A tale of two murals

The global chatterati was outraged when a Banksy mural in London was painted over. They didn't seem to mind when a mural for a murdered teen suffered the same fate.

Shirley Dent

Topics Culture

When graffiti artist Dane created a mural portrait of Billy Cox, a 15-year-old who was tragically murdered in his own home in South London earlier this year, some local residents protested and urged the council to remove it. Later, the mural was vandalised. Few in the national media said very much about this story. Yet there was an outcry when Transport for London (Tfl) removed an East London graffiti mural by Banksy, favourite amongst the chatterati and Hollywood celebs, some of whom are willing to pay thousands to adorn their walls with works by the hip king of cynicism. Why did these recent converts to graffitism have nothing to say about the threatened removal and vandalising of Dane’s mural?

Today, there seems to be a two-tiered attitude to graffiti, where gallery aficionados deem some graffiti ‘worthy’ and other graffiti as ‘waste’. It’s a pity because, whatever its faults, old-style street graffiti did at least have some spark and attitude. Graffiti no longer has the energy and spontaneity of ‘Wild Style’ street art. In the graffiti that’s celebrated today, all of the old edginess has been replaced with a cynical and nihilistic caricature of grimy inner-city decay.

Following the shooting of Billy Cox on the Fenwick Place estate in Lambeth, London, Dane – a professional graffiti artist from Visual Orgasmic Productions – created a mural commemorating the teenager. Dane tells me how he got involved with Billy’s mural: ‘His friends got in touch through a mutual contact: they and Billy had been involved with graf and wanted to do something special for his funeral day. They had got permission to paint some walls on the estate. They were very proactive. I know how the grieving process affects people deeply, and got involved as I had heard the story of Billy’s death.’

Despite the apparent approval of some estate residents – Dane says ‘the people present on the day when I painted Billy all liked it: people came out and thanked me’ – Lambeth Council demanded that the mural be taken down. Apparently, ‘the tenants’ association had made it clear residents did not want a constant reminder of the tragedy as they go about their daily lives’ (1).

Of course it is understandable that some would feel discomfort with this kind of public memorialising. There seems no doubt that those involved in the Billy Cox memorial were personally touched by the tragedy and sincere in wanting to honour him. Yet public displays of grief seem to follow every tragic event these days. Reading some of the online memorial boards to Billy Cox, one gets the sense that some people may be living a vicarious emotional life through another’s personal tragedy.

Although Billy’s mural is sincere and unpretentious, it also symbolises this kind of ostentatious mourning, and it is not hard to see why some tenants would rather not have a constant reminder of the murder. However, according to a neighbour of the Cox family, Billy’s parents like the mural and ‘didn’t have a problem with it being up at all’. ‘I like it, too’, said the neighbour, ‘but I can understand why some people might want it taken down. Some of the flats here are occupied by leaseholders and the council wants it taken down’. (2) Maybe these leaseholders would have reacted very differently if the mural being threatened with removal had been a catalogue-worthy Banksy.

Consider the storm of protest provoked by the removal of a Banksy mural near Old Street tube station around the same time as some locals in Lambeth were complaining about the Billy Cox memorial. The mural by the leisured classes’ graffiti artist of choice depicted John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson from Pulp Fiction brandishing bananas instead of guns. It bit the dust last week when, as one website put it, ‘some nobber at TfL’ painted over it’ (3).

This ‘desecration’ has been discussed as far away as Australia, and almost every report has emphasised the ‘Doh!’ factor by quoting the alleged value of the Banksy mural: most accounts claim it was worth at least £300,000. The ‘nobber’ mentality of those who can’t tell a Banksy from common-or-garden graffiti was compounded by the vandalising of a Banksy mural on the side of a house in Bristol. The house was being sold not through an estate agent but through an art gallery (with many A-list celebs expressing an interest in buying it, apparently). A gallery spokesperson declared: ‘I’m absolutely devastated that this has happened. I feel really sad that something as important as this has been defaced.’ (4)

Speaking to Dane, I got a sense that he has identified a positive impulse in graffiti; it is about (literally) making a mark on the world. This impulse is being bastardised by the cult of the feted gallery graffiti artist. Dane sees graffiti as something that springs up from a disaffected community: ‘At its core, graf is a voice – every tag, every picture or initial is someone saying something. Often it’s the people who are most ignored who use that voice. When you paint something on a bit of old wall that no-one cared about, like the memorial to Billy, it’s like people say: “Hey, somebody actually spoke….”’

Where street graffiti seems to emerge quite naturally, either from young people’s frustration or from a community’s desire to say something, the new hip arty graffiti seems purely cynical, an empty image designed to poke and provoke. Banksy said in an interview with the LA Weekly: ‘Essentially, [my work is] about what a horrible place the world is, how unjust and cruel and pointless life is, and ways to avoid thinking about all that. One of the best ways turned out to be sitting in a warehouse making 50 paintings about cruelty, pain and pointlessness. You get immune. I painted one picture of a Western family eating a picnic in a village of starving African children called I HATE EATING MY DINNER IN FRONT OF THE NEWS, and got so obsessed with painting each and every fly on those kids’ faces [that] I never once thought about a starving kid for a second.’ (5)

In contrast, the Billy Cox mural is devoid of cynicism: it is simply saying that a boy died and that he is missed. As Dane puts it: ‘The real issues remain facts – this mural was about remembering a young boy of 15 who tragically was shot in his own home.’ The kids who were ‘proactive’ in contacting Dane and knocking on doors to get the mural done in the first place don’t seem to see life as simply about ‘cruelty, pain and pointlessness’ – they want to celebrate a life rather than damn the living with cynicism.

The phenomenon of middle-class art seeping out of galleries and on to street walls, in search of some true grit (and a purpose), has not been a positive one for old-style graffiti artists. Instead, it has helped further to criminalise spontaneous street graffiti; such work is increasingly seen as unworthy in comparison to Banksy’s half-baked political posturing. Yet while celebrity graffitists scribble nihilistic words and pictures on walls, those who live on estates often take the more robust, sanguine and life-affirming view of graffiti suggested by Dane: ‘We all grow and take risks and make mistakes as we are learning – you could see graf as a by-product of that growth.’

Previously on spiked

Emily Hill slammed chattering graffitists, visited Santa’s Ghetto and argued that Banksy insults the masses. Grace Chua watched rebellion become a consumer trend. Or read more at: spiked issue Arts and Entertainment.

(1) Protest over murdered boy’s mural, BBC 18 April 2007

(2) See Blacknet UK

(3) Yes, we have no Banksy bananas, Londonist 21 April 2007

(4) Banksy house art destroyed, Metro 27 April 2007

(5) Beware, it’s Banksy, LA Weekly 13 September 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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