by Rachel Hewitt

Banksy Tag in Chicago

While in Chicago, presumably “promoting”[1] his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the elusive artist painted a little ditty (or the graffiti version of a ditty) on a wall supporting the train tracks, along 16th Street in Pilsen.  Hipsters rejoiced.

A couple weeks later, feeling the horrible side effects of cabin fever, I set out to check out the Banksy.  Did I mention that I live on 16th Street?  Having seen the image on NBC.com, it wasn’t hard to find, but I found it defaced which got me thinking about the contrast between this act and the recent fervor over the piece in Detroit being hidden by a gallery.

At first, I wondered whether or not the tagger knew it was a work by an infamous street artist.  Was s/he trying to make a statement?  Was s/he just being an ass?  Did this person even care about any of this?  In a neighborhood where street art is the norm, and many of the murals exist in transience, this seems somewhat par for the course.  Many of the walls here have been decorated with Banksy-inspired copycat stencils, and then sprayed over as it is.

I went from thinking, “Doesn’t this jackass get it?” to thinking maybe this kind of thing is part of the point.  It’s not like the City of Chicago painted over it to keep the neighborhood beautiful.  The number of potholes on 16th suggests that, at least for the city, that ship has sailed.

In Detroit, as reported by the Detroit Free Press, there has been a firestorm following the artist’s image of a young boy with a paint can and the text “I remember when all this was trees” on the wall of an abandoned Packard plant.  After its discovery, a group of artists from 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, removed the wall and were displaying the work, claiming to be the “stewards” of the work, in attempts to prevent destruction or defacement of the piece.  Most importantly, the group claimed they want to keep the work on display for all to see.

Banksy in Detroit

Well, that has quickly and unsurprisingly changed.  After receiving various threats regarding the potential destruction of the work, 555 has hidden the piece until it can be “safely” displayed.  Ownership and legality aside, the entire concept of a piece of street art being extracted and then hoarded away is ludicrous.  There’s a reason this piece was painted on a wall, and quite honestly, in this particular case, the removal and “protective” actions taken have removed the context and the concept of the piece, in my opinion making it irrelevant outside the controversy over what will happen to it.

In this vein, I sort of wonder if Banksy is even that relevant anymore.  When your film is premiering at a chain of movie theaters, your prints are fetching $50,000 at auction (and are on display in the home of Angelina Jolie, no less), and you’ve actually done a commissioned work featuring various models and netting $185,000 in Kate Moss’ home, are you really that cutting edge as a graffiti artist anymore?  I’m sure all that money can buy you a ton of hoodies, but can it buy you street cred?  Maybe he’s just laughing at everyone, considering the little digital price tags on the images on his website, but I just don’t buy it.

All the hubbub has left me wondering why there was such a scramble to “save” the Detroit piece while the Chicago one was being sprayed on under everyone’s noses; Aside from the structural impossibilities of chiseling this one out, obviously.  It’s also left me thinking that perhaps, of all the people involved in this mess, the mystery tagger is the only one to really get the point, even though I’m a little sad about it, because that thing was pretty freaking cute.  Then again, that’s the nature of street art, and I can accept that.

[1] I put this in quotes because the logistics of film promotion by someone whose only known appearance is mildly resemblant of the Unabomber are a little unclear.