Banksy’s legacy

Could Banksy’s street art become the next listed cultural asset? Burges Salmon solicitor John Webster thinks so.

When white stripes were first applied to the tarmac on Abbey Road in north west London, the idea that this simple zebra crossing would one day become a Grade II listed asset recognised for its national cultural interest would have been laughable. Who knew the impact that four Beatles and a 10 minute photo-shoot one August in 1969 would have on transforming this location into an iconic part of our cultural heritage?

But after the crossing appeared on the cover of the Beatles Abbey Road album, English Heritage took the view in February 2010 that the asphalt and zebra stripes applied to the road itself were capable of being listed as a structure.

In terms of policy, English Heritage stated that while the architectural or structural interest was low, the historic interest was so significant that it outweighed the lesser interest of the fabric. The principal reasons given for the designation were the crossing’s historical value and the fact that it was made internationally famous by the album. It also has a group value when seen alongside the Grade II listed Abbey Road Studios.

In this decade, paint on tarmac, concrete or brick continues to find its way into the national consciousness – primarily thanks to Bristol-based graffiti artist Banksy. Banksy’s closely guarded anonymity, politically charged images and high-profile exhibitions have led to him becoming a household name.

It’s clear that Banksy is increasingly celebrated in popular culture as an artist in his own right. In legal terms, it can be argued that his work, due to its political and social statements, carries a cultural significance in modern society. An application for listing under the Listed Building Acts could ensure that the work may be preserved for future generations and actions could be taken to preserve landmark street art.

There is clearly public will for landmark pieces of Banksy’s work to be preserved. In 2006 when a piece of his work appeared on the blank wall of a clinic overlooking Park Street in Bristol the City Council took the unusual step of holding an online poll asking the public for their view on whether it should be kept or removed. The poll gave a result of 93 per cent in favour of keeping the work. 

In 2009, at the time of the ‘Banksy versus Bristol Museum’ exhibition in the city, the council carefully removed the results of an overnight paintball attack that had covered parts of the wall with blue paint.

However, a positive approach by local authorities to graffiti finds itself at conflict with existing legislation, which is aimed entirely at prevention and removal. These powers can override the intentions of the property’s owner. Even if the owner of a wall wishes the graffiti to stay, the local authority could still serve a notice if in the authority’s opinion it is detrimental to the amenity of an area.

There are no English Heritage guidance documents on street art or graffiti. English Heritage is directed towards preserving the historic environment rather than identifying prospective heritage pieces that should be saved for future generations.

Banksy’s artworks are clearly future heritage assets. It is open for any individual or group to submit an application for listing the Park Street Banksy. It is clear that although the Listed Building Planning System gives the greatest protection, it is not designed for the purpose of preserving street art and only by extending case law and policy can any traction be gained. Any action would be a test case. It is unclear, though, who would object to the listing if the owner is complicit and more than happy to keep the art work on the wall.

John Webster is a solicitor in Burges Salmon’s specialist planning team and an advanced postgraduate student at the University of Bristol’s School of Law. The above commentary is drawn from his dissertation ‘Should the work of Banksy be listed?’