“Slave Labour” by Banksy was on the wall of a Poundland shop in Wood Green, London. Photo: Getty
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Stealing Banksy? Meet the man who takes the street art off the street

Tony Baxter has become the go-to guy for anyone wanting to shift – and flog – a Banksy mural.

Art curators aren’t usually the targets of hate mail and death threats.

But then Tony Baxter (who has received messages informing him “there's a bullet with your name on it” and whose staff are regularly accused of being thieves who “are going to die of cancer”) isn't your average custodian of culture.

The former model, investment banker and cross-Channel swimmer has become the go-to guy for anyone wanting to shift – and flog – a Banksy mural.

It all started when “Slave Labour” was painted on the side of a Poundland shop in Wood Green, north London, just before the Queen's diamond jubilee in May 2012. A few months later, the work, featuring a boy hunched over a sewing machine stitching union flag bunting, had been chainsawed off the wall before vanishing.

“No one knew where it was, and our whole goal as a concierge is that we're supposed to be the best-connected network in London,” says Baxter, in his first proper interview.

The director of The Sincura Group, which aims to fulfil every whim of its VIP members, adds: “It just so happened that a client said, ‘find the answer to ‘Slave Labour’’. The council did bugger all; they just sat there and drank tea.”

Sincura located the work in a Miami auction house and flew it back to London to see if a buyer with at least £900,000 in spare change could be found so the street art could be kept in the UK.

The Sincura name was splashed across the media and Baxter says he now gets about ten emails a week from people asking him to remove what they assume to be Banksys from their buildings.

The 39-year-old son of a Cambridge academic has since overseen the “salvaging” of three other murals across Britain and has got hold of a further five.

They form what is the most expensive collection of the artist’s work ever assembled under one roof – the Stealing Banksy? exhibition, which opened at the ME London hotel today. The show concludes on Sunday when all the pieces go under the hammer (total estimates stand at £5m).

Baxter does not own any of the works, and he insists he has never made a penny in profit from the sale of any piece taken from a building, nor has he ever approached anyone to remove one.

What he does get is “a small management fee that covers just a fraction of my staffing and insurance costs”; a strange kind of kudos for his company; and “a good way to entice people” to buy the Banksy canvases he sells, where he does get a cut.

Baxter also has ethical conditions that must be met. The owners must be intent on removing the piece regardless; they must have at least one non-financial motive (for example, fearing a grade II listing as a result of the graffiti); and he insists on some kind of charitable donation.

Has Baxter had any contact with the man himself? “I, I, I can't comment on any of my involvement with Banksy,” he says. It is the only time he hesitates.

The works are being taken from communities and will likely end up in an plutocrat's mansion. But he claims: “We're restoring these for ever. In 100 years’ time, or 1,000 years’ time, when these are the old masterpieces they may have become, they’ll still be around. We can’t stress enough – if you're going to do it, do it properly. You wouldn’t take the Mona Lisa and chop it in half.

“At the end of the day, we sleep easy at night knowing that what we’re doing is legal. It may not be the most ethically sound – but it is the lesser of two evils.”

John MacDougall/Getty
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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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