A few years ago, whilst I was gigging in Bristol, I walked past a Museum which was hosting an exhibition of work by the street artist, Banksy. As I looked at the long queue standing against the wall waiting to go in, a thought crossed my mind. What would happen if I bought a can of spray paint and created a piece of art on that wall. Would I be applauded or arrested? I’ve encountered both, and I’ll be honest the former is way better. Anyway, in the end I decided not to test it. And the large security guard standing there had no influence on my decision whatsoever.
I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Banksy. Whilst there is no denying he is an incredibly talented artist, there is a part of me that does also see him as a vandal – a person who damages the property of others. The question is of course, because the art is so good, does it really constitute ‘damage’?
This problem arose again in the last couple of days when Banksy paid a visit to my home town of Port Talbot and painted on the walls of a garage. Again, whilst the art was incredibly impressive, the fact that he had done it on someone’s property, without permission, was again for me a real dichotomy. (Which reminds me, when I first started as a Comedian I used to do a joke about going to school with someone called Dai Chotomy. I’m glad I don’t do that anymore.)
If the only reason Banksy is not seen as a vandal is because the art is so good, then perhaps some other vandals should up their game.
My other problem with this particular piece of work is understanding the message behind it. Like the artist himself, the actual meaning is unknown. Is it a celebration of an important industrial town or is it a dig at the environmental problems that such industry creates?
Recently there was a story about residue from the steel works being found on people’s houses and cars. Did Banksy read this and immediately have the idea for this piece?
One comment that has annoyed me is the idea that this has now “put Port Talbot on the map”. I am currently working on a documentary about the famous people who hail from my home town: Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen etc. I think it’s pretty safe to say that, prior to Banksy’s visit, Port Talbot was already firmly on the map. Not bad for a place with fewer than 40,000 inhabitants.
I am incredibly proud to have grown up there. In fact in the last documentary I made, The Kosher Comedian, I traced my family’s roots from Lithuania to Port Talbot and learned how my family had started a glazing business in the early 1900’s which continued for almost 100 years. The town has a wonderful, hard-working, close knit community and I would really like to think that this painting will not be in any way divisive.
Ian Lewis, the owner of the garage, has had sleepless nights since the painting appeared as he’s worried that people will either want to steal bricks from the painting or vandalise it in some way – which could be seen as somewhat ironic.
People are already travelling hundreds of miles to view Banksy’s newest addition to his portfolio. And, as this one will be a tad more difficult to shred than one of his previous pieces, it will hopefully be there for a long time and bring all the benefits of tourism. Knowing the ingenuity of the people who live in Port Talbot, I’m pretty sure someone will open up a café or gift shop next to it.
In the same way as I am willing to give the creator of this painting the benefit of being an artist more than vandal, I would like to think he is also giving a positive look on my home town more than a negative one. But, knowing him, I wouldn’t banksy on it.