When a piece of art is exhibited at a museum or a gallery, the people running the place will do their best to keep it safe. The venues are protected by alarm systems and security guards day and night – after all, the pieces of art exhibited there are often worth millions. Even with all these measures in place, paintings get stolen from museums and galleries. And not only from there. Game Changer, Banksy’s canvas painting donated to a Southampton hospital this May, was almost stolen a mere two days after it was exhibited there. Luckily, a watchful security guard spotted the would-be thief and stopped the £5 million robbery before it happened.
What about street art, though? Who and what protects the works of the artists whose canvas is the city they live in? Stealing a wall that’s been decorated by Banksy is not a very easy task… but theft is not the biggest threat to street art. Paint is.
The white flag
2016 was a very important year for the UK: it was the year when more than 15 million of its citizens voted for leaving the EU, starting the serial that went down in history as “BREXIT”.
A year later, a building in Dover “suffered” an artistic transformation: one morning, the locals discovered that some “vandal” known (or better said unknown) as Banksy covered it in a mural. The painting shows how a worker is chipping away on one of the stars in the EU flag – there are 12, representing the ideals of unity.
The painting has garnered a lot of media attention and triggered heated discussions about its future. That until last summer when the painting disappeared from the wall. And it wasn’t Banksy who carried out his plan – he wanted to modify the mural on the day of Brexit – but an instance of whitewashing. Literally. Historic England refused to include the painting on its “National Heritage List for England”, the official register of all nationally protected historic buildings and sites in England. It is speculated that either the owners of the building or the city of Dover had something to do with the destruction of the beloved landmark. Whichever the case, it may be lost forever.
The artist reacted to the news about his painting being turned into a “white flag” by saying it “says it just as well”.
This was not the only work by Banksy that disappeared under a fresh coat of paint: “Gorilla in a Pink Mask” was painted over by the owners of the building it was painted on, in 2010, and “Praying Boy”, and a painting in Park City, Utah, was painted over in a proportion of 90% in 2013.
Stealing a piece of street art is next to impossible – unless, of course, someone is willing to steal a wall or an entire building without anyone noticing. Paint, in turn, can quickly ruin or destroy it. And it happens more often than you think, even to pieces signed by a street artist as valued and appreciated as Banksy. And it’s been going on for quite some time.
One of his earliest works from 1999, the mural called “The Mild, Mild West” featuring a teddy bear throwing a Molotov filled with flowers at a group of policemen, was defaced twice with paint in 2009. Once, the perpetrator was a local anti-graffiti organization called “Appropriate Media”. The painting was repaired both times but the cleaning process harmed it irreparably.
“Girl With The Pierced Eardrum”, a painting that has been around Bristol’s Harbourside since 2014, was “brought up to date” by an unknown artist (or vandal?) this year. To stay safe from the effects of the ongoing pandemic, the girl received a face mask. And a mural depicting Turkish president Erdoğan and his son running away with bags full of money, “published” in 2015 in Harringay, London, has seen both the protagonists’ faces brutally painted over soon after it appeared.
— Zurdosh (@Zurdosh) October 15, 2015
Defacing is often driven by rivalries and jealousy. In Banksy’s case, at least when it comes to some of his work, politics may also be at play…
Mild Mild West Photo – Wikimedia Creative Commons
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Cooked up in the Western part of an Eastern European country, the author has extensive work experience in everything from selling groceries to handling the acquisitions of a computer parts distributor. A passionate writer with many unpopular opinions who considers verifiable information vital in today’s online publishing environment, he is concerned about the average IQ (falling) of the planet’s population (growing). His superpower: the ability to laugh at himself!