Afternoon Inquisition

AI: It’s MY wall now

Here in England we have a folk hero, the stuff of legend. A man of mystery, whose true identity is known only to some. A maverick, inspiration for many, loved by millions, hated by other millions. Someone who transcended his (alleged) working class roots to achieve fame, fortune and the accolades of both the professional world and the public. He’s an artist whose works have featured in record-breaking exhibitions, reproduced worldwide on posters, merchandise from bags to t-shirts, and in best-selling books.  He’s one of Britain’s best loved, most controversial artists.

Graffiti artists, that is.

Yep, this is the man we know only as Banksy. The anonymity is an essential curiosity in the career of Banksy, because much of what he did (not so much these days) is of course illegal. Painting murals on walls both private and public, creating art that certainly prompts discussion, not least because (perhaps unusually for graffiti), it seems to have a message greater than “look at me, rebelling against da man”. Banksy seems to stand for peace, socialism, cynicism and the sort of social commentary that makes the everyman laugh . A typical Banksy workOr maybe he does just stand for “look at me, rebelling against da man”, it dependson your viewpoint. He has himself said about his style “sometimes [it] just means drawing a moustache on a girl’s face on some billboard, sometimes [it] means sweating for days over an intricate drawing.”

Local authorities in the UK originally took the same view of Banksy works as any other graffiti – they erased them, at the taxpayer’s expense. Then the work started to get famous and therefore valuable, and the authorities in some cases took a different view, even allowing locals to vote on whether it stays. A nice twist of democracy from ‘da man’. Of course, other authorities continue to treat it as a crime and erase it immediately. And this is where it gets interesting. Banksy artworks in public places sometimes get defaced. Tagged. Graffitied. Like this one: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/8338335.stm

banksydefaced When that happens, half of me goes “aw, that was a nice, clever, visually interesting piece of public art that someone destroyed”, and the other half of me goes “well, tough luck, you can’t say one bit of graffiti is more important than another. If he was allowed to deface the wall in the first place, some kid is allowed to deface it twice”. If we learned to find Banky’s murals visually and socially acceptable, why can’t the tags be? I guess the tags come with baggage – tags of their own. Poverty, gang culture, violence, drugs. To the nice middle classes it’s all part of the same destruction of values, lack of respect, fear of youth that the tabloids exploit so well. Banksy is a safe rebel, perhaps. Nonetheless, a wall is a wall, spray paint is spray paint, and the law is the law. So I’m asking you today if there’s a difference between what Banksy does and what Joe Tagger does:
Do you think some graffiti should be preserved as ‘art’ – if so, by what criteria?
The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

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38 Comments

  1. Anything that is obviously referencing gangs or other such groups is not art and should be taken down. The same should probably go for anything obviously offensive.

    Otherwise, if it is a building owned privatly, I’d say the decision would be on them.

  2. Also, I DO think there is a difference — most taggers aren’t doing it for the art, like Banksy. Most taggers are doing it for initiation into gangs, or to tag areas as being “owned” by their gangs, or to talk crap about other gangs. Art doesn’t even cross their minds, I’m sure.

  3. Yeah… you don’t get to break into my house, draw on my walls and say “but it’s gorgeous!”

    Moose tries it every day… but not breaking in… I’m not allowed to lock him out anymore.

  4. Art is a very weird, subjective, gray area and I don’t think you can come up with logical rules to define it. The rational person in me says vandalism is illegal, but the artist in me loves Banksy’s work and sees the illegal nature of it as part of the artwork.

    I almost majored in art, but went with science because it’s easier to grasp because of it’s rationality. That’s just how I feel, at least.

  5. i live in LA, where graffiti is an “issue” to say the least. honestly, i think most of the graffiti gang signs spattered everywhere are just dumb kids copycatting gang culture, so it’s mostly a nuisance – of course i don’t live in south central or east la.

    that being said, there are some truly amazing pieces of graffiti around the city that absolutely qualify as art in my book. but i think that AI hit it on the head when she said that you can’t say this graffiti is good, but this is bad – but i would argue that is a legal statement. if graffiti is illegal, then all of it is.

    however, i think you can qualify it emotionally or artistically.

  6. I didn’t hear anything about Banksy arguing that the art should be left and protected. Seems like he accepts that it’s fate is in the hands of others. If the authorities and/or owners want to press charges and/or erase it, that is certainly their right since it’s illegal and there was no permission granted. In that way Banksy’s graffiti is the same as tagging. However, the substance is much different. If the authorities and/or owners find value in the unexpected addition, then so be it. Nothing wrong with that either. In the end, it is completely up to the judgement of the owner. I don’t believe there is any particular criteria because art is so subjective. It comes down to whether the owner appreciates it or not.

  7. Yeah, I generally don’t care about graffiti or any of that stuff, but I honestly love Banksy’s work. I got to see some of it when I lived in London, and even saw one of his while driving through New Orleans last year.

    It’s hard to draw the line on the issue of preserving or protecting Banksy’s stuff, and it’d be interesting to hear what he himself thinks about it. As @Jennifurret said, the illegal nature of his work is PART of the “art” behind it.

    Similarly, the fact that it’s public, not protected and preserved in a gallery or museum (well, his old stuff anyway) is also part of what makes it “art” in the first place. It is interesting BECAUSE it is transgressive and potentially fleeting. Someone might clean it up or cover it with posters or tag all over it.

    You can’t really enforce protection of a Banksy wall from the outside without kind of ruining what makes it worthwhile. If someone with one on their house WANTS to preserve it, well, that’s fine. But it shouldn’t be required; that negates the impulse behind the art AND creates a legal double standard.

    SO, as much as it might pain me, personally, to see a Banksy “defaced” or removed, that’s a hazard that comes with the territory and if I want his work to remain “legit” (if you can, in fact, call it that), then I’ve got to accept that risk.

  8. Hi there!

    I agree. Although I don’t think of graffiti as any kind of “high crime”, it should remain illegal and should NOT be preserved. I think the ephemeral nature of it is part of what makes it great, as is the brazen illegality of it.

    I’m not so much worried about gang signs and tagging as I am about dilution of the art. If graffiti is made illegal, then you’d never notice Banksy’s work since every inch of the city would be covered up by any two-bit artist with a spray paint can. If there was a way to protect only GOOD artists, then I’d say go for it, but for every Banksy there’s about a hundred thousand crap artists out there.

  9. Most areas have exemptions for visuals the property owner considers art. They pretty much have to go to city hall or local police station and fill out a form stating why they think it is art. Basically, telling the authorities why it’s not offensive or gang related.

  10. @Draconius: But what happens, as in the case of Banksy work, when some members of the public want the graffiti to remain? Does public opinion overrule the law? What if people in an area wanted a local kid to be allowed to shoplift (am trying to think of a comparable petty crime)? Should exceptions be made because some people find something visually appealing? It’s impossible to define what ‘art’ is, and yet individuals and society do it all the time.

    Equally – is there any merit to the notion that people only want Banksy works to remain because they’re Banksy works. They are now valuable and famous, so one could argue that the reputation of the artist overshadows any independent reaction to the aesthetics or message of the piece.

  11. I once visited Independence Rock in Wyoming where a lot of folks passing on the wagon trails mid 1800’s carved their names, initials, and other stuff.

    I’ve never understood why tagging like that is preserved, but when people today do it, it’s reviled.

    I don’t appreciate it too much if a tree or wall of my house get tagged, but when large public surfaces become taken over by tagging and graffiti, I don’t know if I think it’s appropriate to wipe it out.

    People want to make a mark to show that they were there. If those tags somehow managed to survive 150 years into the future, they’d be cherished.

  12. @Expatria: Those are good points, but Bansky went way past just being a street artist – his exhibition in Bristol earlier this year attracted 300,000 visitors, his stuff is merchandised up the wazoo, and he auctions his non-public work for profit quite happily.

    Now – when he put the painting in the British Museum secretly, they made it part of their permanent collection. So it seems ‘the art world’ has deemed his word to have merit – retrospectively of course. Does that lend any weight to the argument that his street art should be preserved?

    Of course, that stunt was pretty benign. I would have liked to see his paint a mural on the outside wall of the British Museum, THEN we’d see what’s art and what’s not. Of course, that would involve assessing why the outside of the British Museum’s walls are more important or less public property than any other building Banksy paints on.

  13. The random application of the muralists arts seems pretentious and self absorbed to me. Possibly Banksy is just a chicken or a pathologically shy artist who doesn’t want to publicly own his creations, or even a Diego wannabe Oxbridge fine-arts grad trying for some edgy urban credibility. That’s the mystery that sparks my interest, who is this guy/gal. I personally would give no weight to public opinion with regard to what someone finds on his privately owned wall.

  14. When you chose to be a street artist you go into it knowing that the work is temporary and that is part of the work itself. The same sort of thing happened in the 80’s in New York with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Initially he drew on walls because he lived on the street, the street was his canvas. He was treated as a common criminal until he became famous. Now his work is in museums.

    I guess my opinion is that if the work has intention other than just writing your name so that the gang down the street knows you exist then the work probably has some sort of value. However, the time that a particular piece of art lasts should not effect it’s value. In other words, some art, like a song is only meant to last a few moments so if Bansky’s art is covered or removed is in some sense irrellevant. If he meant for it to last forever he would have presented it in a different medium. He clearly knows what he is doing.

  15. @Tracy King: A similar argument is applied to the usage of marijuana. A large amount of people are ok with marijuana being legalized, but until the law is refined to remove marijuana from the list of illicit substances, being caught with a joint is still a crime.

    If you feel that certain graphitii is “nice” enough to be considered art, then try to have the law redefined.

    I, personally, go with a very strict legal opinion. If it wasn’t approved to be on the wall, then its graphitti, and should be treated accordinginly.

  16. @Tracy King:

    Yeah, he’s kind of become a strange and celebrated figure, though no less polarizing and enigmatic for all of that.

    When it comes to removing a Banksy work DESPITE the property owner wanting it to remain, that’s ridiculous. It should be up to them what does or doesn’t appear on their walls, as long as it’s not overly graphic or whatever. There’s no real excuse for not allowing it to remain.

    Your point about painting on the walls of the British Museum is a very good one. In that case, I’m sure the hue and cry would be about how the building itself is a work of art and how it is in the nation’s interest that such a historical building be preserved for the future. The same could be said about the things Banksy paints, but they’d say his work hasn’t “stood the test of time” or some such.

    I guess my stance is, if the work is done on a privately owned building, it should be up to the building’s owner if it should be removed or preserved. Otherwise, it’s an awfully hard decision to make… way more grey areas than I’m able to think through on a Friday afternoon :-P

  17. @Tracy King: Was the property hers, as opposed to public? I can’t imagine the govt removing Graffiti from private property here in the States, if the owner specifically wanted it to stay.

    Hell, I can’t imagine our govt removing Graffiti from private property even if the owner did want it removed.

  18. OTOH if a really talented artist like Amy or Jill broke in and tatooed my baby while I was alseep, I’d be totally okay with that as long as they didn’t use HepC infected needles. Nothing wrong with prettying up a kid.

  19. Contemporary art is a strange, strange world. I absolutely love the work that’s being done because so much of it seems to have been thought of an completed within the moment rather than being planned over a long period of time. However, I’m not sure what Banksy is trying to prove that’s unheard of. If he’s trying to make a statement that things won’t last forever, then he’s a bit late to that party. Otherwise, the most damage his work causes is the inconvenience of having to clean it up and things are just going to go on as they usually do.

    Unrelated rant: If I had a dollar for everytime some two-bit conceptual artist whined about the establishment and turned around and made seven figures for their pieces I’d have enough money to found my own space agency.

  20. Art is not a decision that you get to make. You don’t get to look at a brand new something and say “That’s art” anymore then you can look at at brand new something and say “That’s a classic.” There is a highly democratic aspect multiplied by time to art. Few things are art in its own generation, just popular. 3,4,5 generations later when the initial fad has worn off, then it is art. Art is that which survives.

  21. @ Amy – the time that a particular piece of art lasts should not effect it’s value.

    Yes yes yes!

    Graffiti art seems to me to be like improvised music – not intended to be taken out of the present moment. That can lead to great things. That can also lead to pretentious wankery, but that’s just life, unfortunately.

  22. Yes! I love love love good graffiti artists (especially Banksy). Urban art like this is often the only art some people see on a regular basis. If you want to see more art like this check out Wooster Collective. They do a great job of cataloging cool Urban art from around the globe.

    On a related note, I’m sad because my favorite piece of graffiti got covered over last week. Someone had done a great job of painting a robot face on one of the traffic light control boxes on my way to work. I really wish that I had taken a photo before Da Man painted over it in safety yellow.

  23. Art is the thing going on in an artists head. It’s a verb. Graffiti may or may not be evidence of art, and it’s really up to you to decide whether it says “art happened here” or “killroy was here” to you.

    The criteria for whether Graffiti should be preserved is largely separate from whether it is evidence of art. As others have said: if a property owner likes it and wants to keep it (and it doesn’t violate any local ordinances etc), sure. If there is a policy of allowing graffiti in some spots (many places have graffiti walls and so forth), sure. Otherwise, no. Art criticism from the larger society is not necessary to answer this question.

  24. ChaoSkeptic sez: “…If you want to see more art like this check out Wooster Collective. They do a great job of cataloging cool Urban art from around the globe.

    On a related note, I’m sad because my favorite piece of graffiti got covered over last week. Someone had done a great job of painting a robot face on one of the traffic light control boxes on my way to work. I really wish that I had taken a photo before Da Man painted over it in safety yellow.”

    This to me is the main thing about ephemeral street art: the original is disposable in a way, so the artist takes the risk, knowing that its main life will be in people’s memories and in the documentation of it while it’s up. It’s not for nothing that Banksy takes photos of his work. I wouldn’t know of the vast bulk of his work, since I don’t live near places he’s done it, if it were not for such documents, like the coffee table book of his I have.

  25. @Vengeful Harridan: That’s interesting. I work in downtown LA, which is loaded with decrepitude. I always rejoice when I see a good wheatpaste poster go up, or brilliant graffiti. A lot of the private owners and the city of LA let the properties get so filthy and worn down in spite of regulations requiring the property to be kept up.

    Same thing with the illegal billboard blight that runs unchecked in this area, and the illegal posting of advertising posters at construction sites. If those entities are allowed, by virtue of law-enforcement turning a blind eye, to put up their advertising blight, then I’m all for the street artists putting up their work too.

    I know it’s illegal, but I have a hard time getting angry at artists who bring beauty and ART to this chaos.

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