Friday, 9 September 2011

The Slow Death of Banksy's Reaper

Banksy's Reaper: rowing nowhere slowly
I was sitting recently outside The Ostrich, one of those Bristol dockside pubs that has seen its fair share of comings and goings over the centuries, nursing a half of cider and looking across the water at a picture I see several times a week. In fact, other than paintings we have at home, I probably see it more often than any other artwork. This picture is rudimentary in the extreme, a hasty sketch in white paint on the hull of a boat, just above the waterline.

My daughter tried to persuade me the other day that the picture is of a monkey, but I'm fairly sure it's supposed to be the Grim Reaper, rowing a boat as hundreds of people do in the Harbour every week. Not that this Reaper would actually be going anywhere, were he really rowing: he looks more like a gruesome old signalman yanking at his levers to change the points (and, no doubt, send two trains hurtling towards each other).

on Stokes Croft
This rowing reaper was painted by the Bristol street artist known to the world as Banksy, a man renowned for his ability to create quite substantial paintings in public without anyone noticing. He hasn't often taken to water, and this note in his book 'Cut It Out' suggests why:

One night I painted the side of Bristol's new harbour bridge [Pero's Bridge] with  a message about the slave trade, which got painted over within six hours of daybreak. Afterwards, I made the slowest getaway in criminal history, splashing through the darkness in a tiny rowing boat before stopping off to paint my name on the side of the Thekla.

This tag was removed, against the wishes of the boat's owners (Thekla houses a music venue and nightclub), by Bristol City Council, whose long campaign against Banksy has distinctly Pink Panther-ish overtones, so the maverick dauber came back with the Reaper. It has survived the Thekla's 2006 refit and paint job, so that today Death occupies a square of dark grey on the otherwise green hull. Various patches of paint in greenish-greyish hues show where other tags have been deleted.

Blue paint cleaned off by BCC
I'm not suggesting that the Rowing Reaper has any great significance, but it interests me a lot more than some of the officially sanctioned art on display nearby. What I love about Banksy's Bristol pictures is that they are expressions of an inventive and wily character at work; they tend to be tucked round corners, just off major thoroughfares like Stokes Croft and Park Street, in the sort of places you could stick up a scaffold or a ladder without anyone noticing; the rats and monkeys and so on just pop up as you're walking along. They make you smile, or not, depending on mood. To the kids they're unremarkable, part of the fabric of the city like the statue of Cabot outside Arnolfini.

While Banksy's fame grows around the world his Bristol pictures are deteriorating quietly. The guy hanging out of the window off Park Street has been pelted with blue paint, while a gorilla was recently painted over by a property owner who obviously doesn't keep abreast of the news. No effort has been made to protect any of these paintings, which would presumably be extremely valuable if they weren't fixed forever to a wall in Bristol. Perhaps there will, in due course, be a preservation campaign which will see the best of them sealed behind perspex; perhaps not.

Fun while it lasted: Banksy vs the Bristol Museum (2009)
When the Reaper fades into the rusty hull of the Thekla I can't see many people waving their arms about in horror and consternation. More likely there'll be a shake of the head and a wry smile. It was fun while it lasted.

UPDATE! As of August 2014 Banksy's Reaper has been removed from the side of the Thekla, iron plating and all, and will apparently be exhibited at the nearby M Shed Museum. I hope Banksy paints something else on the side of the ship, otherwise my walks into town will never be the same again...

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