For the first time, a piece by the elusive street artist Banksy is seeing the inside of a library, and visitors will be able to see its unveiling Friday night in Kokomo.
The Banksy, called "Haight Street Rat," arrived downtown at the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library on Thursday with its owner Brian Greif, an art collector who is loaning the piece to organizations around the country that agree to display it for free.
“This is really the kind of place that we want to show it,” Greif said at the library on Thursday. “We get asked all the time to show it in art galleries and hotels and things like that, but this is the perfect place.”
It's path to Kokomo started when Trina Evans, branch assistant at the KHCPL, watched a documentary called “Saving Banksy," which focuses on Greif's efforts to remove and preserve a work by the popular yet anonymous street artist.
Little is known about Banksy. While there are plenty of rumors about who he really is and where he lives, artists, art collectors and art lovers around the world know of Banksy’s work, which has popped up across the globe.
“Haight Street Rat” depicts a rat wearing a Che Guevera-style hat, drawing a red line leading to the phrase “This is where I draw the line.” The work was created on the side of a bed and breakfast in San Francisco. The piece on display does not include the phrase.
“Saving Banksy” addresses the ethics of taking down graffiti art that an artist doesn’t intend to be taken down or sold. One of Banksy’s works says “This’ll look nice when it’s framed.” But Greif wanted to save just one piece from being painted over or sold.
“It’s a huge thing for San Francisco to have these Banksy paintings, but he’ll do one, and within a couple of days somebody’s painted over it, tagged over it, and it’s gone,” Greif said in the documentary. “I just want to save at least one of them so the city can enjoy it for more than 48 hours.”
Greif paid the bed and breakfast for the rights to remove the work from the building, though he didn’t intend to sell it.
He negotiated with the owner of the bed and breakfast to take the piece down from the building, who at first thought of painting over the piece and then considered selling it. All the while, the city of San Francisco sent letters to the owner telling them to paint over the piece or they would fine the bed and breakfast.
Finally, Greif was able to take the painting down. The one stipulation the owner of the bed and breakfast had for Greif was that he attend one of her talks on world peace, according to the documentary.
Greif was offered large amounts of money for the piece once it was taken down, including one offer of $1.7 million, but Greif wanted to donate the piece to a museum.
“I’m not going to back down,” Greif said in the documentary. “My goal is to find a place to put this where the public can enjoy it.”
He initially talked with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but the museum wouldn’t take the piece without a letter of authentication from Banksy – which wasn’t very likely. Banksy’s website, banksy.co.uk, did show an image of the piece, but it didn’t change the museum’s decision. It wasn't going to accept the piece.
While other art collectors were taking down Banksy’s work and selling it for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Greif was still determined to find a way to display the work without charging the public, so he opened his offer to places around the country that could do just that.
When Evans saw “Saving Banksy,” she thought the library would be a perfect fit, so she reached out to Greif and made her case. Greif gave the library the go-ahead as long as they could pay the shipping and handling fees.
As far as is known, the KHCPL is the only library in the world to display an actual piece by Banksy. It was a win-win for both parties.
“I’m just really excited that I was able to reach out and actually get a response,” Evans said.
Greif said he continues to get offers for the piece, and he said there have been times where he’s tempted to accept.
“When somebody calls you and says ‘I’ll give you 1.7 million for something’ and [you don’t] stop and go hmmm … [you’re] lying,” Greif said. “So it’s always tempting but at the same time I gave my word to all these artists and to Banksy that I would never sell it.”
Greif added that he hasn’t ever actually talked with Banksy.
“We’re trying to leave him out of it,” Greif said. “He’s a really interesting guy. He gets hit up constantly from people that want him to do projects, and he wants to do his own thing, be on his own. So we’ve been very careful not to bother him or his team.