There was a media frenzy when two new Banksy murals appeared at the southern end of Golden Lane in the City of London on 17 September 2017. These paid tribute to Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) whose UK retrospective opened at the Barbican Centre on 21 September 2017. The Banksy pieces were painted beneath the Ben Jonson House apartment complex and beside the Barbican Exhibition Halls. Extensive press coverage was generated in both the UK and Basquiat’s home town of New York. It was widely assumed that the murals were illegal street interventions but anyone familiar with the area will know that it is subject to intense CCTV surveillance and heavily policed. Given that Banksy’s work looks like it must have taken at least a couple of hours to install, it seems unlikely that it could have been executed without some kind of approval from the local authority. Since the notoriously secretive and wealthy City of London council is renowned for how quickly it removes graffiti, the fact the Banksy murals weren’t quickly wiped away is telling.
While some assumed the pieces poked fun at the curators behind the London retrospective, the New York Times (18 September 2017) demonstrated more suss by saying they ‘appear to herald the start of a major exhibition of Basquiat’s work.’ It wouldn’t be surprising if Banksy’s pieces were commissioned by the Barbican Centre or the City of London council as part of their Culture Mile redevelopment; they certainly generated a ton of publicity for the Basquiat show. Banksy is a widely celebrated ‘street art’ figure in the UK with a long standing interest in Basquiat. The Inspiring City blog described his murals this way:
The main work features a stencilled policeman and woman, recognisably Banksy, who appear to be conducting a stop and search on Basquiat. We know it’s him because the image of Basquiat faithfully recreated is an image that the artist himself painted back in 1982 as part of the piece ‘Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump‘. That piece features an abstract skeletal figure of a man with a dog, it’s a piece full of energy and was meant to be a self representation. It was also painted at a time when Basquiat was really starting to get courted in the art world and making a name for himself.
On the other side of the street meanwhile, a smaller piece, this time featuring a stencilled ferris wheel with people queuing to enter. The carriages have been replaced with stylised crowns, the symbol of Basquiat himself and now an iconic image in the street art and graffiti world. The crown, immortalised by Basquiat, can be found on many street pieces around the world, it symbolises excellence and the artist who uses it on their work is making a very public statement that they are a master of their craft.
Banksy tribute mural to Jean-Michel Basquiat appears at the Barbican in London by Inspiring City, September 17, 2017.
Banksy’s cop shakedown of Basquiat after the addition of skateboarding figure on 18 September 2017.
Early on 18 September 2017 someone added a quickly drawn outline of a skateboarder either racing to rescue Basquiat from the cops or stealing his crown. By later on the same day security guards were minding the murals and ordering around the crowds that gathered to view them. By 23 September the murals, including the additional skateboarder, had been covered with Perspex panels; not only did this material add reflections from the street to the ensemble of images, the large white screws with which they were held in place were extremely obtrusive. What the local council seemed to want to avoid was the work growing organically and collectively, with an assortment of street artists and taggers adding their own elements around it. A Samo tag on a Ben Jonson House fire door was quickly removed, although another tag soon appeared on a nearby wall even closer to Banksy’s Crown Carousel.
Samo tag added to Ben Jonson House fire door; this was quickly removed by the City of London council.
A number of media outlets quoted the local council as stating they would hold discussions about the murals in coming weeks. Nonetheless they appeared pleased as punch by the publicity generated by the Banksy pieces. Since this very rich and idiosyncratic council is mostly elected by business votes, a feudal practice abandoned in the rest of the UK, it does not behave in a democratic fashion and is notorious for imposing its will on local residents regardless of what they say when it ‘consults’ them. The claim that discussions will be held about the murals can therefore be understood as the council stating it already knows what it is going to do with them. The most extensive version I’ve found of the council statement on the Banksy murals is one issued via the Barbican Estate Office:
A City of London Corporation spokesperson said: “We can confirm that two new pieces by Banksy have appeared near the Barbican Centre and coincide with Basquiat: Boom for Real, the widely-anticipated major exhibition of the artist’s work, which opens at Barbican Art Gallery on Thursday. Banksy’s graffiti is in Culture Mile, the north-west corner of the Square Mile that is being developed into a major destination for culture and creativity. We plan to discuss the pieces with City Corporation colleagues and Barbican residents over the next few weeks.”
Cited on Ben Jonson House Blog, 20 September 2017.
Crown mural with obtrusively added Perspex panel protecting it. Since quite a number of these were utilised on the larger piece on the other side of the street, that looks even worse with the added protection than this one.
While Banksy’s work threw a media spotlight on Golden Lane, it simultaneously diverted attention away from a politically contentious development about a minute’s walk from his murals. Bernard Morgan House, formerly a City of London social housing block for 110 key workers in Golden Lane, has been emptied and sold to Taylor Wimpey. The council have given the developer planning permission to demolish the existing building and replace it with a much taller apartment complex with no social housing provision at all. The new luxury flats are currently being marketed to property speculators as buy-to-leave ghost home investments. They will block up to 70% of sunlight from local council flats, schools and Fortune Street Park.
When Banksy’s murals appeared in Golden Lane, Taylor Wimpey installed advertising for the ‘development’ it calls The Denizen around Bernard Morgan House. We’d like to stress we have absolutely no problem with Banksy’s PR work on Basquiat’s behalf – because we like the artist he’s paying tribute to! Likewise Banksy was almost certainly unaware of how Taylor Wimpey – with help from the least democratic council in the UK – are planning to screw over local people with The Denizen. Nonetheless if he’s serious about being a ‘street artist’ then Banksy should take a stand against this development, because if he doesn’t his murals will play a role in artwashing it. Less urgently we’d also like Banksy clarify his position on the Culture Mile, yet another cynical City of London project we oppose.
Note: Most of Golden Lane has an EC1 postcode but the very southern end at the junction with Beech Street is in EC2, as indicated on the street signs in the photos above. Bernard Morgan House is extremely close to the Banksy murals and is in EC1.
Banksy tribute mural to Jean-Michel Basquiat appears at the Barbican in London: https://inspiringcity.com/2017/09/17/banksy-tribute-mural-to-jean-michel-basquiat-appears-at-the-barbican-in-london/