'I think I've got a Banksy on my wall,' declares my friend Phil excitedly, pointing to the picture on his mobile phone. He conjures up the photograph: a 30cm-tall shaded black stencil, sprayed halfway up a garden wall, depicting an elderly woman seemingly holding a spray can as if spraying the wall. Beside the spot where the spray can points sits a faded silver squiggle, indeterminate to you and me, but perhaps a strong territory marker for some gang in Stoke Newington, north London. Or perhaps a Banksy tag? Phil, an internet marketeer, has every right to be excited. Banksy has visited Stoke Newington many times before, leaving his trademark activist 'rats' on various local buildings.
And Banksy is the UK's, and now probably the world's, best-known graffiti artist. His work sells for hundreds of thousands of pounds, with pieces snapped up by savvy collectors. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly bought GBP1 million's (HK$15.9 million) worth in Los Angeles. Bonhams, the auctioneer, sold off 11 works for GBP455,000 last month.
His cover art for the 2003 vinyl record Think Tank by British band Blur sold for GBP300,000 recently while a piece of graffiti stencilled onto a stall in Tottenham Court Road went for GBP230,000.
Any Banksy on your wall, hopes Phil, not only improves the kudos of the property, but also boosts the value of the flats within.
Maybe, especially as Banksy has been big news of late. His mischievous, leftist, somewhat utopian but always clever spray paintings and stencil graffiti garner much debate among eminent critics and columnists, all musing about the distinction between art and vandalism.
When does vandalism become art? When people like it and appreciate it. How do we know if and when they appreciate it? They buy it. Or steal it. Or, as in one intriguing case lately, they implore an obliging council to protect it.
Islington council workers were recently snapped with paintbrushes at the ready near Banksy's 'Tate Gallery' piece near Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. Residents implored the staff to let it be until the workers sheepishly admitted they were just touching up the vandalised sections. Every Banksy mural or picture in the borough is now listed so that graffiti cleanup teams can't accidentally wreck them. It's a shrewd plan. Bristol council workers accidentally wrecked the city native's most famous work. London Underground also famously wrecked the fabled Pulp Fiction mural above Old Street Underground railway station.
One pub owner in Hounslow, in deepest west London near Heathrow airport and by no means Banksy territory, has put up closed-circuit TV cameras to ensure no one defaces or removes his Banksy, a 2-metre mural of a girl with the word 'smile' above her head.
'It's a talking point,' he said this summer. 'People come from miles around to see it.' And perhaps have a pint of beer, too.
Tower Hamlets, in the East End, a regular Banksy stomping ground, thinks differently, however. It has declared war on such guerilla art, promising to remove all his work etched on its patch.
Banksy cheekily hit back recently, attacking the council's much maligned parking policies by continuing a set of double yellow lines across the pavement and up the wall of a house in Pollard Street, Bethnal Green.