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6 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:10pm

How to get a Banksy off the wall

By Simon Worrall

As the last sheet of protective plywood is pulled off the painting, a cheer goes up from the crowd. TV crews from all over Europe have come to capture the moment. We’re inside a former police station that is being transformed into Britain’s first museum of street art. And the first exhibit is the corner section of a breeze-block wall from a garage in the steel town of Port Talbot, south Wales.

Earlier in the morning, under pouring rain and surrounded by a small knot of dog walkers and locals, I watched as the Port Talbot Banksy was hoisted on to a flatbed truck by a giant crane, and transported under blue light escort the two miles from the Taibach area to the city centre, like the pasos floats that carry religious sculptures through the streets of Spain during Holy Week.

The analogy is not entirely facetious. For the people of Port Talbot, the sudden appearance of Season’s Greetings on 18 December last year was nothing short of miraculous.

“We don’t get given much in Port Talbot, except one recession after another,” says Plaid Cymru councillor Nigel Thomas Hunt, a giant of a man wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the Banksy image, which he sells in his nearby shop. “I can’t tell you the buzz there was in the town, the feeling of elation. It was like we had been given a gift.”

Season’s Greetings – with its waif-like child gulping down ash – shone a spotlight on urban pollution. Located between the M4 corridor and the giant Tata steel works, Taibach lies in the most polluted part of the city. Gary Owen, who runs a community Facebook group, claims to have prompted Banksy to paint the mural by sending a message to his Instagram account about pollution.

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“It’s an irony that the police have given an escort to a Banksy, which is a piece of illegal artwork, and that we are putting it into the old police station,” says John Brandler, a bow-tie-wearing gallerist from Essex, who bought the garage wall from local steelworker Ian Lewis.

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Brandler, who owns several other paintings by Banksy, is on record as having paid a six-figure sum for Season’s Greetings. In February, in what some regard as a swipe at its removal, a second piece of graffiti appeared in Taibach. It depicted a Lego-like figure cutting out a section of wall decorated with an Emoji-like face, poking out a green tongue decorated with a dollar sign.

In the month after it appeared, the Banksy mural was visited by at least 2,000 people per day. Amid fears of vandalism Michael Sheen, a famous actor who grew up in Port Talbot, helped fund 24/7 security. This didn’t stop one visitor from attacking the plastic screen protecting it.

Debate surrounding the politics of street art can be intense. In Detroit in 2010, a Banksy showing a forlorn-looking African-American boy holding a paint pot and brush – next to the words: “I remember when this was all trees” – was cut off a cinder block wall with a masonry saw and an oxyacetelane torch. The local outcry was so great that the dealer who removed it had to hide the work.

When it became known that Ian Lewis planned to sell his Port Talbot Banksy, he was abused on social media. “There is a valid criticism that it should stay on the streets,” says Brandler, who was offered large sums to take the image elsewhere, but insisted it remained in Port Talbot. “But there is also an argument that it should be protected. We have found a compromise by bringing it into the town centre.”

In Italy, a technique called strappo is used to remove frescoes. This involves gluing layers of cheesecloth over the image, then peeling it off the wall, like sunburned skin. The corner of the garage featuring Season’s Greetings was simply sliced away. First, the floor was removed. Then the inside of the wall was covered in wire mesh and sprayed with resin, to prevent it from cracking. The wall, which weighed about 4.5 tonnes, was then encased in a steel and wood framework, which acted like a cradle when it was lifted. In the back of everyone’s minds was the fear that, like Girl With Balloon, auctioned at Sotheby’s last October, Season’s Greetings might self-destruct when removed.  

The new Street Art Museum should offer a considerable boost to Port Talbot’s economy. As yet, though, no firm opening date has been given and the cost of admission remains unclear (it is hoped that local residents will visit for free). Despite the euphoria, John Brandler worries that the museum may still fall victim to local politics and cuts to public services. “The council claims it will cost £750,000 per year to run,” he told me, two days after Season’s Greetings was moved. “There are many people who don’t want it to happen.”

There’s a minor industry in removing works by Banksy. In 2011, seven walls were shipped to the Hamptons, in the hope of luring New York’s rich to buy some edgy street art. Banksy makes no money on these transactions – the walls act as billboards for the greater brand – but revenues from private sales of his art work, books such as Wall and Piece (2005) and his 2010 film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, have been estimated at £15m per year. 

This article appears in the 05 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance