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Street Art and the Law

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While in NYC for last weekend’s CMJ Music Marathon, I did my best to cross paths with Banksy. The elusive artist is in town for a month-long “street residency,” and his open-air exhibitions, “Better Out Than In,” are catching a lot of buzz (and some flak from the mayor’s office).

Alas, I won’t soon be quitting my day job to become a detective. I didn’t find him. I do like Banksy’s work, though, which is stenciled onto public and private spaces, and usually contains provocative social commentary. I caught this installation hanging under the High Line at West 24th Street. What an interesting deal this would have been to negotiate.

Here’s the thing, Banksy’s website listed the limited viewing hours (and gave a heads up that there would be “a bench, some carpet and complimentary refreshments”). The works were hanging neatly by chains and secured with fencing during non-viewing hours. When I arrived for the Sunday 11 AM opening, there was also a full complement of private security on hand, and the gallery around the corner, perhaps coincidentally, had Banksy’s work displayed in the window. This was no backjump job.

When Banksy started his clandestine career in the early 90’s, he likely wasn’t thinking about making money. Now, though, with his fame wide-spread and his work coveted by collectors, how can he monetize his product yet maintain anonymity and his street-cred? Is Banksy actually a consortium of very shrewd, media-savvy marketeers? Is he in league with private property owners and collectors, thus allowing him to profit from the sale of his own work in the secondary market? And just like every other field of indie art, when the rest of the world discovers the artist and his fame explodes, he’s “sold out” and becomes a target of derision for the next wave of indie artists coming up after him (witness the defacement of his defacements by upstart taggers across the City).

Street art forces a free society to confront issues of creative freedom against the backdrop of infringement of public or private property rights. This is something every street artist working in public or private space needs to consider and get sound legal advice regarding.  In NYC, many of the private property ‘victims’ of Banksy’s street art were happy to preserve and protect the pieces before the backjumpers could get to them, to increase the value of their own property. Thus far, the work seems to have shown up only on private property. But the Mayor is vigilant, and has his crack vandalism team on high alert. It will be interesting to see what action the City takes if Banksy – who or whatever he is – succeeds in tagging public space. What city wouldn’t appreciate the free revenue?