Saving Bansky (Film, 2017)

Saving Bansky (Film, 2017)

  Saving Banksy  poster featuring the "Haight Street Rat" under the title of the film.

Saving Banksy poster featuring the "Haight Street Rat" under the title of the film.

Saving Banksy is a documentary about the value and purpose of street art/graffiti in modern society. Yes, the documentary deals with Banksy's work, but the actual scope goes far beyond the specifics of one artist. It's largely a discussion about context, artist's intent, ownership in public spaces, and the gatekeepers of what is or isn't worth being preserved in art. 

The narrative of the documentary is straight forward but not simple. In 2010, Bansky, the secretive graffiti artist known for his political and satirical work in public places, produced six pieces in San Francisco. San Francisco had laws in place that would fine building owners who did not remove graffiti from their walls in 30 days. Five of the pieces were destroyed within days of being put up--other graffiti artists tagged the pieces or the building owners cleaned off or painted over the work.

Brian Greif decided to make it his mission to preserve the "Haight Street Rat" for public display in a museum. By 2010, people knew the (essentially) black market value of his work and Greif had to spend over $40000 to have the rat portion of a piece spanning two sides of a building removed, conserved, and stored. He spent years trying to get museums to accept the Banksy piece for display to the public, but was turned down every time because he could not get a statement of authenticity and permission from Banksy to display the piece. Why? Banksy is an anonymous street artist. A certified letter stating he created the piece would be a legally certified admission of criminal activity. Museums won't display the work without that statement knowing full well why no graffiti artist who produced work without permission to paint on a public space would provide one.

 On the one hand, "Haight Street Rat" is now preserved for future generations to see. On the other hand, does "Haight Street Rat" maintain its value when it stands as a framed piece for public display outside the original context of the piece?

On the one hand, "Haight Street Rat" is now preserved for future generations to see. On the other hand, does "Haight Street Rat" maintain its value when it stands as a framed piece for public display outside the original context of the piece?

The wrinkle here creates the tension and driving narrative of the piece. While museums refuse to let a public piece of art be put on display, private collectors will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to own a real Banksy. Building owners agree to literally remove entire sections of their walls to sell to private collectors. The private collectors, in turn, auction off pieces intended for public display that can weight upwards of 1000 pounds to the highest bidder. That person will then either store the piece hoping it accrues further value or hang a 1000 pound chunk of cinder-blocks and concrete with spray paint on it in their house. It's absurdity in form and function.

Saving Banksy is a very specific extension of the art versus commerce debate. A group of street artists are interviewed about everything from why they create street art to the specifics of the "Haight Street Rat" ordeal. Ben Eine largely acts as the narrator of the documentary and he clearly articulates all sides of the argument.

 Let's talk legality. Obviously, someone owns the building "Haight Street Rat" was painted on. Banksy painted on that building without permission. Brian Greif gets permission to remove Banksy's art from the owner of the building but not from Banksy. Museums won't take the risk of displaying a Banksy piece taken from a wall without authenticating documents, but authenticating documents that would prove authorship of the piece would be a legally binding admission of guilt on the part of Banksy for producing the piece on someone else's property to begin with. Who actually owns the art in this case? That's fascinating to me.

Let's talk legality. Obviously, someone owns the building "Haight Street Rat" was painted on. Banksy painted on that building without permission. Brian Greif gets permission to remove Banksy's art from the owner of the building but not from Banksy. Museums won't take the risk of displaying a Banksy piece taken from a wall without authenticating documents, but authenticating documents that would prove authorship of the piece would be a legally binding admission of guilt on the part of Banksy for producing the piece on someone else's property to begin with. Who actually owns the art in this case? That's fascinating to me.

Graffiti is meant to be seen by the public. That's why it's created in public spaces. It's also part of a tradition where graffiti artists will paint something, then someone else will come and paint over it. It's temporary in its form and its history. Whether or not a graffiti artist wants their piece preserved is a highly personal question. Context--from broad notions of public art to the specificity of why a piece was painted on that building in that location--is what's up for debate. As much as people respond to Banksy's work (or any other graffiti artist's work), does that work inherently lose value and purpose if it is removed from its original location and displayed somewhere else?

Saving Banksy does a great job setting up this debate and evolving the discussion during the entire run time. About the only thing agreed on by the end is one specific private collector who claims to be a Banksy fan is largely motivated by greed and profit. Director Colin M. Day has Brian Greif literally read out and show the e-mails about the "Haight Street Rat" that go from polite to hostile real quick when Grief makes it clear there will not be a private sale of the piece.

I will say that, for me, I would like to have seen intellectual property rights addressed directly. Graffiti is one of those fascinating gray areas of IPR law (like livestreaming a video game or using the form of the music video with popular songs to teach filmmaking in public schools) with no clear answer. It's danced around in the film with the discussion of getting the Banksy piece certified as well as the constant reminder of graffiti being considered vandalism, but never addressed head on. The notion of ownership is discussed thoroughly. The specifics could probably fill an entire documentary on its own. I understand why, with such a tight and engaging narrative, the issue of copyright is not addressed directly. I just think a brief explanation of the legal reasons beyond "graffiti is illegal" broad strokes would only enhance the film. 

Saving Banksy does what any good documentary does. It presents a fascinating angle on a real subject. I can't complain too much about areas that aren't addressed in this debate about preserving street art because the story and debate presented in the film is clear, engaging, and well-defended. There's a beautiful ambivalence to the thesis of the film that captures the legal, cultural, and artistic gray area of modern street art as a movement. This documentary is edited to perfection but not overly produced to manufacture a specific result. It's just a joy to watch even if elements of this debate can be very frustrating to engage with. Our traditional notion of art is something meant to be appreciated for generations. Street art can be just as skillful in its execution but is legally and culturally a temporary form. Saving Banksy is a beautiful discussion of this conflict surrounding one very specific story of what happens when you try to preserve street art.

Saving Banksy is currently streaming on Netflix.

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