Graffiti’s not what it used to be. Starting life as one of the four pillars of hip-hop, it’s travelled from Harlem’s train carriages to the House of Commons, raising all sorts of questions about authenticity and what constitutes art – the same questions you’ll have seen answered by columnists and intellectualised by art critics every time graffiti’s in the news.
Of course, the main catalyst for graffiti making the news – certainly in the UK, at least – is when Banksy’s decided he needs to alert the world to something, like Palestine or consumerism.
This week, a new Banksy piece focusing on immigration appeared in Clacton-on-Sea, a town in Tendring, Essex where UKIP are set to win a landslide local election. The artwork – which depicts a load of pigeons telling a colourful bird to “go back to Africa” – was swiftly removed amid complaints of racism from people who somehow didn’t realise the stencil was an explicit statement against racism.
None of this is particularly remarkable; certain people are easily offended and councils regularly scrub graffiti off walls. What was kind of surprising was the statement the council released when they realised they’d just obliterated something that could have potentially made them a lot of money: “We would obviously welcome an appropriate Banksy original on any of our seafronts and would be delighted if he returned in the future.”
This reasoning didn’t make much sense to me; I was always raised to believe that graffiti was illegal. I called the police to check my parents hadn’t been lying to me, and they stressed that graffiti is a council matter rather than one for the force. However, Environmental law states that graffiti “is an act of criminal damage under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, and those found guilty can be punished with a maximum fine of £5,000”.
When was it decided that Banksy was exempt from this law? Is there a loophole that permits graffiti artists to vandalise public property if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have spent £1 million on their work? What do the relevant local authorities have to say for themselves?
I spoke to Nigel Brown, Tendring district council’s communication manager, in an attempt to get some answers. Initially he couldn’t make up his mind as to whether the piece had been removed for being offensive or illegal. Then he said it wasn’t illegal because Banksy had their permission, and that anything that “enhanced the area” would be allowed.
When I asked why this wasn’t made clearer to people, he said: “Well, it’s hardly going to be public knowledge that we say that, because then you’re going to get all sorts of others doing all sorts of things.” When pressed on why Banksy specifically was welcome to return, he said: “We are a seaside resort reliant on tourism, and it would bring a lot of tourism if we had a Banksy original.”
So there’s your answer: Banksy is allowed because money. This is not a huge surprise. Councils like money. But how do other graffiti artists feel about this Banksy-specific technicality? Surely it must be frustrating to spend half your life running away from TfL staff, cans clattering around in your backpack, in the knowledge that you’re not famous enough to be above the law?
Blaze has been writing since 1982. He’s painted trains in New York and has worked with Ben Eine and the late Robbo in London. He said: “The kid that’s done a tag gets his house raided and his life fucked up, but if it’s Banksy it’s non-vandalism – money on a wall, so to speak.”
“It seems to be that things change as soon as money gets involved,” said David from Shoreditch’s Graffiti Life Gallery. “It’s very much one rule for him and another rule for everyone else. When street artists do it, it’s vandalism. When Banksy does it, it’s an art piece. There’s a disconnect there.”
For Dr Justin Williams, an academic who focuses on hip-hop and jazz culture at the University of Bristol, the issue is more complex: “This whole thing may indicate we are having to go to a US-style form of philanthropy, which we aren’t used to in the UK,” he said. “Essentially, the council is looking for a private donation from Banksy through the value of his street art. This is problematic, but it’s also a little sad that the council partly restricts such freedom of expression while desperately needing support from it to fund future artists.”
You do have to feel slightly sorry for Banksy in all this. Having a Tory-led council welcome your art must be a bit like the Prime Minister professing his love for your band, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer plagiarising your attack on capitalist values while announcing another round of public sector cuts.
A New York subway car covered in graffiti (Photo via)
In the early days of graffiti, attempts to clamp down on the art form often just galvanised the artists; when city officials railed against them, it reminded the graffiti writers they had the power to provoke. And when New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority repainted all of its trains in 1973, it meant that, for a brief period, artists no longer had to worry about covering another’s work, which led to the famous full train pieces.
With foresight, the authorities back then would have realised that embracing graffiti was the best way to neuter it. Banksy has been firmly embraced – his work essentially sanctioned by the UK state – meaning his purpose is left a little unclear. “A lot of my friends who are making work in the streets are putting themselves at great risk to create this artwork, whereas there’s zero risk for Banksy,” said David. “Once you’ve removed the risk element, what is it?”
In a way, Banksy is a victim of his own success. In 1974, Norman Mailer wrote that graffiti was a way for people to advertise themselves. Cornbread, one of graffiti’s first legends, spread his tag around Philadelphia to get the attention of a girl, proving Mailer’s point. Essentially, all Banksy has done is advertise himself to such an extent that his brand has become more important than the art he’s producing.
“We all strive for fame,” said Blaze. “If you’ve seen my tag a hundred times, next time you see it in the middle of a field in Cardiff you’ll think, ‘Fuck me, there’s that geezer,’ and I’ve got in your head. Banksy now is almost the oblivion because he’s just in your face all day long. I don’t agree with everything he’s done, but I take my hat off to him.”
A Banksy rat in central London (Photo via)
David said: “Even my grandma knows who Banksy is. His work isn’t really to my personal taste, and a lot of graffiti artists are very negative about him, but if you consider the aim of a graffiti artist to be getting as many people to know you as possible, who has been more successful? No one.”
These opinions are apparent on the streets. Banksy’s pieces are often written over by other artists, despite local efforts to preserve them. Paul Dizzi Saunders is the director of the London West Bank Gallery. He told me: “There’s a lot of resentment against him and where graffiti has gone as a result of him, but I think a lot of that just comes down to jealousy.”
Mind you, it’s not like the graffiti community’s thoughts on Banksy really affect how they go about their own business. “The people who are still out there hitting it in the streets don’t care what Banksy is doing, and they don’t care about public perception,” said David. “None of that is even on their radar.”