Londoners furious at ‘stolen’ Banksy

Wall and piece: locals say Slave Labour was ‘given’ to residents of Haringey © Haringey Council

Hundreds of locals protested when a Banksy mural was taken from a wall and put up for sale this week. The auction has been cancelled, but who really owns street art?

No one knows who took the painting. They arrived, stealthy and unexpected, at the dead of night, leaving nothing behind but a blank wall. A week later, the masterpiece appeared at auction in Miami, with a price tag of some £400,000.

Was the artwork a Leonardo da Vinci? Perhaps a more contemporary Damien Hirst? No: the subject of this year’s biggest art scandal is a spray painted concrete wall – a Banksy.

Slave Labour, a graffiti stencil of a child sewing Union Jack bunting, disappeared from Haringey, North London, nearly two weeks ago. Since, residents have fought for its return: the graffiti, they say, is a tourist attraction and source of pride, that belongs to the local people in an impoverished area.

The Florida auction house selling the work disagreed. It argued that Slave Labour belonged to the owner of the wall it was painted on, and he or she had every right to sell it.

But on Saturday, people power appeared to triumph over profit. In a dramatic turnaround, the sale was cancelled at the last minute.

Locals are jubilant, and have intensified the campaign to have Slave Labour returned to Haringey. Many say the piece is only valuable in its original location: street art, they say, is powerful because it appears in unexpected places, and comments on or adds to a particular area.

But the saga has also challenged ideas like these. For decades, people have illegally sprayed paint on buildings to ‘reclaim’ city streets from powerful forces like advertising or policing. Later, when painting and sculpture began selling for millions of pounds, some street artists saw their work as a protest against commodification – art becoming a product to be bought and sold.

But as graffiti has become more popular, it too has turned into something people want to buy. Today, fans can buy a wide range of Banksy books and prints, and originals by well-known street artists can sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Art attack?

Some are horrified by this growing market. Street art, they say, is important because it is part of people’s lives, and their cities. It does not just comment on society, but also pops up and develops within it. Turning street art into an expensive object to be boxed up, traded and framed in galleries, they say, strips it of its value.

Art dealers are quick to disagree. If street art is important because it interacts with the world, they say, we should not stop it being used in a certain way. When graffiti is bought and sold, it is playing a new kind of active role in society – the fact that it is off the street does not stop it being art.

You Decide

  1. Who does Banksy’sSlave Labourbelong to?
  2. Is street art only meaningful when it is in its original setting? Why?


  1. ConsiderSlave Labour, or another piece of street art that you particularly like. Write a short analysis of how it draws meaning from its particular context and place.
  2. Go on a search for graffiti, and create a short film or photo essay about the street art in your area.

Some People Say...

“Graffiti is just vandalism.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Where can I see Banksy’s art?
It is most densely concentrated in Bristol and East London, but examples can be found all over the world: Banksy has created pieces all over Europe and the US, and has even graffitied the wall separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories.
I’m not really keen on graffiti, though.
That doesn’t mean you won’t be affected by it. An increase in trendy street art has helped turn areas like Shoreditch into sought-after locations, and anyone finding a valuable piece of graffiti on their wall will probably see the worth of their property shoot up. ‘The cops might not actually be able to charge me with criminal damage any more,’ Banksy says, ‘because theoretically my graffiti actually increases the value of property rather than decreasing it.’

Word Watch

No one knows the real identity of Banksy, although an investigation by UK newspaper The Daily Mail suggested he could be Robin Gunningham, a man born in Bristol in 1973. He is well known for his distinctive stencil style of graffiti, and is Britain’s best known graffiti artist, with several books and a film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, to his name.
Union Jack
The graffiti appeared around the same time as the Queen’s Jubilee last year.
Haringey is a borough in North London. Like many areas of Britain’s capital, it is hugely diverse: as well as the upper middle class districts of Highgate and Muswell Hill, it incorporates estates that are classified as being among the most deprived 10% in the country, as well as many different nationalities and religious communities. The borough was particularly badly hit by the riots that broke out last summer.
Spray painting graffiti on walls or buildings is illegal, even if you do think it is art. Today, however, many graffiti artists are specially commissioned to create pieces in particular spaces, and have permission from the owner.
A commodity is something that is bought or sold on the market, to satisfy human wants or needs.

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