What is the biggest eyesore on the streets of east London? A giant rat with a knife and fork in its paws, apparently. Or a rioter throwing flowers. Hackney council says these subversive images are making the place look dirty and have to go – even if they were spray-painted by Banksy, the art world's most unlikely superstar.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have just paid £1m for some of his work. From Hollywood to Hoxton, art collectors are prepared to pay big money for anything Banksy does, with his most expensive single piece, Space Girl and Bird, selling for £288,000 at Bonhams in April. But Hackney council doesn't care.
"We have to clean up the walls," said a spokeswoman, confirming that the street cleaners are ready to blast some of modern British art's most distinctive images away as part of a zero-tolerance policy. "We can't make a decision as to whether something is art or graffiti. The Government judges us on the number of clean walls we have."
Never mind that art tourists come from all over the world to try to spot the Grim Reaper with the smiley face or some of the other 30 or so Banksy works that have been made inside the borough boundary since he first started working with stencils seven years ago.
The council says it will remove the art "whenever we find it". In that case, officers must be the last people in London not to know where it is. Maps available on the internet give exact locations. They also show where the cocaine-snorting policeman or the dinner-jacketed rats with a red carpet to their hole used to be. Banksy has been a victim of the street teams before, you see – but usually by accident.
A year ago, two officially sanctioned Banksy works were meant to be unveiled at the opening of a new square in Hackney, but when the covers were removed two days before the ceremony, the cleaners took exception to the stencils of a man's face and a girl in a gas mask and hosed both away.
"These were famous artworks by Banksy and of considerable value," said the co-operative responsible for them being there. The council apologised. That disaster was thought to have led to a list of untouchable sites, but if there was one it has been thrown away. "It is a myth that Hackney has a list of protected street art," said councillor Alan Laing, the member of the ruling cabinet responsible for the look of the streets. "Some might see graffiti as street art, but to most people it is just plain vandalism."
Born and raised in Bristol, Banksy started out as part of a graffiti team. According to the self-made legend, his real name may be Robert Banks, and his parents are said to believe he is still a painter and decorator.
His work is often funny, iconoclastic and strangely touching, from two policemen kissing to the naked man hanging off the window ledge of a sexual health clinic in Bristol. The city council chose to keep that one, because people liked it. Banksy has also carried out guerrilla-art stunts at London Zoo, the British Museum and several major American galleries. This summer he made a Stonehenge-style circle at the Glastonbury Festival out of portable loos.
In recent years his fame has spread and his ambition grown: he painted a hole with blue sky on the West Bank wall built by Israel, and made a live elephant look covered in crimson flock wallpaper for an exhibition in Los Angeles. That show introduced his work to Hollywood – the singer Christina Aguilera later bought a picture of Queen Victoria having lesbian sex, and Pitt and Jolie became collectors. Last week, 10 of his pieces raised a total of £500,000 at Bonhams in London.
Gareth Williams, senior picture specialist at the auction house, said after the sale: "Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the Banksy phenomenon is neither his meteoric rise, nor the substantial sums of money that his art now commands, but that as a self-confessed guerrilla artist he has been so wholeheartedly embraced by the very establishment he satirises."
Embraced? Not everywhere. They may not know much about art in Hackney, but they know what they don't like.
Top prices: Off the street and into the auction house
Various works sold to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, October 2007
'Space Girl and Bird' (commissioned by the band Blur for their album 'Think Tank'), April 2007
'Bombing Middle England', February 2007
'Ballerina with Action Parts', February 2007
'Mona Lisa', October 2006
Three prints including Queen Victoria sitting on a woman's face sold to Christina Aguilera, summer 2006
Further reading: 'Banksy Locations and Tours' by Martin Bull (Shellshock Publishing, £10.99)Reuse content