In April of 2014, Dennis Stinchcombe found a painting. The background was solid black, and it featured a spray-paint stencil of a man and a woman locked in an embrace while simultaneously looking over one another’s shoulders at their respective cell phones. Stinchcombe, a lifelong resident of Bristol, England, ran the Broad Plain Boys’ Club, a 120-year-old community institution that provides after-school programming to Bristol’s youth. The Boys’ Club was, at the time, facing financial difficulties. The painting, now known to be titled Mobile Lovers, was the work of a street artist called Banksy, who, without anyone’s permission and in violation of trespass and vandalism laws, had surreptitiously painted the work on a piece of plywood covering a doorway beside a public sidewalk. Luckily, Stinchcombe was a fan of Banksy, and he immediately recognized Mobile Lovers as the work of one of the international art world’s current superstars. Stinchcombe removed the piece of plywood on which Mobile Lovers was painted from the public doorway, planning to auction off the work and use any proceeds to fund the Boys’ Club’s financial recovery.
Almost immediately after Stinchcombe’s possession of the piece became public, the Bristol City Council intervened, confiscating Mobile Lovers and placing it on display in a municipally owned museum. Its claim was that, because Banksy painted Mobile Lovers directly onto a piece of public property, the painting belonged to the city. Then Banksy himself stepped in. Eschewing his usual silence on matters of ownership interest in his works, Banksy—a Bristol native and possible former patron of the Boys’ Club—wrote Stinchcombe a letter purporting to give ownership rights of Mobile Lovers to the club. As far as the city was concerned, Banksy’s letter brought the question of ownership to a “proper resolution,” and the city returned Mobile Lovers to Stinchcombe.
Other Banksy works have been subject to ownership disputes as well. Consider the saga of Slave Labour, a work depicting a young, downtrodden boy sitting behind a sewing machine and manufacturing a series of miniature Union Jacks. Banksy painted the piece—again, without anyone’s permission—on the side of an “everything-costs-a-pound” store in Haringey, London. The piece, which is a commentary on discount stores’ labor practices, eventually became an important attraction in Haringey, drawing so many visitors to the neighborhood from London and beyond that the local subway station posted a sign reading “This way to our Banksy.” In February 2013, the piece vanished, ripped out of the wall on which it was painted roughly a year after it had first appeared. Slave Labour later resurfaced at an auction house in Miami; the owner of the pound store’s building intended to sell it. Though the citizens of Haringey were initially able to block the auction in Miami, the painting was nevertheless later sold at a different auction.
Who owns a given work of street art? A comment clarifying this question will be of particular interest to the parties who might claim such ownership rights. This Comment focuses on private disputes, which, as in the above illustrations, generally arise between finders of street art and owners of the property on which the art is found. Artists themselves might attempt to claim ownership rights, as Banksy seems to have implicitly done with his letter granting his rights in Mobile Lovers to the Boys’ Club. But because street artists generally break the law to produce their art, such subsequent appearances to take ownership of and, therefore, responsibility for such art will be rare. Additionally, as in the Slave Labour controversy, the public sometimes attempts to assert property rights of some kind over publicly displayed works, preventing their removal or destruction. While it is an interesting question how a group of concerned citizens might band together to exercise rights over street art, this Comment focuses on private disputes; the question of public powers to control street art is beyond its scope.