The Writing on the Walls

The Writing on the Walls

Words Jane Singer

Illustrations Lucy Bayliss

Sitting on the border of Westminster and Camden, historically bohemian Fitzrovia is affluent in both its business interests and property owners. It is also classed as ‘above averagely deprived’. Through this disparity, the visual markings of graffiti, defined as ‘writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place’, are common. These include works by the well-known Banksy and Bambi, but also by lesser known artists, part of the Burning Candy crew and High Roller Society, such as Mighty Mo and Gold Peg. Graffiti is usually anonymous and on someone else’s property, but above all, it is illegal. Thus, it is both amusing and infuriating the differing stances taken by Westminster Council on graffiti. However, they could, in the end, have the last laugh in the face of this illegal visual expression of opinion.

Beyond the legal issues, graffiti is seen as an artistic movement that includes several different styles (spray-paint graffiti, street art and stencil) and is associated with varying socio-cultural groups. What makes it art comes down to the viewer. For those artists like Banksy, their artistic quality has been recognised and in turn, their art has been attributed monetary value. Such pieces have drawn interest from collectors and gallery owners and sold for thousands. Despite the financial gains, graffiti is illegal since it is created without permission from the owner of the surface upon which it is placed. Additionally, it remains illegal, even when the graffiti does not damage the property owner and in some cases, increases the value of the property.

Consent is vital in the production of graffiti. Although, with prior consent, it wouldn’t be graffiti! Property owners can consent ex post facto to graffiti that was originally unauthorised. In these cases, property owners have accepted the graffiti works on their property (usually for the potential financial value), leaving the artists free from arrest. A recent example is Bristol Council deciding to keep one of Banksy’s graffiti pieces after an open poll showed that city residents favoured preservation of the work.

One of the most well-known pieces of graffiti by Banksy is One Nation under CCTV. Painted on a wall looking onto the vehicle parking yard and Newman Street, an area of London under heavy surveillance, Banksy’s piece, like so many of his others, examines political issues.  Here, he is protesting against Britain’s surveillance system. The image depicts a young boy wearing a hoodie on the sixth rung of a tall ladder, rolling out the block lettering. To the left is a police officer and watchdog. The irony is that the boy is openly mocking the police officer and the government’s attempts to restrain his freedom painting, by his piece against CCTV surveillance right under a CCTV surveillance camera.  A closer inspection reveals the CCTV camera to be on a pan and tilt motorised mounting, but the operators do not seem to move its field of view at all. Like so many London CCTV cameras, it provides a convenient roosting perch for pigeons and other birds. Banksy’s text is also a play on the American Pledge of Allegiance, whereby citizens pledge their loyalty to the US. Taking the stance that it was “graffiti and if you condone this then what is the difference between this and all the other graffiti you see scrawled across the city?” Westminster Council painted over it in 2009. The Council argued that Banksy had not sought permission from the owner.

Having a change of heart and possibly swayed by the potential financial gains, Westminster Council opted to keep Banksy’s 2011 piece If graffiti changed anything – it would be illegal. The lettering is written in blood red paint with the stencil of a rat with red paint on one its paws, appearing as if it has recently signed the work with a paw print. Not without political meaning, Banksy pays homage to anarchist Emma Goldman, who, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, founded Mother Earth, an anarchist magazine. A strong advocate of women’s rights and social issues, she expressed her frustration with the political system, famously saying, “If voting changed anything, it would be illegal.” Perhaps playing on his own frustrations with the illegality of graffiti, Banksy’s piece remains in its original location, attracting tourists and Londoners alike.

Accompanying this graffiti on the corner of Clipstone Street and Cleveland Street is one of the 12 Rude Popes by Bambi, nicknamed ‘the female Banksy’. Stencilled in 2013 on top of the protective Perspex covering Banksy’s piece, it depicts an image of Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down in February of that year, sticking two fingers up in a rude gesture. Bambi’s work costs tens of thousands of pounds and she has been commission by celebrities including Rihanna, Robbie Williams, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Will this additional piece of graffiti add to the potential financial value of the wall?

There are though, hundreds of graffiti works in Fitzrovia. Yet, when does graffiti become vandalism and unwanted? In 2012, a series of yellow spray paint stencils saying ‘fight the Bid’ and ‘No BID in Fitzrovia’ started appearing on bins and pavements in Fitzrovia. It was in protest of the planned BID (Business Improvement District) in Fitzrovia. Many residents publicly voiced their disproval and anger of this graffiti although ironically, the graffiti campaign only added to the argument for the BID which was proposed in order to improve the ‘inner city slump’ by ‘business interests’. Despite the resistance, the Fitzrovia BID was formed.

It would appear that the owner of the building (on which the wall the graffiti is created) becomes the owner of the graffiti and potentially, owner of a valuable piece of art. Thus, Westminster Council could be sitting on several hundreds of thousands of pounds in the form of a Banksy and Bambi piece, no less together. With political and social messages imbued in his works and a recognisable dislike for authority and the establishment, how entertaining it would be to see Westminster Council benefit financially from the art of Banksy.