Vandalising the Underground: Why one man gets away with criminal damage

By Lucy Johnson

On July 14th an official Instagram account was updated with a new post – a video of a man dressed in a cleaners outfit spray-painting a tube carriage.

The man stencilled some rats and finished off with a messy, dripping blue ‘tag’, a street artist’s identifier. The paint gets everywhere, as its watery consistency causes pooling and dripping into cracks and crevices. Despite such mess, it had all been washed off by cleaners before the video was posted. By the 15th July, this removal had made national news.

The artist was Banksy, and the video was captioned ‘if you don’t mask – you don’t get’.

What did Banksy do now?

Now a legal requirement on public transport across the country, the piece has been assumed to encourage people to wear their masks. The stencilled rats were depicted sneezing, parachuting with a mask, and getting tangled up in them. The colour of the tag is said to be based on the colour of the typical surgical mask. However, the predominant feature of the piece is Banksy’s tag, not the rats.

Looking at the tag, all I can think of is how difficult it must have been to clean. The paint is everywhere. Having shown a clip of the intense cleaning processes in place on the tube at the start of his Instagram video and filming the whole piece – Banksy probably knew it was going to be removed. The interpretation most widely offered is that the piece is in support of measures such as wearing a mask.

But why make it so difficult for the people upholding the cleaning measures that keep everyone safe? Currently, public transport is an extremely dangerous environment to be in, especially in the closed conditions of the Tube. By making the already arduous cleaning process even harder, Banksy could have put people at an increased level of risk.

Art and criminal damage

A BBC article about the piece is headlined, “Banksy Tube graffiti: Cleaners ‘unaware it was by artist.’” The ambiguity of ‘artist’ here leaves much up to interpretation – not ‘the’ specific artist, but any artist at all. So why is this tag art, but all other street art on the tube is not?

Transport for London (TFL) have not apologised for the destruction of the piece, due to their strict anti-graffiti policy. But they have done the next best thing, admitting to their shame by offering Banksy the privilege of painting another area of the tube instead.

But why? Graffiti or street art is cleaned off the Tube every single day. Why is Banksy’s art so special? Why is his tag art, when so many others who tag are criminal?

Whatever your opinion on street art, under the law, graffiti is covered by the Criminal Damage act of 1971, and it is a crime. There have been spaces made available by local councils for street art, but these can be few and far between. Much of what street art revolves around, and makes it different from other, more conventional forms of art, is the element of risk. A street artist makes art despite this risk, which makes their messages all the more powerful and significant. It contributes greatly to the element of social commentary.

But what is the risk for Banksy? Not only can he get away with what he is doing without repercussions, but his art is often actively endorsed and protected, despite making huge inconveniences for people whose property has been “Banksied”, as The Guardian explores, one man found it nearly impossible to sell his house, and another had to have a wall removed.

Banksy’s art, supposedly a social commentary on community issues, is a community issue itself.

What makes Banksy so Special?

The question of what makes Banksy different can be answered by simply saying – he’s Banksy.

Whilst this might not seem like it means much, it demonstrates the power of Banksy’s name, which gives him a privilege above other street artists. Everyone has heard of Banksy, whether or not they like his art or agree with his methods. Cleaning off his art will make national news. Anyone else’s will simply die in a bucket of paint-filled water, a job well done.

Currently, the art world revolves around names. A white canvas can sell for $15million if it has the name Robert Ryman attached to it. If I tried that, I’d get laughed at for asking for more than a tenner. Banksy, however, has shown his disdain of the art market, famously shredding a piece that was put up for auction after it sold for £1million. Yet, he inescapably benefits from the very world he shuns so much.

Put it this way – if I filmed myself vandalising a Tube carriage and put it on the internet, I certainly wouldn’t get the same offer from TFL. I’d probably get arrested. But if Banksy does it, then it’s a different story. Whilst he is protected somewhat by his “anonymity,” (can you still be anonymous whilst also being world-famous?), the likelihood is that he will never be arrested even if his identity is revealed, in my candid opinion. And there would certainly be a huge debate on whether or not he should be and, quite possibly, public outcry if he was.

Banksy: pros and cons of the famous name

It can be argued that there are some pros to Banksy’s fame. By being a famous street artist, he normalises street art, and brings it into the public consciousness as a viable form of art, instead of just as vandalism. The social commentary of his art sheds light on difficult issues, such as Brexit, war, and poverty; inspiring other street artists to create more art.

But there are definite counter arguments as well, even if we ignore for now the idea of ‘encouraging vandalism’ that some might use – the real ethics of street art and the law can be debated another time.

The first counter is that Banksy doesn’t actually normalise street art – he normalises Banksy’s street art, becoming the only acceptable version in the eyes of the public and the law. Any other street art can simply be dismissed with ‘well it’s not Banksy though, is it?’ Moreover, his social commentary seems to be dwindling – the rats in the bathroom piece wasn’t particularly inspiring, and it’s hardly controversial or thought inspiring to remind people to wear a mask (it’s literally the law). And it isn’t clear that that is definitely what this piece was about, dominated as it was by the huge tag.

Furthermore, by being Banksy, does he take opportunities away from other up and coming street artists? That space that TFL offered could have been an amazing opportunity for another artist to showcase their work, but instead it was offered to someone everyone knows. It’s not as though TFL need the advertisement.

Banksy, it seems, no longer represents his own ideals. He has become a mainstream artist, no longer able to critique society but instead be a piece of it, producing bland pieces without risk for huge rewards. Clearly, he recognises the power of his name – by painting the piece for Southampton General Hospital, he used his privilege to do some good, whilst on the other hand also demonstrating how much he is inescapably a part of the ‘art world’.

In my opinion, it’s time to stop giving Banksy special treatment. Street art is still a controversial topic, and is often at odds with the law, but now, perhaps, it’s time for someone else to become – not the quite the face – but the name of street art in the UK.

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