'Birth and death of a Banksy' – mysterious artwork covered up

A work attributed to the British graffiti artist Banksy has caused a dispute in the elegant seaside city of San Sebastian – but not, as is often the case with his work, because the authorities were irked by the defaced wall. The problem this time was that other graffiti artists were so jealous of Banksy's artwork that they tried to destroy it.

The street-art saga began when Banksy's documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop (about people with names like Neck Face and Buff Monster), aired in late September at the San Sebastian Film Festival. The next day, a nine-foot-high image, entitled A Frame Beyond Compare, appeared on a wall in the city's old quarters.

The work depicted a man studying an ornate painting missing a canvas, apparently a reference to the picturesque city or a tongue-and-cheek barb at the films on show and the short lifespan of street art. The graffiti was not signed by Banksy, whose tag has appeared everywhere from fake bank notes to live animals to cartoon signs on a recent episode of The Simpsons. And it was not even clear whether the mysterious artist had travelled to San Sebastian incognito, as he was believed to have done at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

But the work was done with his characteristic black-and-white stencilled style, supposedly inspired by a few anxious minutes of hiding from police under a truck. And the entranced art lover in the image was a clone of a figure that appears on the Banksy website accompanied by the usual dark-humoured cast of Banksy characters, victims of war and capitalist abuses.

A further clue was that small stencilled images labelled "Banksy Meninas," a reference to the Velazquez masterpiece, appeared on benches outside the Prado Museum in Madrid soon after the empty

painting joined the San Sebastian scenery.

The city council in San Sebastian was convinced that the work was created by the underground artist from Bristol, whose graffiti have fetched thousands of pounds at Sotheby's art auction house, or at least by an extremely proficient disciple. In fact, the council liked the empty painting so much that in October the culture councillor asked the public works director to make an exception to the city's anti-graffiti policy so that the work could be preserved.

San Sebastian's councillor for culture, Denis Itxaso, said: "Even if it isn't by Banksy, it is in any event a cultural expression." But this did not sit well with the resident graffiti artists.

First the local artists scrawled insults around the image, such as "sell out" and "money grabber", perhaps in reference to the high prices paid for works such as Banksy's green stencil of Mona Lisa and a lesbian version of Queen Victoria.

Then they defaced the graffiti itself, covering the deluded male art connoisseur from head to toe with black spray paint. Only the empty painting within the image survived largely unscathed with just a few scribbles over it.

But the cultural councillor said it was difficult to justify a clean-up to save it now that most of the original work had been covered with paint like an underground tunnel wall. So this week, city workers scrubbed the wall clean. "Birth and death of a Banksy," El País newspaper announced yesterday. Soon after the cleaning crew finished its job, someone scrawled a naïf frame in the same place where the legendary graffiti artist had painted.

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