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Taking the street out of street art: How Banksy changed the scene

A press viewing of the "Banksy. The Brussels Show" expo at the Galerie Deodato gallery in Brussels, with works by street artist Banksy.

Taking the street out of street art: How Banksy changed the scene

The whole idea behind street art is that it's visible to all. But Banksy, one of the world's most famous artists, has driven the value of the art form so high that works no longer stay on the street for long before they're bought for collections. Absurd? Or inevitable?

Taking the street out of street art: How Banksy changed the scene

Nottingham revelled in its real Banksy for all of four months before men came along and removed it from the wall with power tools. The work, showing a little girl playing with a bicycle tyre she used as a hula-hoop, was packed into a van and then driven off.

All that was left was a hole in the wall.

“This is capitalism at its finest,” Jasinya Powell, a local resident, told the BBC in dismay.

The work, created in October 2020, was purchased by gallery owner John Brandler for a six-digit sum to add to his collection.

In the English city of Nottingham, a work by the street artist Banksy was removed and sold to a collection, prompting questions about the point of street art and who it belongs to.

Before it was removed, Banksy’s work had considerably brightened up life in the English city of Nottingham, where the lockdown was getting more than a few residents down. Queues formed regularly, as everyone wanted to get a closer look and take a photo of the piece.

“It was great, bringing new faces to the area and having a vibrant effect,” Alex Mitchell-Messam, who runs a shop nearby, tells the BBC.

Now, the corner of Rothesay Avenue and Ilkeston Road looks just like any other intersection.

What happened in Nottingham is not a new phenomenon for a Banksy work, according to Ulrich Blanche of Germany’s Heidelberg University, an expert in street art.

Works by the artist have been chipped away from where they appeared and sold off for some 15 years.

It’s a fact of life, he says, having spent decades studying the phenomenon. “I’m ambivalent about it,” adds Blanche.

“From an archaeological perspective, I’m definitely grateful that there are people preserving the works. I’m grateful that some of it can be seen in the original,” he says. Often, though, much is lost when a work is removed from the place where it was created. Such works are embedded in their environment and incorporate it, he says.

Those who buy the works often say they are doing so to protect them.

“If I hadn’t bought it and removed it, in two years’ time, there wouldn’t have been a Banksy there at all,” Brandler tells the BBC.

Some works are covered with plastic, but that can be damaging, he says. “If you put Perspex over a picture, the moisture gets into the brick wall and can’t escape – the wall needs to breathe.”

Insiders, however, say that is not the whole story.

“The market value of his work is so extreme. Banksy is a particularity. He is probably the biggest artist in the world,” says London anthropologist and curator Rafael Schacter. “His productions on a private property becomes like winning the lottery.”

“I understand people being upset when it is removed, but it is private property,” he says.

People queue up to see street art that shows a prisoner escaping. The work was painted on the wall of a former prison and resembles a Banksy.

It is unclear what Banksy himself thinks about the issue but he has repeatedly criticised the traditional art world and its museums and galleries.

Blanche notes that Banksy almost always sprays his works onto surfaces where they will not be easy to remove.

“Actually, he wants the works to remain on the street,” he says.

However, others say that the documentation of the works is the most important thing. Banksy’s works are sprayed using multi-layered stencils. But even before he starts working, he is thought to measure the site, testing how it will look in photos later on.

His Instagram channel is now a digital gallery for fans from all over the world. Works are only said to be by him if they appear on the site. “Very few people see the artworks in person, but everybody has seen them online,” Schacter says.

So is street art migrating away from the street? Not entirely.

Observers say the practice of removing wall paintings is not widespread but is limited to works by Banksy and a few other leading artists from the scene.

And countering this trend is the growing number of street art festivals. Often at least partly publicly funded, they allow lesser-known artists to share their work and find an audience using designated walls.

In Germany, Cologne regularly hosts the CityLeaks Urban Art Festival.

And more and more cities are aware that art in public spaces also attracts tourists.

However, gallery owners are not the only ones involved in the removal of art from the streets, and Banksy is not the only artist affected.

Thieves, vandalism or just the weather can also lead to a work’s disappearance. “Graffiti and street art are not supposed to last forever. They will disappear at some point whether that’s through natural conditions or other circumstances,” says Schacter.

“One could argue the artwork is not the artwork but everything that happens afterwards. It has a whole life.”

A press viewing of the “Banksy. The Brussels Show” expo at the Galerie Deodato gallery in Brussels.

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