Banksy’s use of a live elephant for his L.A. show in 2006 is well documented and highly controversial, but recently it’s his ‘elephant’ outside, nestled on the hills between Santa Monica and Malibu, that has been the focus of attention. What has come to light is the most extraordinary tale of the mercenary selling of street art works and a genuine act of kindness from the illusive artist himself.
In late February 2011, Banksy was in Los Angeles to promote his film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Sometime during his visit, he spotted an old, abandoned water tank high on a hillside. White, cylindrical, as long as a bus and with a large tap protruding from one end made it look a bit like an elephant. So, Banksy climbed up and sprayed a caption along its side: “This looks a bit like an elephant.”
The image was put up on the artist’s site and officially confirmed as a Banksy, but what nobody knew was that somebody lived inside.
The resident, a local eccentric who describes himself ‘as self-sufficient not as homeless’, was living happily in the tank for a few years prior to Banksy’s adornment. He was known to pretty much everyone. Even the police, apparently charmed by this friendly eccentric, would leave him alone, sometimes calling up to the tank to say hello. Extraordinarily the US postal service even delivered mail to his exclusive address: 15145 Pacific Coast Highway.
He was at home on 21 February, when he heard someone moving around outside. “I looked out of the hatch, and there were two guys there. I asked what they were doing, and one of them said ‘we’re just making a joke’. I climbed down the ladder, looked at the writing, and I said, ‘Hey, that looks pretty cool!’ I introduced myself, and the English dude told me his name was Banksy. I didn’t know who he was, so I didn’t think twice about it.”
Despite the serendipitous encounter with an artist many would love the chance to meet, it would seem the lure of a verified original Banksy just sitting there on a hill is too much for an art market desperate to cash in.
People go to great lengths to acquire Banksy’s public works; inciting gold rush fever over the hope that a crumbling wall is now, potentially, worth more than the entire building it is part of.
The story is all too familiar as seen recently when a work was removed from a wall in North London and sold for £750,000. Only last week, in fact, another of the artist’s murals was sliced from wall of a shop in Tottenham.“
Needless to say the sharks circled, ownership was claimed and the tank removed (with its home contents inside) ready to have a price tag attached; all for the love of art, apparently.
The fact that Banksy wantonly sprayed his ‘joke’ on a structure that turned out to be a man’s home could be seen as reckless as those who swiftly came in and uprooted it. Did Banksy inadvertently make the man homeless. Surely not, but it raises very interesting questions – notably about ownership, but also the location and positioning of street are pieces and the responsibility of doing so by the artist.
When Banksy heard of what happened, astoundingly Banksy came to the rescue. The artist gave him enough to get him on his feet, find an apartment and pay the bills for a full year. “There ain’t no better man than Banksy,” the self-sufficient man says. “He was an angel to me. He helped me more than anybody helped me in my life. He helped me so fast, I didn’t have to spend a single day more on the streets. It was like a miracle.”
Meanwhile, this whole episode has inspired a play, Banksy: The Room in the Elephant, which begins its run at the Edinburgh Festival and the man at the centre of it all has become the subject of a documentary by two Texan filmmakers who have followed him on and off for the past five years.
And the tank itself... which seemed destined for some rich man’s sculpture garden. Banksy removed the photo from his website, and when the owners contacted the artist’s people for it to be certified as a genuine, he refused. Without authentication, the Banksy Elephant has became nothing but an empty water tank. In recent months, it was sent to the scrapheap.
“The writing on the tank wasn’t art, it was just lettering. The art was what was inside the tank. I regret that it’s gone: it was meant to be seen.”
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