If You Take Street Art Off the Street, Is It Still Art?

If You Take Street Art Off the Street, Is It Still Art?

Fans Cut Mural Linked to Banksy From Wall; One Man's Rescue, Another's Heist

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DETROIT—Secured inside a wooden crate and locked in a warehouse is a painting that could cement this city's reputation as a showcase for avant-garde art. Or as a wasteland waiting to be picked apart.

It's a stenciled image on a 7-foot-by-7-foot slab of cinder-block wall, showing a small boy holding a can and paintbrush.

Next to the boy are the words: "I remember when all this was trees."

The painting came from the grounds of the old Packard auto plant, one of the city's infamous industrial ruins. And it is believed to be the work of the mysterious street artist Banksy, whose graffiti-like renderings adorn the lanes of London and the walls of the West Bank. His ironic urban images, or "tags," have produced world-wide fame and led him to create an Oscar-nominated documentary.

How the work ended up in the warehouse—was it a rescue or a heist?—is now the subject of a spirited discussion in Detroit art circles.

It's also at the center of a courtroom battle between a scrappy Detroit art gallery and the once-reclusive owner of the Packard site.

Last May, a quartet of artists from the 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, tipped off by local photographer Bill Riddle, descended on a section of the Packard site strewn with rubble. After sawing the painting free, they hauled the 1,500-pound wall back to their gallery to save it, they say, from destruction. They say they hid the painting in
response to threats from other street artists to deface it.

"Look at what the big picture is here," says Mr. Riddle, a 41-year-old former computer technician. "It's not a silly tag. It's a world-renowned artist who put something up in a place that is going to be destroyed."

Others here see it differently. "It seems the 555 Gallery is incapable of comprehending Banksy and committed the greatest art sin," one critic wrote on a local radio station's website. "In its attempt to 'preserve' a Banksy they have ultimately destroyed it."

Some locals sniff that what Banksy left behind has only served to promote himself.

His gallery work sells for tens of thousands of dollars, though he refuses to authenticate his street art, making it difficult to value.

Detroit's gritty landscape has long been a rich canvas for street artists. But many residents are sensitive about what some art critics have dubbed "ruin porn"—works by out-of-towners that make a spectacle of the city's decaying buildings.

"Obviously, we are supportive of the artist community that has decided to make Detroit home," said Dan Lijana, spokesman for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. "But those who are seeking to tell the same old stories using art, that's something that we don't support."

Banksy, the pseudonym of a British-born street artist who hides his identity, is thought to have created several pieces across Detroit's landscape while on tour with his movie, "Exit Through the Gift Shop." Images of two of the Detroit works—including the "Trees" painting—appear on his website, banksy.co.uk. At least two other Detroit paintings have been attributed to Banksy, but those can't be as firmly tied to the artist, whose popularity has spawned many imitators around the world.

Through a spokeswoman, Banksy declined to comment.

"Most normal art is built to last, like, hundreds of years. It's cast in bronze. Or it's oil on canvas," Banksy says in his movie. "But street art has a short life span."

The "Trees" painting appeared on a jagged section of crumbling, 8-inch-thick wall adjacent to the decrepit Packard car plant, a 3.5-million-square-foot complex. Since it closed in 1956, it has served mostly as a scavenger's playground, and occasionally as a backdrop for TV shows and films, including the coming "Transformers 3."

In May, Mr. Riddle saw a photo of the "Trees" painting on a friend's website and recognized the setting. He said he received approval from anon-site foreman and reached out to 555 Gallery.

Gallery director Carl Goines convinced his father and fellow artists Jacob Martinez and Eric Froh to gather supplies to extricate the painting: an oxyacetylene torch, a Bobcat mini-tractor, a pickup truck and a gas-powered masonry saw with a new $400 blade. It took them two days in mid-May to carve out the entire section of wall.

As news of the removal spread, the building's owner, Bioresource Inc., sued the art gallery in July in Wayne County Circuit Court. It argued that the painting could be worth more than $100,000 and demanded it back.

In court papers, the artist group says it believed they had permission to remove the painting as long as they didn't attempt to purloin any scrap metal. A lawyer for the plant owner said that the foreman on site was not the owner's representative or agent.

When Mayor Bing's office learned of the lawsuit, city officials began looking into back taxes owed on the property since 2006 and seized demolition equipment from the site, a city spokesman said. A lawyer for Bioresource declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Randy Wilcox, who runs a popular Detroit photo blog called dETROITfUNK, chronicled the escapades at the Packard plant and defended 555's owners as preservationists not profiteers.

But there were critics, including Mr. Wilcox's own wife, Melinda, a local sculptor. Banksy "puts things in a place for a reason," said Ms. Wilcox, who teaches art at a suburban high school. "It's about the life of the piece. Its life span was cut short."

The gallery owners are undeterred, saying their plan to put the piece on display for free in another old building that has outlived its intended use, an old police precinct house, will keep it in context. The next hearing in the case is set for March 18.

Sculptor Larry Halbert, a Banksy fan who chairs the 555 Gallery, discounts the slogan on the work—"I remember when all this was trees"—as the voice of an outsider.

Mr. Halbert said a bit ruefully of the Packard plant, "I remember when there were jobs."