The Welsh owner of the garage that Banksy transformed his into latest canvas is having difficulties shouldering the costs of securing the valuable mural. Despite being helped by the Hollywood star Michael Sheen, who grew up in Port Talbot and donated thousands of dollars to protect the artwork, the steelworker Ian Lewis is struggling to care for his surprise Christmas gift from Banksy.
“I’m actually managing an art attraction by myself,” Lewis, who owns the garage, told the BBC. “It’s very surreal. I’ve been in freefall. It’s just all been so much for me.”
The mural appeared in the industrial town of Port Talbot in South Wales the week before Christmas. Home to the UK’s largest steel plant, it is among the most polluted towns in the UK. In Banksy’s trademark style, the work has a political tinge. It depicts a child in winter clothes sticking out his tongue to catch a falling flake, which on closer inspection turns out to be ash originating from a dumpster fire painted on an adjacent wall.
Banksy claimed the work on his Instagram with the caption, “Season’s Greetings.” Like the street artist’s many other works, the Port Talbot mural has proved immensely popular, with reports of more than a thousand visitors a day, and some 20,000 people in total making the pilgrimage over the holiday period.
But because of the high value attributed to Banksy works, it is also vulnerable to vandalism and theft. Lewis erected fencing and installed plastic sheeting to protect the work. He also hired security guards. Now, the owner of the private property on which it stands is appealing for help. “I’ve organized security, I’ve organized the protection of covers, everything, by myself, and I just need help,” Lewis said.
The actor Michael Sheen—known for playing Tony Blair in The Queen—helped Lewis to pay for security over the Christmas break. “At the moment, my biggest concern really is for Ian,” Sheen told the BBC. “It’s been a really stressful thing for him, and it’s put a lot of financial burden on him that nobody else at the moment is helping him with.”
A long-term solution for the problem is needed, and the local council has stepped in to offer one. In a statement provided to artnet News, a council spokesperson said it had volunteered to pay to remove, store, and relocate the work, if Lewis agreed to loan it to the people of Neath Port Talbot on a permanent basis. The new location for the work would be decided following a public consultation.
“We have proposed to meet the cost in full, including a like-for-like replacement garage, but Mr. Lewis has refused the offer of a meeting to discuss the matter further,” the spokesperson said. “It is our understanding that he wishes to pursue other options, as is of course his right, but our doors remain open should he change his mind.”
The statement added that it would be impractical for the work to remain where it is given its complicated security requirements and the traffic congestion caused by the many visitors to the site. The council has committed “significant resources” to manage traffic over the holiday period at a growing cost to local taxpayers, but that “this cannot go on indefinitely.” Ultimately, while the local government’s priority is to “preserve and protect this exciting example of modern urban art.” It recognizes that it is on private property and is, therefore, up to Lewis to decide what he wants to do with the work.
It is no wonder Lewis is weighing his options given the high price Banksy’s work can fetch on the open market, but if he wants the work to stay in Port Talbot his options may be limited.
Meanwhile, local playwrights Paul Jenkins and Tracey Harris are working on a theatrical production about the arrival of the Banksy, and the international attention it has attracted, to the polluted industrial town.