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Passion Behind Banksy: Does Preservation of Street Art Make Sense?

by Elena Rubinova


(Translated by the author from the original article in Russian published on the website artandyou.ru)


Local authorities, private businesses, art critics and artists themselves address the problem of street art preservation, protection and ownership in different ways. This article describes some attempts to find a solution.



Preservation of street art – be it by Banksy or other much lesser-known street artists – remains a point of hot debate and even controversy. On a chilly Sunday morning in mid-March, residents of the London Borough of Islington discovered that even before the magnolias had started blooming in the nearby Finsbury Park, a tree in a neighbouring street turned green though previously its branches had been heavily pruned. On the wall of a block of flats, paint drips mimicked the foliage, and below it was the silhouette of a man with a hose in his hand, as if spraying the “greenery”.  Shortly after Banksy claimed his authorship and although the artist did not provide any explanations about the message he addressed, the ecological agenda was immediately gathered up by North London residents and numerous climate change activists.


Banksy 's work in Islington (March 2024) , Photo Courtesy: Dan Kitwood/GETTY IMAGES


The image of the new mural instantly went viral –  the artist alone has more than 12 million followers on the social network. The work caused quite a stir, but just three days later it was vandalized –  the “greenery” was smeared with white paint in two places. The local authorities hurried to take emergency measures: they covered the wall with a protective screen, and the site was fenced and patrolled. They also assured residents that they would “continue to explore future solutions with the owner of the building so that people can enjoy the artwork. Each new Banksy work immediately gains not only fame in the art world, but also becomes the subject of loud, sometimes scandalous stories.


In late December 2023, Banksy's previous proven work in Peckham (South London), a “Stop” sign depicting three drones was stolen in front of numerous bystanders an hour after it had appeared. A similar fate befell the graffiti that Banksy did on the door of the Bataclan theatre in 2015 as a tribute to the terrorist attack victims. However, a few years later, the work was “discovered” in Italy and eight people were convicted for stealing it. This is only a small part of episodes of similar nature. 


The reason for such close attention to Bansky’s work is because of the high demand for his art by the art market: in 2021, according to artprice.com global ranking, Banksy ranked fifth on the list, just behind sales leaders such as Picasso, Basquiat, Warhol and Monet. This came after a record-breaking $25.4 million for his work “Love is in the Bin” (the famous painting with a shredder hidden in the frame, which was one of the most impressive events in the history of modern auctions). Although in 2023 Banksy was no longer the fifth, but the 53rd in this ranking among the best-selling artists in the world, the authorities, business and the art community in different countries continue to look for a solution to the preservation of street art.Some have to deal with the problem of its restoration.


The authorities of Venice city recently decided to restore Banksy's mural “Migrant Child”, which he created in 2019 on the wall of a building along the Rio Novo canal. Over several years, the drawing had become badly faded and weathered under the effect of dampness. Critics tried to convince that the nature of street art is ephemeral and temporary (especially in Venice) and urged not to touch the artist's work and let it it “deteriorate” naturally. But the authorities have thought it otherwise – they see a great tourist potential in this piece.  


Migrant Child (2019), Photo Courtesy: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES


Although Banksy is arguably the most recognized figure in the realm of modern-day street art, homeowners sometimes prefer to get rid of an unwanted attraction on the walls of their houses. That's exactly what property owners in Lowestoft (UK) did, trying to sell the work along with the wall. But David Damagi, the owner of a building in New York, decided to save Banksy’s work by moving a section of the wall to another location when he learnt in 2023 that the house on which the famous artist left his drawing was to be demolished. To perform this complex operation, he turned to Fine Art Shippers, a company that already had a similar experience. Ilya Kushnirskiy, co-founder of Fine Art Shippers , Director of the Russian Icon Collection  project, told artandyou.ru that Banksy created the work entitled "Ghetto 4 Life" back in 2013, when he lived in New York for a month:


Ilya Kushnirskiy said, “For the past ten years it has been protected from vandalism and any other natural damage by a Plexiglas screen and became an iconic piece for the local community. Last month it was moved from the Bronx to Connecticut - removed from the building, or rather cut out along with a fragment of the wall. Technically, this is no easy task and our company teamed up with Chesakl, a New York City based steel construction firm. This is our second Banksy wall relocation project as of 2019 by Fine Art Shippers and Chesakl.”

Kushnirskiy added that the new location was chosen by the client and now art lovers will be able to see the wall in the patio of a community centre in Connecticut.



The Fine Art Shippers portfolio includes transporting Banksy graffiti walls on the streets of Bronx and Brooklyn. After the artist applied his work, the owners of the buildings, for reasons of safety and preservation of the street art, dismantled the walls to move them to a special storage. 

The New York case is not unique. Private business in Russia sometimes supports the initiative of preserving street art objects. This is exactly what happened with the work of the artist Ivan Simonov, who once started out in the “street”, now continues his art practice in a variety of techniques. However, in the case of his work, transportation did not require such technically complex solutions as in New York.



Photo by Ivan Simonov, Courtesy of the author 


In the winter of 2019 we went to the sea, and I made this work on the fence of an abandoned construction site, but by the roadside, as it was important to be visible. Um, and then out of the blue I was approached by some guys who wanted to buy this fence from the owners of the construction site and move it to their space. But because time had passed and the work had faded in the sun, they asked for restoration. Now the very newspaper on which the work was done is in Sabina Chagina's collection.” the artist explained.

Street art has long become a popular trend in the art market and the problem of preserving objects is acute in general and not only with works by world stars at the Banksy level. The works by Russian street artists reach significant sums at auctions like VLADEY and are offered by galleries. Russia can also boast of a number of street art festivals (in Nizhny Novgorod, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Samara, etc.)  Later, the works he street artists are generally dismantled and either sold or stored. A question that is timely and logical: is it possible to preserve street art? And in what way?


Sabina Chagina (left) and Kirill Kto (right)


Street Art Storage (SAH) in St Petersburg is the only institution in the country that sets the task of collecting, storing, studying and popularizing artists of the “street wave”. At the moment, the collection includes more than 450 items of paintings, drawings, assemblages, sculptures, etc. The collection is the only one in the country that aims at collecting, preserving, studying and popularizing street wave artists. Before the works are added to the collection, they are examined by specialists, curators and restorers, and new works come from different regions of the country thanks to expeditions by the Foundation's staff and the Institute for Street Art Research, which has been in operation since 2017.


Street art storage, St Petersburg. Photo by Ekaterina Kartseva


“The majority of street art activities or projects are preserved in the format of the author's photos or videos or made by the artist's collaborators and colleagues. The objects themselves are eventually destroyed, dismantled; some of them are simply erased from the walls, as the aggressive street environment does not suggest long-term preservation of the work in urban space. At the same time there are exceptions when in many cities works that may be 10 or even 30 years old are preserved and they continue to be in very good condition,” says the director of the project “Street Art Storage” and art historian, Alina Zorya

Street art storage, St Petersburg. Photo by Ekaterina Kartseva


Another well-known Russian expert, Sabina Chagina, the creator and the Commissar and long-term curator of the Artmossphere Street Art Biennale, believes that the issues of street art preservation should be approached in a diversified way, and if there is a choice, it is better to look for ways to preserve the works on site.


“I am not a huge advocate of preserving works that are made for the outdoors. It seems to me that the work created for the street, is, in general, meant to be in there. It's often site-specific and to put it in some other space is a kind of artificial sterilization. In general, I think even a lot of works might have changed meaning because of this. But the practice of covering works with plexiglass or a screen makes a lot of sense. In any case, that was the case with Banksy's work – if there hadn't been this Plexiglas, it's likely that something would have happened to it a long time ago.”

Furthermore, according to Sabina Chagina, the preservation of street art and its museum display often happen without authorization of the artist. “There were also cases with Blue's works when they were exhibited in a museum without his consent. Blue was very indignant about this fact, and after that he painted all over his graffiti in the small Italian city of Bologna.” And such a sharp reaction of the artist is by no means an exception; many are speaking out against the commodification of their work.


“The artists also have different attitudes to the attempts of preserving street art, and the majority perceive it rather negatively,” Alina Zorya continues,” first of all because street art is quite vibrant and changing, and if new works appear, sometimes over the old ones, it's an unspoken rule in the community – everyone understands that your work is not forever.”

The commercialization of street art and the growing arsenal of technologies that enable this art to be preserved and even virtualized allow many works to be given a second life. However, the key question remains open – does museum and gallery storage, as well as its further fate on the art market, deprive street art of the meanings that once made the phenomenon of street art so popular all over the world?


(All photos courtesy of Fine Art Shippers, unless mentioned otherwise.)


 

Elena Rubinova is a Moscow-based art journalist working across media, professional philologist, teacher, and translator. She started her career as an English language teacher before joining ABC News as a translator and producer. She has produced documentaries for BBC, National Geographic, Arte, Discovery Channel to name a few, including the three-part series The Art of Russia (BBC2, 2009). She has been a regular contributing writer for Russian magazines and on-line media such as ArtandYou, Artguide, Dialogue of Arts, International Life, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Russia Profile, Passport Moscow.

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