Removal of Banksy artwork in Ukraine sparks debate over future of his murals

KYIV, Ukraine – Many Ukrainians saw messages of defiance and resilience in the seven artworks painted last month by British street artist Banksy on war-torn buildings in and around Kyiv .

At least one activist saw another kind of benefit: He took down one of the works, saying he intended to auction it off and donate the proceeds to the Ukrainian military.

Activist, Serhiy Dovhyi, says he is now under criminal investigation for removing the artwork from a wall in the Kyiv suburb of Hostomel. The depiction of a woman in a bathrobe wearing a gas mask and holding a fire extinguisher suggests the intrusion of war into family life. A Ukrainian art dealer estimated the work to be worth up to $1 million.

Under the war authorities, the Ukrainian army appoints local leaders. The army-appointed head of Hostomel told local media that the art should go into a future war memorial or remain on the site, to become part of a future building.

This is not the first time that the ownership of one of Banksy’s works has been disputed. In 2014, a painting by Banksy appeared on a piece of plywood attached to the Broad Plain Boys Club in Bristol, England. Club owner Dennis Stinchcombe planned to auction off the painting to raise money for the club, but the town stepped in and claimed they owned the depiction of a couple embracing and looking at their cell phones. In a rare public gesture, Banksy penned a letter saying the art should be used to help the club.

In the Ukrainian dispute, Mr Dovhyi said in an interview that the artwork had to be saved because the wall it was painted on was to be demolished soon. He described the act of removing graffiti, which he documented in videos, as an additional act of performance art that could add to its value.

Mr Dovhyi cut graffiti from the wall in Hostomel on December 2 by removing a layer of insulation on the outside of the crumbling building. .

“Street art, unlike a work of art in the Louvre, does not belong to anyone,” he said.

The action has in any case succeeded in sparking discussions in Ukraine about the future of local Banksy works. The art appeared in the suburban towns of Hostomel, Irpin and Borodyanka, where hundreds of civilians died early in the war in air and artillery strikes and summary executions.

For nearly two decades, Banksy maintained his anonymity, while creating art, often with social and political undertones, in New York, London, the West Bank and many other places.

Banksy’s work has also included stunts. In 2018, her painting “Girl With Balloon” self-destructed in a remote-controlled paper shredder moments after Sotheby’s in London put it up for auction for $1.4 million. The apparent commentary on the excesses of the art market only raised the value of the work: Renamed “Love Is in the Bin”, Sotheby’s sold it last year for $25.4 million.

But Banksy also goes to great lengths to regulate the resale of his graffiti and prevent counterfeiting, working with a team that authenticates his work. Reputable dealers and auction houses only sell works by Banksy with certification.

Banksy has already sold art to benefit Ukraine. In March, he donated proceeds from the sale of a painting to the Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv.

Mr Dovhyi argued that the wartime needs of the army justified the attempt to sell the painting of the woman in a bathrobe. “I wanted to capitalize as much as possible,” he said, “and all the money would go for humanitarian and military purposes.”

But police arrived shortly after he cut the artwork from the wall, confiscating the insulation slab and questioning Mr Dovhyi and other members of his group. Mr Dovhyi said police told him the investigation fell under a section of the criminal code which deals with less serious property damage than vandalism. He has not been charged.

Evelina Riabenko contributed report.

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