Earlier this month, it was reported that a historic building in downtown Los Angeles would be coming up for auction. Normally this story would be relegated to the real estate section, were it not for an iconic mural on one side of the building. In 2010, the famously surreptitious street artist Banksy painted an image of a girl on a swing hanging from the letter “A” in a “PARKING” sign on the building’s south face. The letters “ING” are whitewashed, leaving the word “PARK.” Dubbed “Swing Girl,” it is the British artist’s only extant public artwork in LA. The building’s owners have estimated the value of the building at $16 million, but are hoping to get at least $30 million for it when it hits the auction block in October, the added value pegged to the existence of the Banksy mural.

The mural is behind a private gate.

Located at 908-910 South Broadway, the building itself is a 1914 mid-rise Art Deco structure designed by noted architects Meyer & Holler, who are also responsible for iconic Hollywood theaters including the Egyptian and Grauman’s Chinese. It is also the site where early film star Harold Lloyd clings to the arms of a clock high above the street below in his 1923 silent film “Safety Last!” Tarina Tarantino and Alfonso Campos purchased the building in 2007 for $4 million, and it became the headquarters for their jewelry and accessories brand. Downtown LA had yet to undergo its transformation into a thriving commercial and residential zone, home to boutiques, upscale grocery stores, and condos, many of which repurposed historic buildings built a century ago. The couple spent almost two million refurbishing the building and restoring its Art Deco features. Then, the pandemic hit, their tenants left, and they filed for bankruptcy in April, leaving them with little choice but to sell the building.

Harold Lloyd in “Safety Last!” (1923) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Much coverage of the story has portrayed the mural as a covert intervention into the urban fabric, focused on Banksy’s alteration of the “PARKING” sign to create a moment of childlike bliss amongst asphalt and blight. The reality, like most things Banksy, is more complicated. First, there was no “PARKING” sign, according to Kim Cooper of Esotouric, a tour company that advocates for preservation in LA.

“When it was painted, the wall of 908-910 S. Broadway was the edge of a huge surface parking lot, which Downtown has been filled with since the redevelopment mania of the 1960s. Banksy painted the whole thing — PARK (ing) and the girl on the swing, giving the impression of an intervention with an existing wall sign,” Cooper told Hyperallergic via email. (Google’s street view time travel feature backs her up, and Joey Good of Miller Ink, the PR firm covering the auction, told Hyperallergic via email that Tarantino and Campos are “well aware [that] the entire sign is Banksy’s work.”)

Screenshots of Street View Images from April 2009 (top) and May 2011 (bottom)

The mural stood at the edge of the lot for a few years until about 2015, when construction began on the property which had been purchased by mega-developer Geoff Palmer, a Trump donor known for his massive faux-Italianate structures that often abut freeways and span intersections with sky bridges, lest tenants be forced to confront street life. Palmer was thwarted from replicating his Olive Garden-esque design scheme with his Broadway Palace Apartments here, however, because the site is within the Broadway Theater District, a historic preservation zone that set style guidelines for the buildings there. “For the first time in his career, [Palmer] was forced to abide by design restrictions,” Cooper said. “So instead of the incoherent slant-walled Italianate fortress he recycles all over Downtown, he was made to match the historic Beaux Arts height and massings and install retro neon blade and roof signage on his Broadway Palace project.”

This historical designation would also make it difficult for a new buyer to remove the mural to sell it separately from the building. And even if they could get around the design restrictions to slice off the mural, auction houses are not likely to want to deal with a Banksy that has been removed from its original context as public art. As Holly Dunlap, formerly the head of the Private Client Group at Sotheby’s in London, told the New York Times, “We would never touch that because it’s not how the artist intended it to be sold.”

The “Parking” sign is also Banksy’s work.

Instead of building right up against 908-910 Broadway, as would be customary in the area, Palmer left an easement in between the buildings at the behest of Tarantino and Campos, “so that the mural would still be visible and able to be viewed by the public,” Good of Miller Ink told Hyperallergic via email. This is how the mural is visible to the public now, in a narrow alley, behind a private gate and a sheet of Plexiglass to ostensibly protect it from vandalism. More than simply “social commentary on the revitalization of Los Angeles’ historic core,” as the press announcement touts, the mural now speaks to the contested relationship between public art and private space in LA. It has been given just enough room to be monetized as a real estate asset, its function as a piece of communal art largely symbolic.

“In my opinion, the carve out and fencing wrecked the piece, while physically preserving it,” says Cooper. “The child is blocked from the sun, has no room to swing, and nobody can really see her except from an oblique angle, in shadow, through a fence. It’s just depressing.”

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.