Here today, gone tomorrow. When street art is destroyed

There has been a lot in the press this year about a piece of work by Banksy which was removed from a wall near Turnpike Lane tube station and then suddenly appearing in a new York auction house. It caused a little bit of upset at the time and never actually got sold there instead reappearing later in an auction house closer to home in Covent Garden.

The piece called ‘Slave Labour’ arrived as satirical response to the diamond jubilee in London lasted for about 8 months. It was protected with perspex such is the esteem in which Banksys work is held these days. The perspex however did not protect it from the wholesale removal of the image complete with the plaster from the wall. Its not the first time this has happened, a Banksy near Clerkenwell also suffered the same fate a few years ago, removed to be bought by the highest bidder.

Banksy Jubilee child sadly no longer there

This removal of public art, held in high esteem by the local community poses an interesting ethical dilemma. I’m sure the owner of the wall never asked for the image to be painted so could the image have been considered vandalism? In fact when does street art become graffiti and vice versa? The asking price at auction in America was around $450,000, regardless of the ethical debate it would appear that Banksy, if it ever sells, has made the lucky owner of the wall he painted very rich indeed.

There are other reasons why art might be destroyed. Petty vandalism borne out of envy or jealousy, political reaction to an image which doesn’t suit the narrative, corporate vandalism or even plain old graffiti and low grade taggers randomly drawing over an image. This blog post will explore examples from each.

The petty vandalism example was best demonstrated over the early part of 2013 when pieces from renowned international artists Alice Pasquini and C215 were callously defaced. There would seem to be no good reason for this other than some form of vendetta seemed to be taking place. C215’s elaborate portraits suffered blue paint being daubed over their eyes and Alices portrait on Brick Lane was simply scrubbed out. Luckily in the case of C215 the artist was able to come back to London and restore the work which I blogged about here.

This piece didn't last long before someone decided to daub out the eyes with blue paint
This on Brick lane didn't even last a week before it was simply scrubbed out

It’s a shame that since the restoration these works by C215 were vandalised again alongside more of his portraits around the Shoreditch area. These have not been restored and it is unlikely that they will be.

American artist Mear One was the victim of art falling foul of political sensibilities. His piece on Hanbury Street depicting bankers playing monopoly on the banks of the working classes was deemed anti semitic by some people. Complaints were made to Tower Hamlets council who ordered it to be removed. What seemed to have been in fact a legitimate satirical response to banker greed was unceremoniously whitewashed. It’s happened before, at the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle people unhappy with the way the estate was being left to ruin by the council chose art as a way of expressing themselves. The council initially whitewashed the art on the walls of this now virtually derelict estate only for the art to almost immediately reappear.

It didn't take long for this piece to fall victim to political concerns

Of all the pieces of art that I’ve seen destroyed perhaps one of the most infuriating examples was an example of an elaborate piece by ROA being entirely painted over so that a corporate entity, puma, could advertise a one off event. I’m sure that at the time someone in that company must have thought that painting a giant logo in the East End would have really endeared themselves to the street art loving locals. Cos street arts cool right? I can imagine the conversations in the board room, a lot of corporate back slapping and delighted congratulations of each other for having such a great idea. No one will notice if we paint over this crazy drawing of a dissected pig right? Who’s it by anyway? ROA? Who’s that, some Belgian dude? Nah, never heard of him.

The elaborate dissected pig was painted over at the whim of a sporting giant
The Puma Yard which replaced the ROA

Finally low grade tagging is probably the most common form of art destruction. Many a piece has fallen foul of plain old graffiti. Graffiti is tagging without purpose. There is no actual point to it and many a fine piece has fallen victim to this sort of thing.

Plain old graffiti daubed with abandon over this intricate squirrel from internationally renowned artist ROA
The street painter in this piece by Banksy suffered from graffiti before it was protected

Most recently a piece from Stik created in 2012 as part of the Dulwich art festival and based on the portrait of Mrs Elizabeth Moody hanging in the Dulwich Picture Gallery was tagged over just before the same event in 2013. It was restored soon afterwards but even in leafy Dulwich does show the attitudes of some people.

Mrs Moody with her daughters by Stik
Mrs Moody with her daughters by Stik

Of course despite all this a lot of street art does get painted over and some great pieces get replaced with other great pieces and when that happens you mourn the passing of the original but then celebrate the newcomer. Street art after all is all about reinventing itself and should be reflective of the environment around it. A superb example of this in action is on the prime Sclater Street car park wall when a hugely impressive Jimmy C piece was replaced by a hugely impressive DALeast piece. So here one piece at least respects the other in terms of it’s undoubted quality.

Jimmy C' s Usain Bolt on Scalter Street Spring 2012
Jimmy C’ s Usain Bolt on Scalter Street Spring 2012
DALeast on Sclater Street Spring 2013
DALeast on Sclater Street Spring 2013

For the BBC piece on the upcoming sale of the Slave Labour Child in London click here


  1. You seem to totally misunderstand graffiti culture. These artists operate on the streets. While most of them now do legal-only permission work they are co-opting an aesthetic movement that is illegal in nature. Graffiti is a reflection of a truly democratic society. While you may not agree with someone going over a piece, they have just as much of a right to do so as the person whose paint they are going over. Transience is the nature of the medium.

    1. And that is fair enough, my argument though isn’t that work should never be painted over quite the contrary (look at my comments about the jimmy c vs DALeast piece at the end if the article). To me I just don’t see a big difference between tagging (see the stik example), which doesn’t seem to have much merit, and vandalism (the c215 example). But it is true, I don’t really get ‘graffiti’ as such, in fact when I write about street art I try to avoid the term because to me it’s not graffiti at all, I just have a different understanding of what that is. That said I suspect others may have different perceptions and one mans tag is another mans masterpiece and that, I suppose, I do understand.

  2. I don’t think street artists have any other expectations than to give to the world their art for free.
    Grafitti is art in itself, IMHO it’s pure expression and that for me is art

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