Mobile Lovers, Banksy || Black Mask Gallery

Mobile Lovers by Banksy (Courtesy banksy.co.uk)

Another stolen Banksy begs the question: what is the purpose of street art, and are those who wish to possess it missing the point?

Twice in the past year, a piece of street art by Banksy has been removed from its original site to be used for the profit of someone other than the artist.

The first time, a mural called Slave Labour was ripped from a wall, then (after much controversy) sold at auction for US$1.1 million.

Just this week another Banksy, Mobile Lovers, which the artist posted to his website a few days before, was detached from the wall it was painted on in Bristol by the leader of a local boys club. The mural was then displayed inside the club, where the public could view it – for a fee. It has since been retrieved from the club by police and will be displayed in the city’s museum.

When we look at the trajectory of street art over the past two decades, it’s not hard to see how we ended up here. Street art has become far more accepted as a legitimate form of art, and Banksy especially has jumped over from underground artist to mainstream sensation – whether that was his intention or not. With the celebrity and mystery surrounding the British artist, it’s not surprising that people want to possess his work for themselves.

The problem is, those people miss the point of street art entirely.

What Is Street Art?

Mobile Lovers, Banksy || Black Mask Gallery

Mobile Lovers in its original home in Bristol. (Courtesy Banksy.co.uk)

Street art has a long, complex history. You could argue it’s as old as our oldest civilizations (and you wouldn’t be wrong). But the graffiti style of street art we know and love today came to be in the early 70s in the inner-city suburbs of New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, amongst others.

This was a time of great social upheaval, with the idealistic 60s giving way to a more realistic, bleak view of the world. Street art reflected this upheaval and atmosphere, starting as an underground, anarchistic statement of everything from politics to territorial disputes between gangs.

As with all counter-culture, street art had (and still has) its own rules, etiquette and codes. However, from the beginning it was characterized by its anti-establishment stance. Most graffiti appeared in the poorest neighborhoods of cities, the product of a generation of disillusioned youth looking for an outlet for their anger and creativity.

It was highly illegal and frowned upon by more polite society who saw it as a blight on their city. Most artists worked under the cover of darkness, leaving their pieces unsigned or using pseudonyms (a trend that continues today, despite authorities being more willing to turn a blind eye). This illicit nature of the process gave street art the edge responsible for its longevity – not bound by rules or artistic theory, it was, at the time, the most pure form of underground artistic expression in existence.

It was a long and winding road from there to where we are now, with street art accepted by the mainstream, street artists celebritized, and art literally ripped from walls and sold on for millions.

Standing at the Crossroads

Street art now stands at a crossroads, where artists vie for mainstream attention that attempts to give their work permanence while participating in an art that is, by its very nature, impermanent. Street artists have always been accepting of the fact their work might not last forever. It might not even last the week, or the day, before someone else claims the spot for their own work.

Some artists like Francisco de Pajaro make this the focus of their work – de Pajaro turns trash into temporary art that’s often destroyed mere hours later when the trash is picked up.

"Art is Trash", Francisco de Pajaro || Black Mask Gallery

“Art is Trash” – Francisco de Pajaro (Courtesy Street Art Mecca)

Through this progression from illicit to accepted, Banksy was probably the least likely to fill the position of darling of the art world. His work has always been bitingly political – anti-establishment and anti-capitalist, the elitist and money-driven art institution flies in the face of everything he seems to stand for.

Where Does Street Art Belong, Then?

The boy’s club leader who appropriated (a nicer way of saying stole, which is more accurate) Banksy’s latest work states “a friend of Banksy told him that the graffiti artist never leaves his art on wood unless he wants it to move”.

In similar denial, the auction house that originally had Slave Labour for sale claimed there was no theft involved (it’s believed, but unconfirmed, that the owners of the building are the ones who removed it).

Those who don’t understand street art are the ones who look at the physical spaces the work is painted onto, attempting to make some kind of claim on the property. But street art doesn’t come under the rules of possessiveness they are used to. The art generally isn’t portable (or at least, not designed to be), it’s not preserved behind a frame or listed in a catalogue.

Shoreditch Street Art || Black Mask Gallery

Clever street art in Shoreditch, London, that would lack any kind of context if hanging in a gallery. (Courtesy Black Mask Gallery Collection)

The art is one with the city in which it’s rendered. It’s more than the space it occupies.

Whether the street works seem utopian or anarchic, aggressive or sympathetic, stunningly well-executed or juvenile, original or derivative, most street artists seriously working in the genre begin with a deep identification and empathy with the city: they are compelled to state something in and with the city, whether as forms of protest, critique, irony, humor, beauty, subversion, clever prank or all of the above. – The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture, by Martin Irvine, Georgetown University

 Artists normally place their work in their own neighborhoods. They aim to leave their mark, adding to the culture and history of places they know intimately. Many artists these days travel and work in different cities, but even Banksy still creates work in his home town of Bristol, which is where Mobile Lovers was taken from.

Trying to take this art from where it’s placed in order to possess it for oneself is missing the point, the context of the work.

Take a moment to look at Mobile Lovers above. It’s a statement about how the connectivity of the modern world affects relationships, how we are often so caught up with what we might be missing online that we ignore the people we are with. It’s saying, in its starkly beautiful way, that some of us are only half alive. This is a bold statement, and one that’s meant to be seen by many, to strike a chord and make people think, maybe even to change their lives. That can’t happen if it’s removed for someone to view privately.

Without the street, there is no street art.

Street art exists only when it’s displayed publicly, outside the confines of institutionalized galleries. It’s relevant only when the audience is anyone and everyone, not when hanging in one person’s private collection. It’s the sad irony of these actions that taking work from the street in order to possess it destroys what made the work so special in the first place.

Banksy himself has said “graffiti art has a hard enough life as it is – with council workers wanting to remove it and kids wanting to draw moustaches on it, before you add hedgefund managers wanting to chop it out and hang it over the fireplace.”

One other point not often raised about these private sales – rarely is any money passed on to the artist after the fact. Why should someone not associated with creating the work profit from it? Not only do they deny the public the art that was created for them, but they deny the artist fair remuneration for their work.

Street Art by Alice || Black Mask Gallery

A piece by street artist Alice, whose themes center around strong, independent women. (Courtesy Black Mask Gallery Collection)

As street art becomes more popular, and the artists are more accepted by mainstream society and the art world, the problem will only become worse. A lack of understanding of the nuances of street art by the people with only a passing interest in it will make stopping the theft of work increasingly difficult.

There’s every possibility artists like Banksy might grow so tired of seeing every one of their pieces taken and sold for profit, of seeing others grow rich off their work, that they will stop creating it altogether. And being deprived of such important, thought-provoking art is about the saddest outcome there is.

“For the sake of keeping all street art where it belongs, I’d encourage people not to buy anything by anybody unless it was created for sale in the first place.” -Banksy

Can anything be done about keeping street art where it belongs? Let us know your ideas in the comments.

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