A RAT in the Library

Since first emerging as part of Bristol’s DryBreadZ Crew in the early 1990s, the name “Banksy” has become synonymous with social activism expressed through public art. Banksy wasn’t the first, and will certainly not be the last, thanks in large part to his outsized influence, but without question the legacy of this artist figures epicentrically to the broader cultural phenomenon. “Banksy is a true legend,” says local artist Nicole Holderbaum, activist and founder of the Jax Kids Mural Project. “He’s unstoppable, always one step ahead—the most clever artist I’ve ever experienced. … He’s on his own level.”

Banksy may also be the only major celebrity in the modern era (aside from UltraMantis Black and whoever wears the Guy Fawkes mask in the Anonymous videos, whom I and others have suggested might also be Banksy) who has somehow managed to keep his identity completely secret from fans, journalists and, most important, law enforcement, all of which (especially law enforcement) have avidly sought answers to this question for more than 20 years now, with no confirmed success. While criminal masterminds ranging from Whitey Bulger to Osama bin Laden eventually got caught, police in London and New York have failed to find Banksy. Only DB Cooper (who, let’s be clear, is NOT Banksy) boasts a greater career track record, and that’s only because he’s allegedly dead.

While his influence permeates our city’s arts scene, as many artists work across the same media he does—stencil, spray paint and social justice—there has never been an official Banksy piece on display here until now. In February, Haight Street Rat arrived at the Jacksonville Public Library, where it will be on display in Jax Makerspace Gallery through April 14. JPL has partnered with the Cultural Council to borrow the piece, estimated to be worth some $2 million, which came here directly from Outer Space Art Gallery & Studio in Winter Haven.

“I’ve been working hard for the past year to really make the Jax Makerspace Gallery into this place of contemporary art for Northeast Florida’s artists,” says Shawana Brooks, JPL’s Arts & Culture Developer and the driving force behind Makerspace. “I just felt very appreciative that they even looked at us as a possible venue to showcase this.” Opening night coincided with Writing on the Walls, an exhibit of street art showing in the same space at the same time. The Writing pieces were culled from a temporary wall that Brooks installed at Springfield’s Phoenix Arts District and made accessible to anyone who wanted to participate. The only caveat? Respect other artists’ decisions.

The Rat’s current owner, Brian Greif, insists that no fee be charged to view the piece, something of which the famously anti-capitalist artist would surely approve. That stipulation has been met through the largesse of VyStar Credit Union. The end of its run coincides with Public Art Week (scheduled April 1-7), a joint venture between the Cultural Council and Art in Public Places.

Haight Street Rat measures 84 inches by 90 inches; it was spray-painted in red and black onto planks of 107-year-old redwood cedar. The artist painted it in San Francisco in 2010, and it became the subject of the acclaimed independent film Saving Banksy. The documentary elucidates the process by which art collector Greif (a co-founder of the Nashville Walls Project, a public art initiative similar to our own) had it removed from the side of a bed & breakfast in the district, then preserved it for travel and future display.

This doesn’t happen with a lot of Banksy’s material. Often, pieces are more likely to be painted over, or to die with the demolitions of buildings on which they were painted. Haight Street Rat was itself a crucial step beyond the traditional perception of street art as fixed, fundamentally ephemeral and tied into the often-doomed destinies of their backdrops. The piece’s commercial value has surely caused many building owners to rethink their relationships with art on a base level; we’ve seen here in Jacksonville how public art has led to greater recognition and enhanced cultural cachet for the buildings themselves, to say nothing of increased property values in certain cases.

“I think it’s going to bring in a lot of tourism,” Brooks says of the exhibit. “It’s going to be here for only two months, and then it’s going to Abu Dhabi. I knew that I wanted to develop an exhibit to go along with it that also deals with street art, as a subculture. There was an almost 30-year trajectory of street art being vilified and associated with blight. Now, you can’t even have a contemporary major neighborhood without murals in your area. The whole identity has changed, for the better.” Certainly, the works of Banksy have played a major role in the shifting of that dynamic, and it will be interesting to see what kinds of crowds Haight Street Rat draws during its run.

Banksy, Haight Street Rat and Writing on the Walls: Visual Literacy through Street Art Culture, exhibit atJax Makerspace, 303 N. Laura St., through Saturday, April 14.