It wasn’t long after one of the world’s most famous artists landed in Toronto that his work started disappearing.
Banksy, the pseudonymous street artist who earned an international following for his sly, winking work – like the mounted, mini-missile-packing beetle he snuck into the American Museum of Natural History (scientific name: “Withus Oragainstus”), or the “What are you looking at?” stencil he painted within sight of a security camera at a London tube station – put seven pieces up here in May, 2010. Some ended up buried beneath paint or preserved behind Plexiglas, and another, scrawled on a fallen tree, became woodchips before almost anyone could see it.
But now, more than a year later, one piece’s fate is a little less clear.
Pinned between the Gardiner and one of the expressway’s off-ramps in the denser-than-dense part of downtown Toronto, at 90 Harbour Street, was, until very recently, a five-storey brick-and-concrete office building. From 1953 until 1973, it was home to what’s now the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, and from 1975 to 1995, it was the Ontario Provincial Police’s headquarters. After, while the provincial government tried to sell the land it was on, the building was mostly used for film and television shoots.
Its first real starring role, however, came when Banksy painted a security guard, clutching a leashed pink balloon dog, onto one of the building's north-facing concrete pillars. That piece stood while, on February 14, 2011, a demolition permit was issued for the building. The piece stood while, on July 15, the province finally sold the land, to the Hospitals of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP) and Menkes Development Ltd. And Banksy’s piece stood while, shortly thereafter, demolition of the building around it began. Today, the lone pillar is one of the last things standing at the fenced-in site, with plywood and what looks like polystyrene foam covering the art on it.
“We were ordered to save it,” explains Ron Kepic, an estimator with Progreen Demolition, “so that nothing would fall, or hit it, or disturb it in any way.” When asked whether it was unusual to be asked to salvage art from a building, Mr. Kepic laughed. “This is a little different type of art, eh?”
When it came to what would come of the piece, though, Mr. Kepic couldn’t say – and neither could anyone else. Progreen president Paolo Provenzano said he had “no information”; HOOPP had no comment. Both pointed, instead, to Menkes, who eventually said, through a spokesperson, that they were “preserving the piece, but right now the future plans for it have not been finalized.” Roy Budgell, a Menkes general manager at the nearby Telus Tower, could say only that “a condo development with a possible commercial tower” was planned for 90 Harbour.
So what, then, of Banksy? “I think with the work he puts up on the street – that's what its life is, whether people clean over it or tag over it or do whatever to it – that's why it's there; that's the whole point,” explains Simon Cole, director of the west-end Show & Tell Gallery, which frequently features street artists. Indeed, after Banksy’s piece first went up, it wasn’t long before other artists put a dodo on top of the guard’s head, and made the dog growl. Someone wrote “Robbin’ Banksy” beside it. “Hopefully it's still put in the public realm,” Mr. Cole continues, “so people can enjoy it, or paint over it, or do whatever they want to it.”
Other than hide it, of course.
Special to The Globe and Mail