Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 1)

I have an admission to make that might seem paradoxical, coming from a preservationist: I am guilty of liking graffiti. I would never say so without exception or qualification, and I’ll state for the record that I don’t advocate graffiti, and I abhor the reckless use of historic buildings as spray-paint canvases…but in certain rare cases, as I’ve previously mentioned, I just can’t help but find it appealing. From 2007 to 2008, a time when Banksy’s bravado was reaching new heights of popularity, I was living outside of London. While there was plenty else to occupy my eyes in my favorite city, I remember the thrill of turning down a new street and finding another one of his recognizable rats. Equally provocative was the narrative that arose as state authorities and the public were cornered into the role of street art curators, and graffiti, so often the bane of preservationists, became the object of preservation itself.

Banksy, Sweep at Hoxton, Wikimedia Commons

Banksy echoes many other graffiti artists when he explains that much of the thrill of his work stems from its illegality. In his own words, “You could stick all my shit in Tate Modern and have an opening with Tony Blair and Kate Moss on rollerblades handing out vol-au-vents and it wouldn’t be as exciting as when you go out and you paint something big where you shouldn’t do.” He has called himself an “art terrorist,” and some property owners and residents feel accordingly victimized when graffiti appears in their communities. Various state authorities categorize graffiti as a quality of life crime, an environmental crime, and an antisocial behavior. Graffiti is blamed for reducing property values, causing community members, tourists, and retail customers to feel unsafe, reducing the enjoyment of public spaces, and, if not quickly removed from an area, encouraging more graffiti to be added there.

In London, graffiti is linked with rubbish as the target of clean street initiatives. It is frequently described by state authorities as “unsightly,” as it is “a sign of a neglected neighbourhood and is associated with increased levels of crime and the fear of crime.” According to the Council of the London borough of Southwark, “Graffiti is vandalism and it’s become a really expensive problem. Removing graffiti costs the UK over £1 billion a year. We and other agencies have to remove graffiti from walls, street furniture, telephone boxes, bus shelters, monuments and even gravestones.” Countering graffiti is the responsibility of individual boroughs, and each has its own policy regarding graffiti removal. In addition to removing graffiti from public spaces and council-owned property, many boroughs provide free removal from business and residential properties, in some cases only when the graffiti is visible from a street. The amount of time in which a request for graffiti removal will be answered varies for different boroughs, but one commonality is that response time decreases significantly for graffiti that is deemed “racist or offensive.” Some boroughs are particularly severe in setting forth their stances on graffiti. Merton Council, for example, states that “Graffiti is an eyesore that nobody in the borough wants to see. It is also criminal damage and we are determined to stop it.” Merton is a founding member of South West Action Against Graffiti, or SWAAG, which is “a group of southwest London councils who, along with the police, are determined to fight graffiti on all fronts.” The Council of Barking and Dagenham, another member of SWAAG, warns that “graffiti is often the first element in a spiral of decline” and declares that “its artistic merits are irrelevant. It represents one group of people imposing themselves on everyone else and as such is a form of pollution, like people playing loud music.”

The matter of graffiti’s artistic merit is not so straightforward to the many people who view graffiti work such as that of Banksy as more art than eyesore. The rise of Banksy created a dilemma for local authorities, particularly in the London boroughs and other areas of England that were fortunate enough to receive the gift of his artwork, or alternatively, wronged by his “guerilla art.” Many local authorities yielded to the pressure of Banksy’s public support and chose not to remove his work. Council workers in Islington went so far as to restore Banksy works that had been vandalized by the tags of other graffiti writers. According to an Evening Standard article posted by a seemingly bemused Banksy on his own website, Islington Council “defended its policy to clean up and repair the artist’s work. It insisted it was spending taxpayers’ money on the operation in response to residents’ demands.”

In July 2006, the City Council of Bristol was faced with the question of whether or not to order the removal of a Banksy piece near their offices showing a woman in her underwear, a suited man leaning out of a window, and a nude man, presumably the woman’s lover, hanging from the window ledge. The Council decided to ask the public via an internet discussion forum whether or not the piece should be allowed to remain. When ninety-seven percent of responses were in favor of keeping the work, with only six people dissenting, the Council decided that the piece was worthy of being kept, although Councillor Gary Hopkins stressed that “the decision to keep this Banksy image is not a green light for more graffiti in the city.” This incident perfectly illustrates the way in which the rise of graffiti found state officials and the public placed into the role of art critic. Given the nature of Banksy’s work as both illegal and arguably artistic, both state and public were forced to reconsider their definitions of graffiti and decide whether art should transcend the law. In the case of Bristol’s “naked man mural,” the state, disregarding the clear illegality of Banksy’s art, made a judgment of his work based on the deciding factor of public appreciation. Banksy’s response to the incident was, “I think it’s pretty incredible a city council is prepared to make value judgments about preserving illegally painted graffiti. I’m kind of proud of them.” Six months later, after an early Banksy mural was mistakenly removed when contractors were hired by Bristol City Council to “tackle graffiti adjacent to the Banksy work, but wrongly targeted the piece itself,” the Council seemed more sure about its position on Banksy graffiti. It ordered “an investigation into the blunder” and that “all Banksy works in the city…be preserved.”

Other councils, however, offered no apology for their removal of Banksy works. Hackney Council was particularly firm in its anti-graffiti, and therefore anti-Banksy stance, calling for the removal of a number of Banksy works. In February 2008, the Council showed initial signs of yielding to public pressure by allowing a Banksy piece to remain; however, it called for the removal of a portion of the piece, censoring an image of male genitalia that was deemed offensive. Local residents complained that they should have been consulted first, as in the Bristol case. As one resident said, “We’ve been given a work of art. It’s a shame the council have defaced it.” However, a spokesman for the Council argued, “We can’t make a decision on whether something is art or graffiti. The Government judges us on the number of clean walls we have.” Transport for London made a similar argument in response to public outcry when it had a Banksy mural near Old Street Tube station removed. Referring to its “tough line” on graffiti removal, TfL stated, “We have no intention of changing this policy as it makes the transport system safer and more pleasant for passengers. We recognize that there are those who view Banksy’s work as legitimate art, but sadly our graffiti removal teams are staffed by professional cleaners, not professional art critics.”

(To be continued…)

2 thoughts on “Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 1)

  1. I to am fascinated by the interplay between graffiti and heritage buildings. I like the point you made about the graffiti becoming the thing to be preserved. In Toronto there is a place called the Evergreen Brickworks. Since it was abandoned for many year it became the site for lots of urban exploration and graffiti, its not an environmental centre, but they have kept the graffiti because its is now part of the site’s history.

    • Thanks! I’m so glad you told me about Evergreen Brickworks. It looks amazing; maybe I’ll be able to go when I’m in town next week! I just read that Toronto has a new policy that distinguishes graffiti from street art? It’ll be really interesting to see how it works out…

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