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The living hell of having a Banksy on your house

Mural by Banksy in Lowestoft: Herring Gull eating chips
Mural by Banksy in Lowestoft: Herring Gull eating chips - Photozaic / Alamy Stock Photo

We used to dream of winning the pools or the lottery. Many now fantasise instead about waking up to find a work by one of the world’s most famous artists stencilled on the side of their house – and laughing all the way to the Banksy.

But be careful what you wish for because street art is no easy shortcut to fame and fortune.

This week, the latest Banksy came on to the market, a giant seagull eating chips from a skip, painted on the end of a house in Lowestoft, Suffolk, in 2021.

It had to be removed in two pieces – the largest 5m wide and 6.6m deep – in total weighing more than 11 tons. (Last year, the owner, retired roofing contractor Garry Coutts, estimated the cost of removal would “likely top £200,000” and said the council had threatened to put a preservation order on the piece that would have made him responsible for maintenance costs of £40,000 a year.) Price for the work (not inclusive of the skip, which was removed because of fly tipping concerns) is on application at theseagullmural.com.

Also coming up for sale is a 2006 relic, Happy Choppers, showing a fleet of Apache helicopters with pink bows, which was painted over by the irritated owner of the office building in Shoreditch, east London, and sold on to a buyer who only discovered its existence from a Banksy book and spotted a section peeping through the paint.

Laughing all the way to the Banksy: the latest work to come on the market
Laughing all the way to the Banksy: the latest work to come on the market - SWNS

The wall was removed in eight sections, given a year’s worth of conservation and is going under the hammer at Anderson & Garland Auctioneers of Newcastle on 20 March, with an estimate of £500,000 to £700,000.

Ian Lewis discovered his own brush with the Bristol artist after scrolling through Facebook on the first day of his Christmas holidays in 2018.

“I saw the picture of it and I thought, ‘Gosh, that looks like my garage,’” says the 60-year-old now-retired steelworker from Port Talbot in south Wales. “Within a day or two, there were 300 people at a time there and a reporter from BBC News.”

On one wall, a boy with a sledge is shown embracing the falling snow, with his mouth wide open. Turn the corner and you discover the snowflakes are in fact specks of ash billowing from a bin fire. In the Instagram video posted by Banksy – since viewed 5.5 million times – the camera soars into the sky to reveal the chimneys of the Tata steelworks behind (in January, the loss of thousands of jobs was announced as the plant switches to an electric furnace). The piece, which he titled Season’s Greetings, was seen as a satirical commentary on industrial pollution.

The official stamp of approval saw the number of spectators soar to 2,000 per day. But not everyone was happy.

“It turned political,” says Lewis, who has written a book about the experience, Season’s Greetings: A Steelworker’s Story of the Port Talbot Banksy.  “It’s a hard-working steel town, and a lot of people see it as an insult – that the steelworks were causing pollution.”

Lewis was physically attacked in a pub and “was crucified on social media”. His sister had “somebody throw a drink over her”. He has no explanation for the animosity, other than that he was someone on the news, “and maybe it was jealousy”.

Then two people turned up with lump hammers hoping to chisel the work clean off the wall. Lewis spent thousands hiring a security guard. Some of the money came from Hollywood star Michael Sheen, who grew up in Port Talbot, and also arranged legal advice.

“My cousin is a friend of his sister’s. He wanted to help someone who’s just your average working-class boy suddenly thrust into the limelight.”

The Banksy Seagull mural in secure storage after it was taken down from a house
The Banksy Seagull mural in secure storage after it was taken down from a house - SWNS

Lewis eventually decided he had no option but to sell the work to Essex-based collector John Brandler, who had hoped to display it in the town – but hit a dead end with local officials, who he said were not interested because “Banksy’s not Welsh”. Neath Port Talbot Council said the costs of removal, installation, insurance and fees to Brandler were too great. The wall is currently on its way to an exhibition in Venice.

It is a chain of events that has been seen across the country over the past decade. A Banksy appears, followed by a media circus, before the piece is either vandalised, cleaned up by the council, or spirited abroad – to howls of protest from the betrayed community. In December, a Banksy-adorned stop sign – a critique of military drones – was stolen within the hour.

Removal of his walls (often using 1m-long diamond-bladed circular saws) can cost up to £50,000, while restoration (by conservators who otherwise work on Constables and Picassos) can set you back a further £100,000.

On the question of ownership, Kate Johnson, partner at law firm Wedlake Bell, says: “Once an artwork is painted directly on a wall it becomes part of the building so belongs to the landowner; and the copyright [of the image] to the artist.” But the ethical dilemmas are far more knotty.

John Brandler, the owner of a Banksy work in Port Talbot
John Brandler, the owner of a Banksy work in Port Talbot - PA/Ben Birchall

One person who has observed the Banksy phenomenon from the beginning is Steve Lazarides, who worked as the incognito artist’s photographer and agent between 1997 and 2008. Does the man himself care about the grief that ensues?

“No, I don’t think so,” says Lazarides. “It’s just a f—ing wall. From an artist’s perspective, what’s the point of him putting a piece on the street, for one person to steal and sell to a total w—er? He said once: ‘Cities get the art that they deserve.’ All the people taking the stuff off the walls have made our cities a poorer place visually.”

Lazarides argues that once you have given a Banksy a “chemical peel” – in an attempt to preserve it – and taken it indoors, “you’ve fundamentally changed the nature of the artwork anyway”. Plus, “the market for stolen pieces is very, very niche. Now most of the Russians are taken out of the equation, I imagine it will be harder to sell.” His advice is simple: “If it’s getting a bit much, then get out the Dulux!”

A Banksy-adorned stop sign – a critique of military drones – was stolen within the hour
A Banksy-adorned stop sign – a critique of military drones – was stolen within the hour - PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Brandler begs to differ. When I speak to him, he is preparing to take possession of his sixth Banksy wall, extricated from Bristol (“if it hadn’t gone to me, the wrecking ball would have come in and smashed it”). He is so well known in the field that owners seek him out.

“The moral question is, do we leave it in the elements or move it into an environment that will protect it? Banksy has done for British art what the Beatles did for British music. I think his work deserves to be preserved for that reason, if nothing else. He’s a phenomenon.”

That said, it comes with so much aggravation that Brandler has not “come across one building owner that’s been pleased they’ve got a Banksy on the wall”.

Tony Baxter, director of the Sincura Group, a concierge service that used to have a sideline in Banksy removals, says his company excavated about a dozen. “We always saw ourselves as the lesser of two evils. We’d make sure that the pieces were still around in 100 years’ time.”

But after receiving messages that his staff were thieves who “are going to die of cancer”, he decided to move on. And he warns: “It’s a risky investment. The auction houses won’t touch them, so you’ve got to find private buyers. It’s a lot of work for not much return. If I had one, I wouldn’t want hundreds of people looking into my house. I’d consider painting over it.”

For Dennis Stinchcombe, director of the Broad Plain and Riverside Youth Project in Bristol, a Banksy on the side of his club in 2014 came with copious headaches, and a much-needed windfall.

Mobile Lovers – showing a couple staring lovingly into their mobile phones mid-embrace – appeared on a wooden board covering a doorway. When Stinchcombe arrived, there were so many people on the road, “I thought a murder had been committed”.

Mobile Lovers: this work appeared on a wooden board covering a doorway
Mobile Lovers: this work appeared on a wooden board covering a doorway - Ben Birchall/PA Wire

He quickly received death threats, offers to buy it for £1 million and instructions from a man on the street – who he later determined was Banksy himself – to get it inside pronto. The 68-year-old was so fearful that “some desperate lunatic would just drag a kid off the street and say ‘Well, I’ll cut his fingers off if you don’t give us the Banksy’”, that he “slept with the damn thing for three nights” before having it “taken into custody” in a cell at the local police station for safekeeping. All the while, he battled with the council over who owned it.

Eventually, he sold it to an anonymous collector for £563,000 – which he used to buy minibuses and central heating, while sharing a portion with other youth organisations.

Without it, the 130-year-old club “would have been shut within about 12 months”, says Stinchcombe. “I’m just hoping Banksy might chuck another one out here on the wall for me – or bring one in, if he wants to save all the nonsense. It will keep us going for another 10 years.”