Banksy, the pseudonymous street artist famous for his guerrilla art and political messages, has recently come under attack by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for breaking the law under allegations of vandalism. Bloomberg argues graffiti ruins people’s property and represents “decay and loss of control.” Bloomberg subscribes to the broken windows theory of crime, which was promulgated by former New York City police chief Bill Bratton. Bratton took a harsh stance against graffiti because he believed neighborhoods with rampant vandalism were more susceptible to other crimes.
New York City law clearly prohibits graffiti — an act defined as the “defacement of property” — and even the “sale and display of aerosol cans.” This language implies that Banksy’s work, which often uses private property as its canvas, is indisputably illegal. Moreover, the NYPD Combating Graffiti pamphlet defines graffiti as having “the intent to damage such property.” One might claim that Banksy’s work is defacement and damaging strictly because it is the application of paint to a surface previously devoid of it.
But such a claim is unfounded. Banksy’s work does not amount to the “defacement of property” distinctly because it does not depreciate the value of the property in question, nor does it have “the intent to damage” property. When one considers the aesthetic and political value associated with his art, as well as its substantial economic value, it can hardly be characterized as depreciating. Banksy’s work has been featured in famous museums and galleries around the world and often sells for millions of dollars. A significant moment worth remembering was when a NYPD public information officer told CNN that no vandalism complaints related to the artist have been submitted.
Even if the law were to apply, the police still have a choice not to enforce it in this case. Thus far, Banksy’s art has been met with praise by local communities.
Although Bloomberg has taken issue with Banksy’s work, New Yorkers have not. In fact, most city residents view the art in an opposite light — they’re captivated by it. To date, there have been no reported objections to Banksy’s cityscape takeover, making the contention over its legality seem unnecessary. If the community does not have an issue with Banksy’s art, then public officials should not fight it.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 28 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]