Articles

Art, Value & Banksy’s Rats in Melbourne

The Banksy rat before the buff (photo courtesy Citylights Projects, all rights reserved) (click to enlarge)

It seems that Melbourne City Council just can’t get it right when it comes to street art, and especially when it comes to the work of Banksy: two weeks ago, they “accidentally” ordered a cleaning crew to remove one of Banksy’s iconic rats from a wall on Hosier Lane in the center of the city. The news of this rodent’s demise was greeted by a storm of media attention & criticism.

When Banksy visited Melbourne in 2003 he left dozens of stenciled works around the city. Most of these have disappeared, without any media coverage at all.  But in 2008, it was clear that the status of Banksy’s art in Melbourne, as in many other cities around the world, had changed.

The placement of the origional Banksy rat (left), and a Melbourne city worker buffing the wall where the rat once was (photos courtesy Citylights Projects, all rights reserved) (click to enlarge)
Some of the new Banksy-inspired rats added by local artists post-Banksy buff (photos courtesy the author, all rights reserved) (click to enlarge)

So what was different? Well, the answer lies in the value attributed to Banksy’s art after the 2006 exhibition of Banksy’s work in a show in Los Angeles called Barely Legal. The show was a huge success, and turned the elusive and anonymous figure into something of a celebrity. As is well know, his works then sold at auction and on eBay for large sums of money.

The combination of media attention and financial success lead many to take steps to “protect” or “preserve” Banksy’s works on the street.

In December 2008, Melbourne City Council faced media criticism for its attempt to preserve another Banksy stencil by bolting sheets of Plexiglas over it. This work was known as the “little diver” stencil, located close to street level, in Cocker Alley in the center of Melbourne. Local artists expressed their disdain for the artificial preservation of street art by pouring silver paint behind the plastic sheet and onto the stencil. On top of the plastic, the words “Banksy woz ‘ere” were written in black marker pen. The “loss” of the stencil prompted many to express sadness at the city’s “loss” through an act of what was called “vandalism.”

So if the obliteration of the little diver stencil was vandalism, what should we call the actions of Melbourne City Council, in “losing” another Banksy? The council was at pains to characterize this event as an unfortunate accident rather than as indicative of a lack of appreciation for Banksy’s work. Kathy Alexander, chief executive, expressed her regret, stating, “As the street art capital of Australia, we are aware of the popularity of Banksy’s works and have made exceptions to protect them in the past.”

a comment that shows how some local artists feel about Melbourne City Council’s special treatment of Banksy’s work (photo courtesy Citylights Projects, all rights reserved) (click to enlarge)

It’s clear that while the works of Banksy are valued by the council (as “exceptions”), there is no comparable consideration for the works of other talented street artists, whether visitors or locals. Their work is always at risk of being lost. This is taken for granted by street artists, who understand that the street is an ever-changing setting and that a work is likely to disappear — which could be in a day, a week, or in years.

That doesn’t mean that Melbourne City Council’s removal of the Banksy rat from Hosier Lane is simply part of the flux that exists within the street. The council seems to believe that its system of issuing “permits” for street artworks is an appropriate way to “manage” street art and graffiti. No permit existed for the wall Banksy’s rat happened to be on; even if it had, this seems like yet another form of artificial preservation — just another means by which the council can attempt to freeze the continually fluctuating landscape of the street in order to maximize their cultural or economic gain.

The city council are now talking about extending retrospective permits to other significant works of street art (leading many to joke that the council would set up a hotline number to phone if you spot a Twist or Sixten work, to save it from being “accidentally” buffed), but it would be better to reconsider the entire permit system, which at present concentrates all decision-making power regarding the retention or removal of street art in Melbourne in the hands of one committee. And once again, local artists have demonstrated their disdain for the council’s actions, by painting a number of fluorescent rats on the walls of Hosier lane, as if to point out to the council its hypocrisy in fixating on one artist’s work, while ignoring the value of the contributions made by others.

One local artist depicts a rat being stabbed by a native Australian flower, in what is probably a critique of the buff situation (photos courtesy Citylights Projects, all rights reserved) (click to enlarge)

The buffing of Banksy’s rat also demonstrates how precarious is any “permission” granted by the council to a street artwork. What was deemed to be a suitable backdrop for a photo opportunity for mayor Robert Doyle, was also apparently such an eyesore to the deputy mayor that a cleaning crew was dispatched. No-one in the department responsible for dispatching the crew seemed to notice (or care?) that the order was to remove art from a site that has become something of a local landmark: Hosier Lane is used as a location in the filming of local television shows, as a backdrop for people’s wedding photos, in fashion shoots and — indeed — in promotional material advertising Melbourne created by Tourism Victoria and by the City of Melbourne.

It has to be said that all the fuss made by the media and by the council seems just a bit hypocritical. Yes, a Banksy has gone, but the work of talented artists disappears all the time, and is not mourned by the authorities.

Melbourne City Council might value the art of Banksy, but that hasn’t stopped either the State Government from enacting harsh anti-graffiti laws or the council from attempting to regulate street art through its permit process.  Instead of mourning the Banksy rat lost through the contradictions of a confused bureaucratic process, the city council needs to face up to the fact that Melbourne’s status as the street art capital of Australia demands greater intelligence from its municipal authorities.

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For additional photos of Banksy’s work in Melbourne, visit an extensive Flickrset by cgs327.

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