Vandalism or art: who draws the line?
Bristol artist Banksy unveiled his latest piece If you don’t mask – you don’t get last week on Instagram, but no more than a day later it was confirmed that a tube cleaner removed the piece worth an estimated £7.5million. A spokesperson for Transport for London has made a statement asking Banksy to come back and re-do the piece officially, which whilst highly unlikely, is the height of hypocrisy. In the same speech, the spokesperson referred to a ‘strict anti-graffiti policy’ and then went on to invite Banksy back to recreate the piece. This begs the question, then, of when does art become vandalism, and who gets to decide?
Art, of course, is subjective. But there seems to be a level of privilege afforded to an artist like Banksy who can go anywhere across the world, “vandalise” spaces and face no consequences, only praise and profit. Banksy’s reverence has created animosity towards him from a large part of the graffiti community resulting in a lot of his pieces being vandalised themselves. There is also the much wider issue of who, if anyone, gets to decide what is art and what isn’t. Graffiti is ubiquitous, it is hard to go anywhere and not see forms of graffiti whether it be small tags or bigger murals. We have been graffitiing walls for thousands of years and now graffiti has become a worldwide feature despite it being against the law in most places. In some parts of the world, like Barcelona, graffiti artists can paint legally, but in most places graffiti is illegal and you can be fined and even imprisoned for creating your art. The UK is one of these places where graffiti charges carry a maximum fine of £10,000 and prison sentences from 3-6 months. So why is Banksy being asked to come back and do exactly what his graffiti artist contemporaries could be imprisoned for doing? The illegality and the risk involved in creating graffiti is sometimes what attract artists to doing it in the first place. Painting billboards, large walls and vehicles like trains is what has brought graffiti artists and crews their notoriety. The pursuit of graffiti has tragically ended in several deaths, in 2018 artists K-Bag, Lover and Trip aged just 19, 23 and 23, died after being hit by a train whilst they were painting. Former TfL board member Brian Cooke referred to these artists as ‘common scum’, and yet just 3 years later Banksy’s tube graffiti is being commended by TfL. Like all art, a lot of people view graffiti and interpret it through the meaning it creates and the message it provokes from its audience. This is often a justification for Banksy’s popularity, in that his pieces usually have a political or social commentary within them. This justification, however, is perhaps undermined through Banksy’s appropriation of graffiti writing culture in his latest piece. The rats wearing masks are topical and their meaning is obvious, but Banksy finished his latest work with a trademark tag – something all graffiti writers use. This appropriation of graffiti culture effectively places Banksy in the same category as every other artist and so again, it begs the question of why Banksy is revered and other artists reprimanded? Also, how is a tag of someone’s name any less meaningful than a stencil drawing of some rats?
The core of the problem with the commercialisation of graffiti is money. The buying and selling of street art involves removing the art from where it was made, which essentially contradicts the whole point of the graffiti itself. Banksy himself has objected to the removal of street art from where it was created despite his own works being essentially stolen from where they were made in order to be sold for sometimes millions. The commodification of street art and graffiti has led to a monetised graffiti culture, with artists who make a profit from their work seen to be “sell-outs”. Yet, artists from every discipline who choose to make their art their profession are able to make money from commissions. Graffiti artists deserve to be paid for their work as any other artist would be, but the problem is that one type of art is illegal and the other is not. That being said, someone like Banksy is able to make millions despite the illegality of his work, and so the removal of his most recent piece is actually quite a necessary come-uppance. It is a shame that a culture so diverse and widespread has come to be represented by a select few artists like Banksy, when in my opinion every artist who takes a risk to represent themselves through their art should be celebrated and rewarded. The double standards of the authority surrounding graffiti should be challenged, and the treatment of Banksy’s work as any other piece of graffiti is a way of challenging the hypocrisy of TfL and the wider UK government. Anyone who risks their life or imprisonment for their art is obviously dedicated to the cause, and this should be commended, not reprimanded.
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