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Painting over a mural by Blu in Bologna (photo by Michele Lapini via Blu‘s website)

On Saturday night, the renowned and mysterious Italian street artist Blu went on an art-destroying spree through the streets of Bologna. The work he erased was his own — with the help of activist groups XM24 and Crash, Blu covered 20 years’ worth of massive, colorful murals with gray paint.

The gesture was an act of protest against an upcoming exhibition, Street Art: Banksy & Co., which opens Friday in Bologna’s historic Palazzo Pepoli. The exhibition, co-organized by the privately funded cultural institution Genus Bononiae and the Arthemisia Group, features 250 works of street art, some of which were removed from their original public locations without the artists’ consent. The show was curated by one of the city’s wealthiest patrons, Fabio Roversi Monaco, president of both the Academy of Fine Arts and the powerful Banca Imi.

When Blu learned that the exhibition will include some of his own work, Genus Bononiae’s attempt to “[salvage street art] from demolition and [preserve it] from the injuries of time,” as they put it, dramatically backfired. 

Blu’s destruction of his remaining murals in Bologna, as the leftist artist collective Wu Ming explained on its blog (per the artist’s request), keeps it away from private institutions. The gesture is intended to expose the hypocrisy of a city that “on the one hand criminalizes graffiti, puts 16-year-old writers on trial, praises ‘urban decorum,’ and on the other celebrates herself as the cradle of street art and wants to retrieve it for valorization on the market.” Just last month, another globetrotting Italian street artist, Alice Pasquini, was fined €800 (~$889) for a graffiti-related offense. In this context, the collective wrote, “the only thing left to do is [to make] these paintings disappear, to snatch them from those claws, to make hoarding impossible.”

We reached out to Blu and the Wu Ming Foundation for more commentary, but as the Wu Ming Foundation made clear in a blunt email, Blu never does interviews:

Blu never talks to journalists, he never gives interviews, he doesn’t even write about the meaning of his work or his actions or “how it feels,” nothing like that. He only draws murals or, in this case, he erases them. Silently. That’s why he asked us to write a statement about his latest action, which we did. However, the agreement we have with Blu is: no interviews, and we respect that. Sorry, we cannot help you.

Blu and his comrades taped up said statement at the sites of the destroyed murals, and also posted it online. “Seeing street art exhibited in a museum is paradoxical and grotesque,” they wrote of Banksy and Co. “This ‘street art’ exhibition is representative of a model of urban space that we must fight, a model based on private accumulation which commodifies life and creativity for the profits of the usual few people.”

This isn’t Blu’s first brush with censorship, self-inflicted or otherwise. In 2012, a mural he created as part of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s Art in the Streets exhibition was whitewashed (prompting him to repeatedly break his own “never talks to journalists” rule). In 2014, he and artist Lutz Henke (with some help) painted over an iconic, collaborative mural in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood to protest the area’s gentrification.

Blu’s desire to retain control of what uses his street art is put toward — and keep it out of the hands of those seeking to profit from it — echoes Banksy’s reaction to the Sincura Art Club‘s 2014 auction of his “sensitively salvaged” works of street art. “This show has got nothing to do with me and I think it’s disgusting people are allowed to go around displaying art on walls without getting permission,” Banksy wrote at the time in a statement on his website.

Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

15 replies on “Street Artist Blu Destroys 20 Years of His Work in Bologna to Protest an Exhibition”

  1. While there may have been little alternative in this instance I often wonder why self-immolation seems to be the only way many artists react to things like this. Destroying your own work to oppose censorship, for example, seems more than a bit counterproductive.

    1. I used to think artists whom destroyed their work were stupid, but after a little panic attack and some bad decision making I destroyed a whole year of work and honestly it felt really good to be rid of it all. You can create again and the truth is your work does not own you. People may not even approve of it or care, but you do it for a reason. So in short, don’t knock it till you try it.

      1. It’s true, Steven, you can create again. Part of my training as a painter was that you may stunt yourself if you allow yourself to be too attached to your own actions as you work on something. In the midst of drawing, painting, printing, sculpting or anything at all, we notice that we might make missteps or we re-vision and need to allow ourself to do some removal and backpedalling and rethinking, solipsisim, even possibly completely trashing something that doesn’t work. This is part of the freedom we need to allow ourselves so that our work can truly reflect who we are. But this choice by Blu to destroy his work communicates something different. It’s a sociopolitical statement above and beyond the motivation to destroy work for the sake of refreshement or just letting go. He’s commenting on commodification in a very direct way and sad as it is to see his work destroyed I applaud his intentions. Reread the article and think more about commodification that is available to those with these unfathomably deep pockets and I think you will understand this message and his motivation better.

        1. No, I did read the article. The point I tried to make, which I tried to make (very poorly) was that “you do it for a reason and it’s not counterproductive”, and the artist’s reason in this case was protest.

    2. Commodification is the main issue. Stealing is the key means used in the process of commodifying most things and in this case it’s someone’s artwork. Banksy’s and Blu’s work being created in public spaces doesn’t grant anyone license to take it for themselves to make money off it or show it anywhere they want completely out of the context in which the artist situated it and intended it to be shown. The political issues of the control by a moneyed few of any spaces where one can exhibit artwork and not be ‘breaking the law’ should be obvious, however the philosophy behind commodification is all too often ‘if you can get away with it take whatever you can for free’. It’s exactly the same concept as ‘buy low sell high’. So spare us the whining about ‘self immolation’ and quit defending the actions of stealing while calling it ‘preservation’. You’re full of it.

      1. Sharpen your reading skills, deary. I didn’t defend anyone’s actions. You, madam, are the one who is full of it.

  2. I must admit some confusion here on a few points. There are few museums in the world that are not privately funded, so the artist’s outrage over that seems a bit moot. The art in question was usually imposed on places that did not request it, so whether or not Blu likes it, the art itself has now become the equivalent of a Creative Commons license… which would include saving it from demolition with or without hs/her permission. Finally, in order to remain a Man (or Woman) of Mystery, Blu provides no way to be contacted about this to *get* that permission.

    I”m afraid I have little sympathy for either Blu or Banksy. They put these things out there, giggle like schoolkids at their brilliant escapades, and then get all upset when someone actually tries to preserve their work. I’m sorry, but if you;re going to put your work on public display, you either work with the pubic in the first place or you abandon it to whatever fate someone else may assign it in the future. You cannot have it all ways, in all directions, at the same time.

    EDITED TO ADD: I just noticed that on the front page of the site, immediately below the notice about this article, is an ad from Sotheby’s offering to teach the “business of art”. The visual irony provided a bit of a giggle…

  3. 99.9% of viewers in Bologna will not know of the protest by the artist and will think the city or building owner painted over the art. (Unfortunately), most will probably be happy the street art is painted over. New artists will soon add their art to the painted over areas.

  4. De-installing a work from its location without consulting the artist is disrespectful and contravenes the artist’s intention. It’s basically looting. I also see this destruction as related to the gentrification of neighbourhoods. Good street art makes an area cool, attracting the rich to previously affordable neighbourhoods occupied by artists and people of limited means. By destroying his work, Blu symbolically refuses to participate in the process of gentrification that inevitably leads to the loss of work and living spaces for artists.

  5. Very adequate reaction. I suppose, Street artists experience right now the Duchamp paradox: when the inicially exhibition of his “Fountain” was intended scandalous critisism against culture industry and art conventions, now it’s replicase (original is missing) have high art market value. Just street artists see such developments within few years/decades. So deleting their own work is the most appropriate way of being.

    I wonder, how much is Banksy involved in this exhibition. I mean, an expensive art foundation in Italy – why just why do I hear the iconic melody by Nino Rota in background?

  6. I’ve never understood graffiti “Artists” as celebrity – they vandalize other people’s properties. Their work is criminal in its origin…

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