Banksy's Upper Haight Rat Back in SF

Haight Street Rat: By Banksy. On display in the window facing Montgomery Street. 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Jan. 21-July 11. 836m, 836 Montgomery St., S.F. Free.

Banksy’s 'Haight Street Rat’ graffiti holes up in an S.F. gallery
By Rachel Howard (original)
Updated 1:59 pm, Monday, January 19, 2015

A graffiti work by the stealth artist Banksy is back in its original street habitat — sort of.

Through July 11, the image known as “Haight Street Rat,” spray-painted on the side of a bed-and-breakfast in 2010 when Banksy was in San Francisco for the release of his documentary, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” will be viewable to anyone who passes down the 800 block of Montgomery Street, though the 12-foot-tall work will be protected behind the glass facade of 836M, a nonprofit gallery near the Transamerica Pyramid.

The stenciled rat, which wears a Che Guevara-style cap and clutches a Magic Marker, no longer appears accompanied by the work’s original text, “THIS IS WHERE I DRAW THE LINE.” But “to me, this is as close as you can get to the intention that Banksy had, given the fact that the piece was salvaged and restored,” said Sebastien Lepinard, founder of the investment firm Next World Group and co-founder of 836M with his wife, Julie.

The Lepinards became interested in displaying the work after reading a Chronicle report on the efforts of Brian Greif, former general manager of the defunct KRON-TV, who in 2010 persuaded the owner of the vandalized Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast to let him remove 10 redwood siding planks on which the rat was painted. Greif took the painting to art-restoration specialists, who mounted the slats on corrugated aluminum. He raised $10,000 to offset costs through a Kickstarter campaign, promising never to sell the work, even though other Banksy creations have sold at auction for more than $1 million. Greif then tried to donate “Haight Street Rat” to various museums, but without a letter of authentication from the artist, the institutions said they would not accept the work.

Greif has since sought venues for displaying “Haight Street Rat,” which last fall hung in the lobby of the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles.

“Our condition is that it has to be free and open to the public, and that there have to be programs to support street art,” Greif said from Nashville, where he moved last year. “When I came to see the space at 836M, a painting by the street artist Jet Martinez was already on display. I figured if (the Lepinards) are friends of Jet, they’re good people.”

The 836M gallery has committed to hosting public discussions about street art during “Haight Street Rat’s” exhibition, with details forthcoming.

The gallery has built a large metal stand to wheel the 420-pound painting into place. Even before last week’s installation, as the Lepinards adjusted the lighting, crowds gathered to take pictures of the rat, so instantly recognizable as an image by the British prankster artist whose tactics have often served to reveal the farcical side of the art world’s craze for commodification and coolness.

Banksy’s representatives have not relayed any artist comment on the display of “Haight Street Rat,” though Greif says, “Every once in a while word will pop up that I’ve sold it, and I will have to reassure them no.”

The Lepinards offered little reflection on what Banksy might think of his work appearing at a gallery with a stated mission to feature “premium living artists ... always with a glass of wine!”

“As a pet I hate rats, but as a painting I like it. The size is great,” Julie Lepinard said.

“We have kids that knew Banksy,” said Sebastien Lepinard, whose Next World Group represented the sale of local bakery chain La Boulange to Starbucks. “They probably knew Banksy before we knew Banksy. Not only as a street artist but as an activist, his work is interesting to us.”

Meanwhile, Greif is in post-production on a documentary film, “Saving Banksy.” Asked to describe the film’s scope, he said, “It’s a movie about a guy who has a painting he can’t give away for free but could sell for $700,000.”