Not For Sale: The Cause & Effect of Graffiti Theft

By: Madeline Walsh
June 2, 2014
Barry McGee's Stolen N-Judah Muni Mural with Tagging, 2008 19th & Judah, San Francisco, CA  Photo by: Bonnie Burton
Barry McGee’s Stolen N-Judah Muni Mural with Tagging, 2008
19th & Judah, San Francisco, CA
Photo by: Bonnie Burton

Popular films frequently depict art theft as something only fated for paintings by fine artists like Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso or Edvard Munch. But, when street artists get big, public arts are stolen as well. Upon achieving great fame, many of SF-grown graffiti artist Barry McGee’s public works were stolen off the streets. One such work included a mural from San Francisco’s Judah & Sunset muni stop. The ceramic panel mural was ripped off  a wall with its frame cast out on a nearby street.

Sheer popularity can be compelling enough to bump up art values. British tagger Banksy was recently found flirting with the relationship between fame and value. The infamous street artist made waves in the media by anonymously selling his work in Central Park, and subsequently broadcasting the process online. The experiment uncovered the weight of fame on artwork value over content and context.

With greater potential for a rapid-fire rise to fame in today’s contemporary art world, value is an idea frequently contested by viewers, buyers and critics alike. Art value is often priced at the intersections of social and monetary values. For Banksy, art theft seems synonymous with his street cred. When you search “graffiti theft” online, nearly 80% of the resulting articles are about him. What is most interesting is that while this phenomenon of art theft is nothing new, the theft of Banksy’s work more clearly uncovers how value is attributed.

There isn’t a tradition of tracking graffiti theft, because street art is meant to be ephemeral. The increasing number of street artists gaining mass attention and appeal has sparked this unusual theft trend. Banksy’s “Umbrella Girl” of New Orleans’s North Rampart street has suffered several attempted kidnappings and acts of vandalism. In March of this year, yet another crook had been caught trying to pry the image free with the intent to sell at auction. After a value assessment conducted by the NOPD, the graffiti was estimated to be worth around $200,000 to $1.1 million. This case is not unique, and unfortunately many of Banksy’s works have been reported found again and again illegally for sale at art auctions.

Banksy's "Slave Labour" Mural, 2013 Poundland Store, North London, UK Photo via DailyMail
Banksy’s “Slave Labour” Mural, 2013
Poundland Store, North London, UK
Photo via DailyMail

“Slave Labour” (above) features a child toiling away at a sewing machine to produce a string of British flags. Uncoincidentaly, the work was painted on the side of a Poundland Store in North London. The store primarily sells items priced at around a one pound each. Clearly, Banksy’s piece attempts to call attention to the true cost of consumerism. In order for Poundland to successfully turn a profit, there may in fact be a small child producing its stock for meager wages. In 2013, “Slave Labour” was stolen and later found for sale at an art auction in Miami. Of course, a battle to bring the Banksy back to Poundland ensued.

How did Banksy’s work on city walls manage to incite more greed and excitement than the work he sold openly at Central Park? It is clear that context, plays a massive role in attributing value to artworks. Thieves and amateur art collectors have learned to recognize a Banksy work only in specific settings. Such settings include: city walls, gallery walls, and auction houses (to name a few). In these cases, value has everything to do with location. That being said, how valid are collectors’ passions for street art, and therefore the value of Banksy’s work? In the fight to reclaim ‘ownership’ of Banksy’s “Slave Labour” mural, the core message within the work is lost to the fight to claim a slice of street art fame.

The street value of a Banksy piece appears to be determined by detached, elite art circles. When moved to a gallery wall, a finite value is set, yet we could argue that on the street Banksy’s work is ‘worthless.’ We could easily paint over Banksy’s piece and zero out the value within a few quick swipes.

"No Ball Games," Banksy Tottenham, London, UK Photo via Press Association Images
“No Ball Games,” Banksy
Tottenham, London, UK
Photo via Press Association Images

With the issue of frequent street art theft on the rise, should we seek a solution to prevent stealing? If so, how? Street art thefts are the biggest contributors to the increase in graffiti value. Pushing “low brow” art from people for people to the upper echelons of society seems to represent yet another type of theft. The intended audience is robbed intellectually, creatively, ideologically and culturally. The process also robs Banksy of his artistic voice. His words are twisted by theft to speak to an unintended audience that doesn’t understand him, therefore killing the spirit and meaning of his work. Theft creates an opportunity for financial gain from a medium meant to be free. The value of street art acclaim has the potential to destroy cities instead of nurture them, a polar opposite of graffiti’s intended effect.

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