Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Graffiti artist Banksy leaves mark on Detroit and ignites firestorm
BY MARK STRYKER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Banksy was here. But what’s really fascinating is what happened after he left.
The British-born art world celebrity and provocateur, who hides behind a cloak of anonymity and whose graffiti paintings have made headlines from Los Angeles to London, has tagged Detroit -- most prominently a crumbling wall at the derelict Packard plant.
Discovered last weekend, the stenciled work shows a forlorn boy holding a can of red paint next to the words “I remember when all this was trees.” But by Tuesday, artists from the 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, a feisty grassroots group, had excavated the 7-by-8-foot, 1,500-pound cinder block wall with a masonry saw and forklift and moved the piece to their grounds near the foot of the Ambassador Bridge in southwest Detroit.
The move -- a guerilla act on top of Banksy’s initial guerilla act -- has sparked an intense debate about the nature of graffiti art, including complicated questions of meaning, legality, value and ownership. Some say the work should be protected and preserved at all costs. Others say that no one had a right to move it — and that the power and meaning of graffiti art is so intrinsic to its location that to relocate it is to kill it.
Detroit’s unique profile as a kind of laboratory of extreme urban dilapidation and nascent revitalization adds yet another layer of complexity. “This may be unprecedented, because in most other cities, you wouldn’t be able to take a wall home,” said Luis Croquer, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, which specializes in cutting-edge art.
“What does it mean to move a wall? And beyond legality, who does the wall really belong to, and now does the art belong to the gallery? To everybody? To nobody? We’re operating in this space where there’s this lawlessness that opens up possibilities that would be much harder to encounter in other cities.”
Stewards or thieves?
The folks at 555 Gallery and Studios know that not everyone agrees with their decision to move the mural, but they’re adamant they did the right thing. They don’t want to sell it or squirrel it away like a keepsake. They want to protect it and keep it on display for all.
“It’s about preservation for us,” said volunteer executive director and co-founder Carl W. Goines. “We’re watching this beautiful city crumble around us and we can’t do anything to stop it. So with this fine-art piece -- and it’s not just everyday graffiti that you might whiz by -- here was our opportunity to do something. It would have been destroyed if we didn’t make the effort.”
Banksy has become famous for his controversial graffiti works around the globe and stunts like sneaking a parody of the Mona Lisa into the Louvre. Some consider him nothing more than a trespassing vandal and publicity hound with a can of spray paint. Others think he’s a substantive artist, clever satirist and savvy trickster, whose mysterious urban legend persona has become an indivisible part of his aesthetic. Some of his works have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction or in galleries.
Free Press attempts to contact Banksy have been unsuccessful, but it’s possible that his sweep through town was related to the documentary about him, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” now showing at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak. What appear to be new Banksy pieces have also been found recently in Toronto and Chicago. Arts and culture blogs are speculating that he created as many as four works in metro Detroit, including a signature rat image at 28661 Van Dyke in Warren. But only the Packard plant piece has appeared on his Web site, www.banksy.co.uk.
It’s unclear when it was painted, but the 555 artists were tipped off May 8 by a friend who saw the work on Banksy’s site and recognized Detroit. By Monday, they had assembled a posse of five to 12 workers and began digging out the work. It took two full days to complete the job.
As photos of Banksy’s Detroit handiwork spread through the blogosphere this week, critics began questioning the 555 group’s removal of the Packard plant painting. At the photo blog detroitfunk.com, one commentator called them thieves rather than rescuers and wrote, “Banksy put it there for a reason, for anyone who cared enough to enter the death-trap to see it.”
“It makes me cringe that so many are applauding this,” wrote another commentator. “The point of ‘street art’ is for it to exist in its natural environment. It is by nature temporary. Disappointing when a good piece fades away? Yes. But that’s life.”
These arguments cut to the core of almost any discussion of graffiti art, as well as the legality and ethics of trespassing and defiling private property. There is also the complicated question of ownership. The Packard plant, a massive haven for squatters and scrappers — 3.5 million square feet of almost total urban destruction and decay — has been at the center of an epic legal dispute between the City of Detroit and a land speculator dating back more than a decade. News reports have identified Romel Casab as the owner. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
The artists at 555 who engineered the move call themselves “stewards” of the work, but admit they have little idea of what Banksy would think of their actions. For now, the painting, lovingly encased in a makeshift wooden frame that surrounds the wall, is on display outside the gallery on a gritty stretch of West Vernor Highway in the shadow of I-75.
Staff member Eric Froh said that while the painting’s meaning has shifted outside of the Packard plant, it retains an expressive power akin to Renaissance religious artifacts or antiquities uncovered by archeologists and now seen in museums. He also noted that the controversy has already become part of its accumulated meaning.
“The work can now live on for many years,” said Froh.