Banksy's "Haight Street Rat" at the U.S. Bank Tower: This Is Where I Draw the Line
“This’ll look nice when it’s framed” read one of the massive pieces of satiric graffiti Banksy painted on public walls across San Francisco in April 2010. Brian Greif, a retired television executive turned art preservationist, must’ve thought the same thing when he raised more than $10,000 on Kickstarter to professionally remove and frame one of the few Banksy pieces in San Francisco that hadn’t been immediately vandalized or whitewashed.
Named the Haight Street Rat for its placement atop a Victorian building on Haight Street, the stenciled rat clutching a red marker is now neatly framed and displayed (until Nov. 28) in a location entirely unlike the one in which it was created: the lobby of the U.S. Bank Tower in downtown L.A., the city’s tallest tower and perhaps its most conspicuous symbol of capitalism.
It’s a baffling venue for a piece of site-specific street art that initially wrapped across two buildings, with the rat’s red marker extending from one wall to the next and ending with the spray-painted words: “This is where I draw the line.” The third-floor piece was intended as a critique of the street-level clothing store “that allegedly took street artists’ works and printed them on apparel for sale without giving the artists any credit or revenue.”
That's according to the plaque in the U.S. Bank building lobby, which acts as a primer for Banksy novices — or, perhaps the kind of bankers whom the elusive artist frequently mocks in his stencils. Take, for example, the suited-up banker spray-painted on a wall in Toronto in May 2010, a month after Banksy’s San Francisco tour. The banker carries a briefcase and wears a sign around his neck that boasts: “0% interest in people,” a clever satire that predated the Occupy Wall Street movement by a full year.
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When the Occupy movement actually did take off, Banksy ridiculed its herd mentality by writing the words “The Musical” underneath an “Occupy!” tag in New York in 2013, effectively reducing the progressive sentiment to a goofy branding slogan. Still, Banksy’s art exemplifies anti-capitalist ideals. There’s the spray-painted image of an ATM machine attacking a pigtailed girl that appeared on a London wall in Bansky’s native U.K. in 2007, and the Bristol, U.K. stencil in which a leopard emerges from a barcode cage, an obvious critique of consumerism.
So what is Banksy’s Haight Street Rat doing in a bank lobby, where it’s roped off by a stanchion and protected by a security guard behind a maze of elevators, practically ensuring that the general public will never find it? The plaque next to the framed artwork reads: “The U.S. Bank Tower is the first establishment to display Banksy’s Haight Street Rat free to the public,” which is hardly true considering it was displayed free to the public when it was first painted on the side of The Red Victorian Bed & Breakfast on Haight for all to see — not just those who happened to work in a bank.
“The U.S. Bank Tower invites corporate viewers, street art enthusiasts, critics and supporters to come together and discuss the wonderful (or shocking) dichotomy of this street art exhibit,” the plaque continues. Except that the so-called “street art exhibit” is hardly inviting, tucked away in a back corner behind the historic mural in the tower’s main lobby. Not only is it rendered completely inaccessible, but the Haight Street Rat now lacks any sort of “dichotomy” since it’s been removed from its original site and separated from the adjacent building that delivered the kicker: “This is where I draw the line,” a threat likely aimed at the ground-floor boutique and a warning to those who appropriate street art at the expense of street artists.
Greif’s efforts in saving Haight Street Rat from whitewashing came with good intentions. But it seems he’s missed the point of the artwork entirely by installing it in the tallest, most ostentatious skyscraper in Los Angeles. It's as if it were a privilege to glimpse this cropped, chopped and framed panel of spray-painted redwood just because it’s positioned as “Banksy’s last surviving San Francisco rat,” a sort of street art novelty, a refugee in the graffiti wars.
But devoid of its urban context, the lone street rat is emptied of all meaning: the message, painted in red marker on the opposite wall, got left behind on Haight Street, nearly 400 miles away.
Haight Street Rat at U.S. Bank
Photo: Jennifer Swann
Even with its subversive bent, Banksy’s Haight Street Rat was itself a something of a marketing stunt. One of a series of large-scale graffiti pieces that appeared all over San Francisco in April 2010, it was curiously timed to the release of Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, the title of which is another nod to the trickery of consumerism. Even more ironic? In its second life, the Haight Street Rat now serves to promote yet another documentary: Greif’s Saving Banksy, a meta project that documents the filmmaker’s own efforts — including reassembling twelve separate wooden panels at the Fine Art Conservation Laboratory in Santa Barbara — to preserve the very piece of artwork that’s now tucked beside the business banking branch at the U.S. Bank Tower.
And Greif didn't draw the line there. He even produced his own line of t-shirts and hoodies bearing an image of the Haight Street Rat and the phrase "I Saved A Banksy" to reward Kickstarter backers who funded the art restoration/documentary. It begs the question of whether Banksy's rat needed saving to begin with.
Bansky was one step ahead of his fans when he answered with the facetious prophecy: "This’ll look nice when it’s framed." Of course, that's the punchline: The Haight Street Rat doesn't look nice when it’s framed — and it certainly doesn’t look nice in the U.S. Bank Tower.
Jennifer Swann on Twitter:
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