Banksy: Art as a brand

By Brand Heeler

One of many attempts to extract and sell one of Banksy’s graffiti artworks got us thinking about the power of a good brand

You can’t get a better illustration (forgive the pun) of the power of a brand than the recent abortive sale in Miami of a Banksy which had last been seen attached to the wall of a north London Poundland.  Setting aside the furore over who actually owns the work and who has the right to sell it, there’s another more basic consideration here: most graffiti is not considered worthy of a $700,000 pricetag, or even a pricetag at all.  More usually a fixed-penalty fine, and perhaps a ankle-tag and curfew.  So what makes this so different? 

It can’t be the judicious use of brushwork or colour – like most of Banksy’s work, Slave Labour is a spray-painted stencil and largely monochrome.  It’s well executed, certainly (but as Dr Johnson might have commented that’s not so much the point, as that it’s been executed at all).  What really adds all those zeroes to the valuation is the (pseudonymous) identity of the artist.

It’d be hard to pin-down exactly what is going on, but something has clearly happened to turn a piece of [probable] criminal damage into world-class art and news.  For want of a better label, let’s call that something ‘brand Banksy’.  Like all good brands, it adds a ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the ordinary and makes it special.  You can imagine that if Damien Hirst were to dabble in street-art, we might be in similar territory, but if we were to try anything similar – no matter how similar – the result would not be worth more than a passing mention. 

This isn’t new: brands have been around as long as human commerce, differentiating and distinguishing goods and services and making some more valuable than others.  Even in the art world, Marcel Duchamp got there first – his autographed urinal Fountain has since become ‘the most influential artwork of the 20th century’ merely because of the addition of Duchamp’s signature and the consequent connection with his fame/infamy (delete as applicable). 

While we can’t condone his attitude to other people’s property, we have a sneaking admiration for our fellow Bristolian Banksy and his cheeky and irreverent take on modern culture and politics.  Mind you, we’re still smarting from reading his opinion that ‘Copyright is for losers’.  We sincerely hope he is less cavalier about brand rights!

This article contains our thoughts and opinions on an issue of general interest and is written from the perspective of Australian and/or English law. It is not legal advice and is not provided in the context of a solicitor-client relationship. It may not even be relevant to your jurisdiction. No duty of care is assumed or accepted. Please carry out appropriate research and consult with a suitably qualified legal expert before taking any action or making any decisions.