the 1970s onwards, in which an anonymous male character seemed to travel the world, leaving only his enigmatic images on walls. A bit like Banksy, really.

So if the stencil had to disappear (and most street artworks will disappear, some day, one way or another), then this might not be a bad way to go.

7 comments so far

  1. Malice on

    I love graffiti art and it is a shame that the Banksy stencil has now been destroyed. Ahh well, like you said, nothing lasts forever.
    Cheers
    Mal

  2. SPARCS on

    I was reading waiting for an omission that didn’t come.

    You have covered the points all, as I too see them to be. No street artist has been given such treatment as had Banksy (as you say not by his own actions). He him self condemned the move of the council or building owner, to “own” his work… He, like most street artists put it there for everyone to own and in doing so, for no one to own. In effect the council and building owners stole the image…

    cheers

  3. SPARCS on

    OH I have been musing over my last comment… in my head I had changed it to “In belonging to everyone, it belongs to no one”. I thought I best google the phrase before attributing to myself. Seems Victor Hugo beat me to it in “In Exile”. He was talking of the collective consciousness of people though. Just thought it worthy of an update…

    cheers

  4. victorbiola on

    Excellent post! I really enjoyed reading it and I agree mostly. It is absurd to place a stencil behind perspex to protect it from other streetart. It is like protecting a bird from other birds by placing it in a cage. It is against its nature!

    Stencils are often lost due to many aspects, one is other stencils being placed on top or possibly more often by tagging. Is that vandalism? lol

    Streetart is not restricted to an elite of street artists neither is it just one moment or day in the facades of a city, it is the evolution of the surfaces and nothing else.

    Who knows, maybe Banksy came and poured the paint over the stencil and wrote ‘Banksy woz ere’. Who is Banksy anyway? I am Banksy! You are Banksy!

  5. victorbiola on

    Just a quick reply to SPARCS:
    Well, since someone has stated a phrase like yours before and no one less than the amazing Victor Hugo, I must say that you are in good company. A man who stands to his word and rather picks up a pen to fight an injustice risking his status and security is a great mind to think alike.

    Interesting anyway to liken streetart to collective consciousness. You could almost say that streetart is a visual map of our collective consciousness and constantly changing…

  6. Cap Daddy on

    Kilroy Was Here started way before the 1970s…

  7. imagestoliveby on

    You’re right, of course – thanks for pointing this out. The ‘Kilroy was here’ graffiti is thought to have originated during World War II.


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