Banksy's other fine art: Moving the masterpieces

Anonymous British graffiti artist's Valentine’s Day Mascara mural is worth millions, but not easily moved from wall to showroom

What happens if you find a Banksy mural on your house?

What happens if you find a Banksy mural on your house?
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The Valentine’s Day Mascara mural appeared like all the rest of Banksy’s works, suddenly and without warning, causing a stir.

The scene, discovered on a quiet Margate street before the romantic holiday last year, shows a woman in 1950s-style clothing, sporting a bruised and swollen eye, with a smile and missing tooth.

She is pushing a man into an abandoned freezer, leaving his graffitied feet sticking out of one side, in an apparent commentary on domestic violence against women.

Within hours of its discovery, the anonymous graffiti artist had claimed the artwork on his Instagram page, resulting in a predictable throng of onlookers.

“The lady who lives at the house was in a bit of a flap, because she had 50 people outside her house," Julian Usher, chief executive of the Red Eight Gallery, tells The National.

"So she phoned her landlady. And her landlady phoned us.”

The gallery, more than 100km away in London, had hosted a Banksy exhibition when it opened a couple of years previously.

“She typed in gallery Banksy in Google and we popped up,” says Mr Usher.

Banksy's Valentine's Day Mascara moved from the street to Dreamland Margate

“She said I don’t know for sure but I think I have a Banksy on the side of my house, can you help me? So I said yes.”

The request sparked a question that has been repeated dozens of times with each new Banksy discovery – what do you do when you find one?

Who is he, anyway?

The English street artist began his tagging career in the early 1990s in Bristol, with his works popping up in cities worldwide by the mid-2000s.

His art, often political, has since taken him to the Middle East several times.

Banksy found international fame after a visit to Israel in 2005, where he spray painted seven large murals on the West Bank segregation wall.

It was there where he painted Flying Balloon Girl, which is believed to represent children affected by the conflict who want to fly away to freedom and safety.

In 2017 he also opened the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, which boasted “the worst view in the world” for its outlook of the eight-metre-tall concrete wall.

It was forced to close temporarily in October 2023 because of the Israel-Gaza war and has yet to reopen.

Banksy works in Palestine 2024 - in pictures

Banksy, who has never revealed his name, has also spent time in Ukraine, where he completed seven works, including one with a gymnast balancing on a pile of rubble created by Russian strikes.

He unveiled his most recent work last week, featuring splodges of green sprayed behind a cut-back tree near Finsbury Park in London, which was within hours vandalised with white paint.

It is by no means the first Banksy to have been defaced. Others have even been removed, like the red stop sign featuring three military drones in Peckham. Police said they were investigating.

Paradoxically, police are the reason that Banksy, who fears being arrested for his illegal street art, has never revealed his true identity.

But over the years there have been many theories, with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz and Neil Buchanan, the former host of the TV show Art Attack, all named as possible candidates.

In 2008, the Daily Mail announced that artist Robin Gunningham was Banksy, although that claim was met with denials all round.

The closest he gets to publicly claiming his wall art is by sharing it on his Instagram page, although self-run so-called "Pest Control Office" certifies occasional artworks produced for commercial sale.

"Street art pieces made on walls, doors or any other medium will most probably not get a certificate [with a few occasional exceptions]," says the Banksy Explained, "unofficial and unauthorised" site.


The first step after any Banksy wall art discovery is to protect the work, says Mr Usher.

The gallery hired two security staff to guard the Valentine's Day Mascara on the day the mural was discovered, but before they had even reached the site, the chair had been stolen and the freezer had been removed.

“It took 24 hours but we managed to get the freezer back from the council, which said it was taken away for health and safety purposes to be de-gassed,” he said. The chair was also retrieved.

Once the gallery got them back, they placed the chair and freezer into storage.

It also covered the work in Perspex at the cost of £7,000, while they waited three weeks for the permission for a building licence to remove it.


Removing a Banksy wall is no easy task, says Ilya Kushnirskiy, the co-owner of Fine Art Shippers, which has overseen the extraction of two in the US, the latest of which, called Ghetto for Life, took place last month.

They moved their first Banksy in 2019, a graffiti painting of a seal balancing a red ball from a Mobil logo on the wall of a former petrol station.

"The owners were in the process of demolishing it. And Banksy came and painted a side wall and a main wall," he tells The National.

"The side wall got so much attention that the owners were afraid of someone getting hurt or something that they immediately painted it over. It was one of the best works.

"But the owner wanted to save the main wall with the seal, so they hired us and we hired a team. We hired engineers, an architect to make the plan. It’s a five-tonne brick wall."

The second wall, Ghetto for Life, appeared in New York’s Bronx neighbourhood overnight in 2013, during the artist's month-long residency in the city.

The mural initially caused a storm of controversy, but many residents had grown to love the work, which had to be moved because the building was being demolished.

"The first time we got a Banksy job it was almost like an adventure project. Now the second time when we moved the wall, I felt so comfortable doing it," says Mr Kushnirskiy.

"We used the same engineer, the same architect and the same plan. It’s like a construction project."

Heavy steel is erected around the scene like a frame to support it, with wood ensuring the bricks do not break up.

“Then you cut it from the main building," he said. "When you cut it from the bottom you put wood as a support, so it sort of floats. And then you lift it with a crane.”

The operation to remove the Banksy in Margate was also weeks in the planning and cost tens of thousands of pounds.

The house had to be reconfigured inside, temporarily removing the stairs to ensure the Banksy remained in one piece during the removal.

The removal, although complicated, is in some senses the easy part.


The building’s owner and gallery decided to make Valentine's Day Mascara available for the public to see for free for a year.

It was first on display at Dreamland, a disused amusement park in Margate, then later in London, in the foyer of The Art of Banksy exhibition in Regent Street. It is currently at Yamaha Music London on Wardour Street.

The building owner and gallery would prefer it remains in the public domain after its sale – but ultimately the buyer will decide. And they are yet to find one.

The UK auction houses will not touch it because Banksy's Pest Control "won’t issue any paperwork”, says Mr Usher.

“So it really is a grey market," says Mr Usher. "You are eiher looking for a very wealthy Banksy enthusiast who is happy to have it in their garden as it’s not the sort of thing that would hang above the fireplace.

There have been inquiries, including one from someone in the Hamptons, in the US, who fancied it for their barbeque area.

The current plan is to put it up for sale at the end of May at an auction house in the Netherlands.

The gallery, which paid for the building work, has so far spent £205,000 ($258,800) – a cost it hopes to recover when, and if, it sells. It will also take a cut of the sale price.

But would actually Banksy want his works to be sold like that?

Carol Diehl, the author of Banksy: Completed, told The National that Banksy would ultimately regard the sale from the perspective of the spirit of street art.

“I can’t speak for him but I don’t think he would approve or disapprove," she said.

“He operates in the ethos of street art, which means that once it goes up, whatever happens to it, happens to it. He doesn’t control it and he doesn’t want to control it.”

Mr Usher does not answer the question directly, quoting instead from a passage written by Banksy in a magazine to accompany his first and only solo exhibition in Glasgow.

“What he says in the Cut and Run magazine about the Banksy Margate is that, and I quote: ‘It’s got to the point that I’m not sure what part of this is the art any more.

"'It doesn’t seem to be about the painting so much as it the events that unfold around it’."

Having said that, Mr Usher concedes Banksy may have chosen his most recent site in Islington, which was covered on Thursday by security fencing, perspex and wooden hoardings for its protection, precisely because it cannot be easily removed.

“Because how would you at first glance look to pack that up in a box? But we know a way, so we will see what happens."

Without the tree it is just a “wall with green paint”. But it is not practical to move it around, if it can even be removed. Essentially, it would have to be recreated so it could be packed up and crated.

“That could be done,” Mr Usher says.

The owners of the Islington building have also asked his gallery to act on their behalf, “just to help project manage it, if anything, and to take on the legal responsibility to sell it in the future", he says.

But he has already warned them it will not be easy.

“I have painted a very dark, bumpy road that will ensue.

"It’s not all roses. It might look like a gift on a first glance but in actual fact it comes with responsibility and quite a lot of anguish attached to it."

The artworks of Banksy - in pictures

Updated: March 29, 2024, 6:00 PM