London street art and the ripple effects that occur from the theft of a Banksy

Two North London boroughs have been benefiting from artworks donated by international street artists in a bid to redesign the urban landscape of the area. Since 2012 members of non-profit organisation Turnpike Art Group have been spreading drawings on walls across Haringey and Tottenham to offer residents and visitors a ‘gallery experience’ and encourage the pursuit of art.

Street art is a recognised art movement which dates back to the 1960s; just like Bristolian Banksy, whose works reach six-figure value, street artists express – through their works – an observation or an awareness on particular social issues, and display these creations – usually produced with  spray cans,  paint brushes and stencils – on public-facing buildings without having obtained previous permission. When I meet local artist and TAG founder James Straffon he explained that their work is mostly permission based. “Obviously the evolution of street art is primarily non-permission based artwork”, he says. “It was an illegal activity, which is the more clandestine thing you associate with street art: sneaking around in the night with a hood and doing your thing … [a]ll the well-known street artists either started or continued that way. Having done a little of that myself I can understand the allure of it and the process of creating art knowing that you probably should not be there, you only got a certain amount of time and you’re getting away with it … [These] components make it so fascinating.”

James Straffon, Founder of TAG

TAG’s work, James explains, tends to be less random, like the art pieces commemorating David Bowie and Mohamed Ali after they died. “The very next day an artist would ask:  ‘I need a wall [to paint on]’; so we research the artist, find out what they do, they’ll come over and do the work. Or, if we have a space, I will ask an artist what they’d like to do, and so in a proxy fashion they become part of the group”.  Besides James, a traditional canvas artist who joined the street art scene four years ago, TAG enlists the free contribution of many bona fide street artists including  British ATM, The Toasters and Mobstr., American Pegasus and Shepard Fairey, who in the US is as famous as Banksy. James tells us how the partnership came to be. “In 2012 charity Sustrans were looking for areas needing regeneration in London so they came into our area with a small fund for artworks.  We identified an old Victorian billboard just behind Turnpike Lane tube station so we got in touch with the building owner and asked if we could place some street art there it. I got in touch with a gallery called Stolen Space on Brick Lane that is at the forefront of street art and we asked them to recommend a street artist who could create something for the billboard. They put a list forward but some of the artists were too ‘grungy’ and ‘in your face’ for a residential environment.  Somebody living opposite doesn’t want some skulls looking at them all day!”, laughs James. “In the end,  I suggested American artist Shepard Fairey who designed the Obama Hope poster and is globally famous for his eco-campaigning work. Two weeks later he agreed to do the work and came down to London; he spent a horribly windy day on a cherry-picker for free with his crew creating this amazing artwork which was the first TAG piece. Because he is such a beacon, we added other works in the wall below and that was our starting point. “

While Banksy has become synonymous with being anonymous,  Shepard Fairey is a celebrity in his native US. His much loved contribution to N15 is a work called Envision Peace which now graces the wall opposite Langham Place; the space below shows a vibrant composition including, among others, a cascade of multi-coloured toasters by The Toasters, the 1940’s television puppet Muffin by TAG, and a boxing Mohamed Ali by Pegasus, who also drew a flirtatious  Betty Boo on the opposite wall on Langham Parade. Walking around the surrounding area stretching from Carlingford Road to Langham Close I notice that TAG have disseminated street signs made of bespoke tiles;  I can also follow a colourful animal trail where have been dotted papier-mâché foxes , budges, a rare bullfinch, a pig, squirrels, culminating with an over 18 feet heron – the largest TAG artwork to date – to highlight the notion of nature reclaiming the city.

James excitedly describes the impact these designs have had on passer-byes.  “We’ve had local parents going pass with their children in prams and the children can refer to every animal, they can name them all, so I love the fact that people get involved. It’s educational and they are enjoying it”. The work on private buildings has been achieved by knocking on doors and asking local companies, residents and shop owners to ‘lend’ a wall, and more times than not, people are happy to oblige. Sometimes TAG likes to return their generosity by creating an artwork on paper or donating a stencil used during the installation, which in the past has led some people to believe that they own a Banksy.

When in 1999 the old Ritz Cinema in Turnpike Lane was demolished to make room for a larger bus depot, TAG wanted to commemorate the golden age of cinema while remembering the heritage of the movie theatre, so they painted a series of film characters from the1930s and 40s on a nearby wall. Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Lauren and Hardy, Felix the Cat, Popeye and Olive can now be seen on a wall on Carlingford Road although a year had to pass before the Hollywood studios could give copyright permission. Even the telecom boxes received the TAG treatment, as James tells me. “I contacted Virgin Media and asked them whether we could ‘dress up’ the metallic green boxes that you see at the side of the road where technicians work when telephone lines break down. It took a while to get permission but then they gave us the go ahead, and now you walk away from the tube station and you’ll come across boxes with some flowers on them. It changes their meaning and adds that element of surprise […]”

On a Sunday afternoon, while James was working on a composition on the shutters of the Chinese Community Centre on Langham Parade, he invited people to join in. “There were herons, mountains, trees, birds, traditional Chinese cultural elements like water, cherry trees etc. I spent probably a week creating it.  It was almost complete except for the blossom on the trees so we got anybody who came passed to do some petals with a pot of red paint and a brush … [E]ven those who said they could not paint or were not artistic did one petal. Five minutes later we had to pull the brush  off them because they really got into it, and doing more, and loving it.  People across the board, from little kids to elderly people, they can claim it; over time they walk pass it and they say: ‘I did a bit of that; that was mine!’, and that’s a big deal rather than saying we are TAG, we are self-appointed artists and we can do this”.

Occasionally the group receive requests for privately commissioned pieces for which they are paid a commission rate; sometimes they might sell a replica on paper of their works to the public – some of them are exposed in the Wesbury Pub. “In an ideal world you would live with the proceeds of what you sell and you would like to be paid to do what you do, but TAG is a non-profit. Some artists will survive by selling, although it’s low; most of them  have a job of some sort. To survive in the creative world you need a huge amount of two things: ability and luck. You can pursue galleries, even the media, to do an article on what you’re doing and get absolutely nowhere.  You need somebody to give you the big break”.

After graduating as a graphic designer James was given his first chance by designer Paul Smith, thanks to a common passion for cycling. As a teenager Smith had the potential of becoming a professional road cyclist but after an accident that hospitalised him he diverted his passion to the fashion industry while maintaining a love for the sport. At that time James had  started creating small canvases and collages on the history of the Tour de France and when he gathered  a reasonable collection of artworks  he emailed it to Smith who loved it so much he asked James to produce an artwork to be displayed in his store Globe at Heathrow Terminal 5. This June and July, James will be busy showcasing more bike-inspired works at the “Tour of France Legends” exhibition at the British Embassy in Luxembourg. There he will expose twelve complex compositions on canvas – one work will refer to the Fra Angelico masterpiece The Annunciation – but will take loads of stencils with him to spread some street art across the city.

Five years ago Haringey was  at the centre of a controversial incident involving Banksy when in May 2012 one of his drawings suddenly appeared on a wall next to a Poundland shop on Whymark Avenue in Wood Green. The artwork known as Slave Labour showed a boy sewing small union jack buntings  and was believed to express Banksy’s critique of the celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The following year residents noticed Slave Labour had  been mysteriously removed at night time while hidden behind scaffolding; in its place laid  a freshly plastered wall, which provoked a public outcry from local people and Haringey Council. Feeling  deprived of an invaluable masterpiece which would have brought visibility and culture to their area, they all demanded for it to be returned to its original location.

Banksy, “Slave Labour”, before and after

“The event attracted huge attention for about a week and I was interviewed by various tv stations”, James recounts. “If you get a Banksy in your area it kind of verifies you cool and urban. The owners of the building where the graffiti was came under a lot of flack as it was immediately presumed that they had ‘sold out’ and flogged it. Actually they have no claim to it, they have a claim to their bricks so they could take the wall apart and place the work somewhere else, but that would probably destroy the art work. About a day later this little rat appeared in the corner and  it looks like a Banksy rat, it’s his style. Egotistic to get  some satisfaction out of the process, Haringey Council thought ‘Wow, he’s come back and he’s done this’ – which he never does, he never would … I went to see it and there was this big guy who looked like a bouncer from a club standing to protect it. Presumedly somebody from Haringey Council got some cash, went to a hardware store, had a perspex frame cut and through massive expense they attached this protective screen over the rat which is not a Banksy but there you go … There is some perverse irony in that I guess.” 

It was then discovered that the Banksy had been taken away by The Sincura Group, who on their website claim to be ‘experts in excellence’ and ‘the world’s leading curators of luxury’. “They are very skilled workers”, James explains, “and self-appointed preservers of Banksy works under the premise that they remove them if they are vulnerable in the public arena, restore them and sell them to America, which tells you (Slave Labour) was made to order. They put a wrapper around it and added it to  a public exhibition of Banksy pieces in Covent Garden where there was another  piece they took from Tottenham, ‘No Ball Games’, [showing a couple of children playing in front of a ‘no ball games’ sign] which disappeared shortly after the Wood Green piece and I believe also went to America. I guess you might call it a racket but it’s quite a lucrative one”.

Banksy, “No Ball Games”

News bulletins reported that valued over £400,000 Slave Labour had become the main attraction at a private auction in Miami – it was the cover page of their catalogue – but after worldwide media attention, the piece was suddenly withdrawn from sale with no explanation. “TAG registered to be part of the auction and we watched it come up, it was only half way on the screen and then it came off”, confirms James. “Such was the pressure from the various media they thought ‘We can’t go through with it’. However they sat on it for six months, everyone forgets about it and now it resides in somebody’s house in America”. The art section of Sincura’s website displays photos of a large selection of Banksy artefacts and describes in detail how they ‘salvaged’ each individual work.  In the caption for Slave Labour, they report: “In February 2013 the mural was removed from its location and put up for sale at Fine Art Auctions in Miami, Florida. After an appeal from the residents of Wood Green, the mural was withdrawn from sale in the US and disappeared from the public domain. After months of extensive search, and despite a private sale being agreed in the US, The Sincura Group negotiated its return to the UK for sale through our network in which a bid of over £1.1 million was received”. Slave Labour’s whereabouts are still unknown.

I would have thought that turning street art into a profitable business probably detracts from its original, edgy purpose. Shepard Fairey publicly commented on this practice in 2012 when he revealed to the Evening Standard: ‘I’m happy for Banksy that he’s able to get a lot of money for his work, and I’m also perfectly happy for the people who’ve stolen stuff off the wall and sold it for a lot of money. They’re no more opportunistic than Banksy for seizing the space in the first place. But I like to see art on the street, so I’d prefer that it stayed around and wasn’t cut out with a chainsaw and removed.’ When interviewed about this issue, Banksy allegedly quoted: “For the sake of keeping all street art where it belongs I’d encourage people not to buy anything by anybody unless it was created for sale in the first place.”

In the meantime, he continues to spark controversy.  Only last month  Dover citizens woke up to a three-story mural showing a builder chipping away one of the twelve starts of the European Union flag, for which the guerrilla artist claimed ownership. When he posted a picture of the work on his Instagram feed it was assumed that this was the artist’s view on last year’s Brexit results, especially since Dover, besides being the main passage to Europe, had a majority of ‘leaver’ votes.

Banksy, “Brexit” in Dover, England

When the conversation turns to tagging, the practice used by street artists to ‘sign’ their work with their name or a cryptic message made up of letters and symbols, James is slightly perplexed: this is another grey area – and sore point – for street art.  “Not even twenty-four hours go by before somebody needs to leave their mark and destroy the original work intentionally. When the work starts to decay a bit it becomes a free for all. There is a massive quality issue with it and part of that is slightly gang related sometimes, leaving your mark … We‘ve had that here recently, some new people have moved into the area and suddenly some of the good artworks have been tagged in a bad way and ruined. When all the fuss died down with the Banksy piece, I got in touch with the landlord of the block of flats next to the Poundland shop and told him: you’re probably aware of what we do, we bring street art on a permission based scenario; we do good stuff.  I told him he could trust us and he gave use permission to do something on the wall as long as it was a quality street art piece. I did a commemorative piece which was a cutout coupon with scissors to say ‘Something was here, it has been cut out, it’s gone, this was the space where it was … ‘ Then we commissioned one street artist called Mobstr. to cover the whole wall and he produced this lovely text base piece [called Darling Look] which referred to the Banksy piece and was kind of ironic but it probably lasted a year or so … Inevitably someone cannot help themselves and needs to change it a  bit…”

Fear that it would be subject to bad tagging led TAG to suspend work on a commemorative piece for Alexandra Palace. James tells me that lately, Whymark Avenue has also become a ‘no go’ area, although to date it is still receiving various degrees of ‘redesign’, including last year an artwork by Pegasus called  I Would Be Your Slave inspired by David Bowie, which subsequently has been painted on. “Since then we have not touched that wall… At the moment we are deliberately avoiding it, the things that had happened to it are not by anyone that is creative necessarily, they are not artistically inclined to make something which had any expression, thought, evolvement or concept about it; it’s just someone exercising their ego. Lately, it has evolved in a what I call more of a toxic space. It’s messy. There is no actual quality street art appearing”.

[PHOTO: I WOULD BE YOUR SLAVE by PEAGSUS]

There is no avoiding tagging, James claims, but lessons should be learnt on how to handle it rightfully. “There is something nice about the evolution of a space sometimes if it’s continuously changing over time. It’s refreshed.  I almost feel that there should be a pseudo kind of apprenticeship thing to learn about it. Only recently some person, obviously during the night, came along with a can and added some awful letters on top of an ATM bird just to say ‘I’m the man!’. It’s sad because it’s very egotistic and spoils it for everyone else”.

Would he consider going around schools to teach his craft, I ask him?  “I have been asked a few times to do presentations and demonstrations for kids”, he replies. “So far I have never done it based on the fact that if I go: here’s my stencil and my can, there might be a child that thinks it’s cool and  buys a can and messes up stuff […] You don’t want to verify it to the point of saying ‘anyone can do this and it’s ok’. You don’t need to introduce children to art, very young people have a natural tendency to pick up stuff and make things; even if they are not engaged with pen and paper they will use substances and make something. You can quickly identify someone whose hand-to-eye coordination is strong and they have the ability to take an idea and form something. Encouragement is the thing — it’s all part of being able to express yourself”.

Because of their limited resources TAG mainly relies on their website and Instagram to advertise projects but advocate a more philanthropic use of social media to ensure artists are also benefitting. “People will walk pass a piece they like, they’ll photograph it and post it”, James comments. “I get frustrated with people who just go photographing things and don’t bother finding out who the artist is […]” Ultimately people’s response to street art is absolutely positive, James says proudly. “From something purely decorative to something else more thought-provoking, for their quality, ingenuity and creativity these works can be just as valuable – or priceless -as any other artefacts, we can see in a museum. In some ways being a street artist is almost better than being a traditional artist; you create works of art which are public statements on buildings, and they are there for as long as the building remains. Street art gives benefits to the area, there is also the higher end of it that seems to be associated with the gentrification way that you get in London. You see areas like Brick Lane that  have become focus points for street art and inevitably suddenly the house prices start to go up there for apartments… You can walk around a tiny little street art piece that might have taken an hour to do but it might communicate so many things. People say: ‘I walk pass the art that you do and every day it makes me smile’…  They think ‘I’ll go and sit by it or get photographed by it with my friends’, and that Instagram post might then go viral. That, to me, is the essence of art – [Art] should not be an exclusive thing, you need to engage with people in some way, and the best art does that”.  It sounds like an invitation that nobody should turn down.