This December, a mural by the mysterious British graffiti artist Banksy will be sold by a U.S. auction house for the first time. “Flower Girl,” a 5,000 pound, nine-by-eight foot section of brick wall, is expected to sell for several hundred thousand dollars, given that Banksy's street art has often sold for even more than that in Europe.
The art market is clearly eager to embrace the private sale of what was previously public art. What's less clear is whether "street art" remains street art after it has been installed in a bedroom. Buying street art isn't illegal — at least, it hasn’t been so far. Whether it’s ethical is up for debate. What’s clear, however, is that a mural on a busy street serves a different purpose than a mural that's been carved out of the side of a building and displayed in a private place.
Banksy, I think, would agree with leaving the piece in place. In his words, “Graffiti art has a hard enough life as it is, before you add hedge fund managers wanting to chop it out and hang it over the fireplace. For the sake of keeping all street art where it belongs, I’d encourage people not to buy anything by anybody, unless it was created for sale in the first place.” This sentiment has been echoed by many Banksy fans, both in the United States and across the Atlantic, who see the removal of street art as unjust to both the art itself, and to the communities who will no longer see it on their walks to work.
The June sale of a Banksy mural entitled “Slave Labour” in London lays out the issues well. “Slave Labour” is a stenciled image of a young boy bent over a sewing machine that's churning out Union Jack flags; it was spray painted onto the side of a discount store in North London in 2012. Protesters halted the initial sale of the mural by a Miami auction house in February, but it sold months later in London.
“Slave Labour” has an undeniable political message. It’s a criticism of sweatshops, and as it was painted during Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, it’s likely a satire of that event. The piece's original placement was purposeful, and its political message was altered the moment it was tucked away somewhere. (That said, who can’t appreciate the irony of an economic satire selling for $1.1 million?)
Banksy's “Flower Girl” will likely meet a similar fate come December. The work was painted on the wall of a gas station in Los Angeles in 2008. In it, a girl holds a basket of flowers, and is gazing at a tall stem that holds a security camera instead of a bloom. The owner of the gas station approached a Beverly Hills auction house, Julien’s Auctions, to sell the mural.
There isn’t much that Banksy can do to alter his work’s journey from the gas station to the auction house, given that he paints on property he doesn’t own. And then there’s his wild popularity — Banksy can't paint a mural without drawing massive buzz. Whether Banksy likes it or not, the high prices and hype garnered by his murals signal a change for the world of street art.