In 2014, a controversial exhibition and auction of street pieces by the famously anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy happened in London. Because the art had been removed from buildings upon which the cheeky artist had illegally stencilled them, the exhibit, which was not authorized by Banksy, was audaciously titled Stealing Banksy. Four years later, however, an accusation has been levelled that suggests “Stealing Banksy” might be an appropriate nickname for the possibly pilfering artist himself.
Toronto-based illustrator Cinders McLeod has taken to social media to allege the ideas behind a couple of Banksy’s iconic pieces had been “pinched” from her. And while she’s a fan of his work and was initially flattered by Banksy’s alleged imitation of her style, McLeod’s grievance has now gone from a simmer to a boil.
“We are told women aren’t political cartoonists," said the Canadian-born McLeod, who lived and illustrated in Scotland from 1992 to 2001 for publications such as The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald. “I struggled for years to be a political cartoonist and to be accepted as one." To then have a man come along and possibly use her work as his own is upsetting, she adds.
That’s especially true because the alleged theft speaks to the patriarchal nature of political cartooning and the way women, both in their representation and work in the realm, are not valued, she says. The entire form of expression is dominated by men. The artists are usually men, the editors and publishers who hire them are often men and the politicians to be lampooned have traditionally been men. And, so, sexist myths were institutionalized: Women don’t have a sense of humour. Women don’t care about politics. A woman’s place is in the kitchen – hey, let’s draw the angry wife in a bathrobe and curlers with a rolling pin in her hand.
The works in question include Banksy’s Deep Sea Lovers, which prominently adorns the cover of the 2003 Blur album, Think Tank, a chart-topper in Britain. That illustration, of a man and a woman in a romantic embrace wearing clunky deep-sea diving helmets, bears striking resemblance to something drawn by McLeod in 1997 for the Herald.
The other is Banksy’s 2003 silkscreen Bomb Middle England, which depicted an older lady lawn-bowling with lit bombs. McLeod had the remarkably similar idea years earlier. She called it Anarchic Granny and it was published in the Herald in 1999.
Discouraged and struggling financially, McLeod eventually left the field of political cartooning. “I had kids who went without," she said. “That, and the way I was treated as a woman, makes me angry.”
Upon her return to Toronto in the early 2000s, she worked at The Globe and Mail as a designer and illustrator. Currently, she authors and illustrates a series of children’s books on financial literacy for the piggy-bank set called Moneybunny.
This summer, in a warehouse in Toronto’s west end, the Art of Banksy exhibit (co-curated by Banksy’s former manager and friend Steven Lazarides, and, as with Stealing Banksy, organized without the participation or consent of the secretive artist himself) is drawing big crowds. Seeing a TV news clip on the exhibit that showed Banksy’s elderly lawn-bowler, McLeod was struck by the conceptual similarities the piece had with her own Anarchic Granny.
She was third in line with her daughter on the opening day of the exhibit. “That’s how much I like the guy,” said McLeod, who never noticed echoes of her work in Banksy’s previously. “I really believe in his medium and his message.” Still, McLeod was in a combative and mischievous mood upon leaving the exhibit. Returning home, she began tweeting her frustration: “So I went to the Banksy Toronto show today and discovered either great minds think alike, or the woman cartoonist thought of it first,” one of her trolling social-media missives read.
Speaking to The Globe, McLeod makes clear that while she’s all for the sharing of ideas, she also believes some credit to her is due. “You can’t copyright an idea, but I do believe I have a human right and that’s a right to compensation for the work I’ve done.”
Because of his anonymity and his stealthy guerrilla-art way, the wealth of Banksy is hard to determine. Certainly, his Blur album commission would have kept him in spray paint and stencils for years, but who knows – perhaps he’s a starving artist. “That’s fine,” McLeod says. “But a little credit from him might have helped my ability to stay in cartooning as a career.”
To illustrate her point about the patriarchal nature of cartooning, McLeod tells a story about a male editor at The Scotsman who cut her long-running cartoon shortly after she’d given birth to her daughter. In fact, McLeod was breastfeeding her when the editor dropped the bad news during a lunch meeting. “When I asked him to reconsider, he looked at me scornfully and said, ‘We are not a charity.'"
For McLeod, it was a pure Dickensian moment.
At the Herald, a male editor suggested McLeod put a man in her Broomie Law strip. She told him a man wasn’t needed, but joked she had considered a nagging husband. The editor was not amused; the cartoon was cut.
Scottish political cartoonist Lorna Miller can relate to the experiences of McLeod. “I lost income when a large beer company stole sketches and concepts I had produced for them,” Miller said. “They commissioned me to do them, then they said they couldn’t use what I had produced. Sometime later, I was shocked to see TV adverts based on the character sketches I had done.”
In a strange coincidence, Miller says she’s had a similar pinching incident with Banksy and shares McLeod’s vexation. “Artists have their work stolen all the time. When it has happened to me, it felt like a form of invasion and assault.”
Speaking about her grievances, McLeod is quick to clarify that she (and other female cartoonists) don’t see themselves as victims but as battlers. “That’s our nature as political cartoonists,” she explained, “fighting injustice.”
On McLeod’s side is Martha Richler, daughter of writer Mordecai Richler and, more importantly, a prominent London-based political cartoonist whose work has been carried by The Globe, the London Evening Standard and the London Daily Express. “It is extremely difficult to trace an artist’s intentions and, these days, authorship,” Richler said. “But in this case, Cinders must be credited for her work.”
But credit from Banksy is not likely to come, Richler points out. “I don’t think an artist like Banksy can be held accountable. He’s too elusive. I fear chasing Banksy is like hunting a ghost.”
Promoters of Toronto’s Art of Banksy exhibit (which closes on Sept. 2) claim the 80 works on display are worth $35-million and that, as of July 14, more than 70,000 tickets had been sold. Asked about the resemblance of Banksy’s subversive art to the published illustrations of McLeod’s, co-curator Chris Ford brushed off the allegations. “It’s so subjective with topics like this that it’s really down to the person viewing it,” Ford told The Globe by e-mail. “Artists have always been influenced by other artists, from painters to musicians. That quote from Picasso comes to mind when he said, ‘good artists copy, great artists steal.’”
Great artists steal and so to do burglars. In June, a piece valued at $45,000 was stolen from the pop-up warehouse gallery holding the Toronto exhibit. A stolen Banksy? Perhaps the justice is poetic.