Robbing the Banksy
The 555 Gallery Banksy street art debate rages on.
Published: May 14, 2014
Four years after he and more than a dozen other artists removed a Banksy from the Packard Plant, Carl Goines now admits he hadn’t the slightest idea what he was getting into.
“I don’t know if I’ve said that publicly, but, yeah. There was no plan.”
In May 2010, the day after Mother’s Day, Goines and the rest of the crew at 555 Gallery were on a mission. Stirred by stories of a valuable and imperiled artwork at the Packard Plant, they spent two days removing part of a wall weighing almost a ton, all for the image painted on the side: a graffiti piece by the noted international street artist. In doing so, Goines and company touched off one of the loudest debates on the ethics of removing street art this town — or perhaps the world — has ever seen. And it’s coming to a head, with the gallery announcing the work’s sale, a move that could net the organization anywhere between $200,000 and $1.2 million.
It all began in spring of 2010, in conjunction with the initial U.S. tour of Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. That’s when Banksy’s art began to appear in cities where the film was opening, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Toronto. Detroit was no different. Shortly after the film premiered at Royal Oak’s Main Art Theatre on May 7, a number of images of Banksy’s works appeared on his website, and the artist’s Detroit-area fans began to recognize the locations as being in metro Detroit.
One of the most striking works was located inside Detroit’s sprawling Packard Plant, which has been closed so long that it’s become a prime playground for Detroit’s urban explorers, graffiti taggers, and conceptual artists. Stencil-painted onto a wall was the image of a child with a paint can and paintbrush, an image that also appeared in San Francisco’s Mission District weeks earlier. But this time, the image bore the message: I remember when all this was trees. (Perhaps an oblique reference to a tree sprouting from the rubble nearby.)
It’s likely that nobody was more excited by these revelations than an urban explorer and graffiti photographer who goes by the name Billy Voo. On May 9, excited to breathlessness, Voo appealed to the crew at 555 Gallery, a Detroit arts group whose members weren’t at all familiar with Banksy or his work, to remove the piece from the Packard Plant. As a 2010 Metro Times story reported, Voo tried to rally the artists, telling them “how the painting could bring some serious cash,” stressing that somebody should preserve it.
Sitting at the front counter of 555 Gallery, 34-year-old Carl Goines calmly retells the story. Voo’s efforts at persuasion got Goines and company to visit the site, where Voo had allegedly camped out all night, and take stock of things.
“There was somebody there who claimed to be a supervisor of some kind, Butch, who I think was just keeping an eye on things, watching the scrap come down. He said, ‘You better take it. If you’re going to take it, you better do it quickly. The I-beams around it are going to be coming out very soon. Everything else has.’”
Work began quickly on Monday, May 10, with all the manic energy of a heist film. Goines recalls how it went down. He says the removal of the 1,500-pound section of cinderblock-and-concrete wall required more than a dozen people working all day long. “We used a gas-powered concrete cutting saw to cut away some of the cinder block. We used a torch to cut the steel doorway that was framed in the wall. And then we just pulled together a bunch of miscellaneous material that was on-site at the Packard. There was lumber there that we scrapped and made a wall and kinda glued it to the back of it.
“We just showed up with a bunch of cordless power tools and figured out what to do next and tried to make it work. I grew up doing carpentry and construction my whole life, so working with a team of people has always come easy to me, to give direction and make things happen. We just figured it out as we went.”
By about 10 p.m., the crew had removed Banksy’s artwork from the wall and crated it, and began clearing a path for a little Bobcat to get to the artwork. But it had gotten very dark, and after Goines was injured while falling off a wall, the group broke up and left the artwork in its crate overnight. The next morning, the crew showed up during a pouring rainstorm. The artwork was still there.
“There was literally like a foot of water that we had to walk through to get to it, finish it up, scoop it up, and slowly make our way out of there.” The rain broke and the sun finally came out as the group headed back to 555 headquarters to exhibit its newfound treasure. But not before an excited onlooker had announced on social networking that the 555 was “saving” the Packard Banksy.
And then all hell broke loose.
You see, it turns out that removing a Banksy without authorization is something street artists almost universally frown upon. The young and still-evolving art form has developed some surprisingly firm stands on its work being site-specific, and that to take the work out of its context is a culturally dangerous act.
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