Four years after he and more than a dozen other artists removed a Banksy from the Packard Plant, Carl Goines now admits he hadn’t the slightest idea what he was getting into.
“I don’t know if I’ve said that publicly, but, yeah. There was no plan.”
In May 2010, the day after Mother’s Day, Goines and the rest of the crew at 555 Gallery were on a mission. Stirred by stories of a valuable and imperiled artwork at the Packard Plant, they spent two days removing part of a wall weighing almost a ton, all for the image painted on the side: a graffiti piece by the noted international street artist. In doing so, Goines and company touched off one of the loudest debates on the ethics of removing street art this town — or perhaps the world — has ever seen. And it’s coming to a head, with the gallery announcing the work’s sale, a move that could net the organization anywhere between $200,000 and $1.2 million.
It all began in spring of 2010, in conjunction with the initial U.S. tour of Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. That’s when Banksy’s art began to appear in cities where the film was opening, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Toronto. Detroit was no different. Shortly after the film premiered at Royal Oak’s Main Art Theatre on May 7, a number of images of Banksy’s works appeared on his website, and the artist’s Detroit-area fans began to recognize the locations as being in metro Detroit.
One of the most striking works was located inside Detroit’s sprawling Packard Plant, which has been closed so long that it’s become a prime playground for Detroit’s urban explorers, graffiti taggers, and conceptual artists. Stencil-painted onto a wall was the image of a child with a paint can and paintbrush, an image that also appeared in San Francisco’s Mission District weeks earlier. But this time, the image bore the message: I remember when all this was trees. (Perhaps an oblique reference to a tree sprouting from the rubble nearby.)
It’s likely that nobody was more excited by these revelations than an urban explorer and graffiti photographer who goes by the name Billy Voo. On May 9, excited to breathlessness, Voo appealed to the crew at 555 Gallery, a Detroit arts group whose members weren’t at all familiar with Banksy or his work, to remove the piece from the Packard Plant. As a 2010 Metro Times story reported, Voo tried to rally the artists, telling them “how the painting could bring some serious cash,” stressing that somebody should preserve it.
Sitting at the front counter of 555 Gallery, 34-year-old Carl Goines calmly retells the story. Voo’s efforts at persuasion got Goines and company to visit the site, where Voo had allegedly camped out all night, and take stock of things.
“There was somebody there who claimed to be a supervisor of some kind, Butch, who I think was just keeping an eye on things, watching the scrap come down. He said, ‘You better take it. If you’re going to take it, you better do it quickly. The I-beams around it are going to be coming out very soon. Everything else has.’”
Work began quickly on Monday, May 10, with all the manic energy of a heist film. Goines recalls how it went down. He says the removal of the 1,500-pound section of cinderblock-and-concrete wall required more than a dozen people working all day long. “We used a gas-powered concrete cutting saw to cut away some of the cinder block. We used a torch to cut the steel doorway that was framed in the wall. And then we just pulled together a bunch of miscellaneous material that was on-site at the Packard. There was lumber there that we scrapped and made a wall and kinda glued it to the back of it.
“We just showed up with a bunch of cordless power tools and figured out what to do next and tried to make it work. I grew up doing carpentry and construction my whole life, so working with a team of people has always come easy to me, to give direction and make things happen. We just figured it out as we went.”
By about 10 p.m., the crew had removed Banksy’s artwork from the wall and crated it, and began clearing a path for a little Bobcat to get to the artwork. But it had gotten very dark, and after Goines was injured while falling off a wall, the group broke up and left the artwork in its crate overnight. The next morning, the crew showed up during a pouring rainstorm. The artwork was still there.
“There was literally like a foot of water that we had to walk through to get to it, finish it up, scoop it up, and slowly make our way out of there.” The rain broke and the sun finally came out as the group headed back to 555 headquarters to exhibit its newfound treasure. But not before an excited onlooker had announced on social networking that the 555 was “saving” the Packard Banksy.
And then all hell broke loose.
You see, it turns out that removing a Banksy without authorization is something street artists almost universally frown upon. The young and still-evolving art form has developed some surprisingly firm stands on its work being site-specific, and that to take the work out of its context is a culturally dangerous act.
If these defensive postures seem odd, they’re a reaction to the way some street art, especially Banksy’s work, has become some of the most valuable artwork ever to go up without permission, selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ten years ago, a work by Banksy would have been seen as vandalism, as detracting from the value of the building it decorated. These days, when a world-renowned street artist like Banksy paints a wall at the Packard, it can be worth more than the entire Packard Plant itself.
This explains why, within hours of 555 taking the Banksy, a virtual firestorm erupted in social media, with scores of angry commenters decrying the move. Goines, who hails from rural Cohoctah Township, was unfamiliar with the gripes and completely unprepared for this kind of reaction.
“I honestly didn’t know Banksy,” Goines says. “I’m a sculptor. Street art was never one of my particular interests.”
Goines says, “To be honest, it was a real motivating team activity. Getting all the artists out there, and everyone else, it ended up being around 15 people helping out. It was very exciting. It felt like we were part of something important. We didn’t know where it was going to go. We didn’t really have a plan. We just need to get this wall out of here. Make this happen. This is significant. There was no dissent. Everyone was just like, ‘We’ll figure it out after we make this all happen.’”
Had the 555 crew known more about the artist’s work, there might have been more mixed feelings about “preserving” the artwork. Instead, apparently unwittingly, Goines and 555 marched straight into a cyclone of blowback, including a court battle with the putative owner of the Packard (and, therefore, the artwork), who eventually settled the matter for $2,500. (Not bad for an artwork some speculated could auction for more than $1 million.) As stressful as the court case was, it was a simple matter compared to the criticism 555 was to endure from Detroit’s opinionated and vocal arts community.
One of the most voluble and articulate critics of 555’s appropriation was art curator Matt Eaton. The 39-year-old is waist-deep in Detroit’s art scene because of his work with the Library Street Collective and as director and curator of Red Bull House of Art in Eastern Market. He’s one of the main people credited with bringing international street artists to Detroit, and he spearheaded the Detroit Beautification Project, which saw dozens of impressive murals go up in Detroit and Hamtramck.
Back in 2010, after learning that the Banksy had been taken from its setting, Eaton began a one-man campaign roasting the gallery for its action. He photoshopped the Banksy to read, “My bad. I thought this was free.” He printed up T-shirts and postcards demanding: Free Banksy. He was interviewed by Craig Fahle on WDET, explaining why he felt the gallery’s action was a mistake. He still feels the gallery was wrong to remove the work.
He recalls that turbulent May, saying, “Initially a bunch of Banksys showed up seemingly out of the blue in the metro area. One by one, they got picked off, stolen, I should say a couple were destroyed in the process and never heard from again. When people finally discovered that 555 Gallery was removing the Banksy at the Packard Plant, it was kind of the last straw.
“I mean, everybody was driving around looking for these just to enjoy them and see them and take a picture of them. And the last one was being taken away, and that was kind of insulting because when you take the piece of art out of context when it’s meant for this environment and the message is directly related to the exact, precise location it’s placed in, it loses all meaning. I was upset about that, really. Who the hell are you to say you can take this fucking art out of this decrepit place when it was the artist who put it there and meant it to be there, and maybe live and die there? If it does get decayed and painted over or something, that’s his choice, his decision to make.”
If that sounds extreme, it’s a point of view echoed by Banksy; though the artist disapproves of people taking his work without permission, he has no problem with it being defaced, buffed out, or fading beyond recognition.
“I just wanted them to acknowledge that they fucked up,” Eaton says, “and maybe, like, put it in the DIA, just donate it, so people can actually see it, or put it somewhere where people didn’t have to come to their gallery and interact with them to see it and then, ultimately, maybe even have to pay to see it.”
But critics like Eaton were mollified, or at least quieted, when 555 announced that the artwork would not be sold, and would be on view for all comers.
“That was the only thing they could have possibly said to have resolved the situation — and even look like you weren’t a monster,” Eaton says.
Even so, his praise is sparing: “I commend them for their quick wits to justify their actions. They felt like it needed to be preserved, but every other artist I’ve spoken to then and since has disagreed with trying to preserve it.”
And so, four years ago, the controversy appeared to be fading into a footnote in Detroit’s cultural history.
That is, until two months ago, when 555, citing financial straits, announced it was looking to sell the Banksy.
That’s when a duo of Detroit artists announced that it was they, in fact, who painted the artwork.
Those artists, Carl Oxley and Matt Naimi, are gathered around a kitchen table in Hamtramck telling their side of the story.
After 555’s announcement, Naimi says, “I tell Carl [Oxley], ‘I’m going to go public,’ and he said, ‘Fucking do it!’ So I shared the article from the news, and said, ‘These guys are going to be really upset that they just bought a Naimi rather than a Banksy,’ put it out there, and within 12 hours, the BBC called me, NPR scheduled a visit, Channel 7 showed up on my doorstep.”
Did they really paint it?
“Yep,” says Naimi. “I painted most of it. Actually, it’s a stencil.”
Oxley says, “I can show you layers. You want to see layers?” He produces his smart phone and shows us high-res images of stencils cut into paper that are unmistakably for the image found at the Packard. It’s an eerie and compelling piece of evidence that gives us pause.
Of the proposed sale, Naimi says, “If they want to sell it, you know, I never said you can’t sell it. I’m not making any claims. If you got it, take it. Don’t sell it as a Banksy. If you think it’s a Banksy, authenticate it. It’s up to the seller, and buyer beware.”
But didn’t the same mural appear in San Francisco a few weeks earlier? And didn’t the Packard Banksy appear on the artist’s website? How did Naimi and Oxley come to paint this work and not the globetrotting British artist?
“People are like, ‘Oh, yeah. He was probably touring and promoting the movie.’ No. He was working. Is it more cost-effective for Banksy to go city to city to do this? Or does Banksy sit in his house, work on art, and send digital files to 50 other artists in 50 other cities, who he trusts, and have them cut the stencils and go put them up? Because that’s how it works.”
Oxley chimes in: “They have a name for it: It’s called a street team. Those kids who run around putting stickers on everything, they can put up stickers for bands coming to town or an album coming out or they can put up fucking stencils by an artist.”
It’s a plausible argument, and the fact that Banksy has had work appear in cities he’s nowhere near would seem to support it. Is it possible that an artwork valued at more than $1 million could suddenly be worth less than the labor it would take to move it?
Although he speaks quietly, there’s evident emotion in Goines’ voice when he talks about Oxley and Naimi. He confesses to feelings of betrayal, the feeling that Oxley, who once had a productive residency with 555, is attacking him personally over the matter by announcing he and Naimi actually painted the work the gallery worked so hard to obtain.
“I mean, we gave him a free studio. We had an exhibition for him. We supported him as an artist and in his endeavors years ago,” Goines says. “He was upset that we were moving the piece. We were messaging on Facebook, back and forth, I tried to explain to him that we just took it, there was no plan, and we kinda left it at that four years ago. Then, when we went public with [the sale], he got very upset and started firing off more messages, and it got to the point where I just felt like I was being harassed and I had to put an end to it”
Goines sees Oxley’s criticisms not just as a personal attack, but an attack on the gallery. Goines says, “This isn’t just an academic conversation about authorship; you’re just really trying to hurt us and I don’t see why you’re allowed to do this. Why is this allowed? Because we’re a gallery? … We are not the gallery that you think we are. We are not the downtown gallery that has a $100,000 budget, that’s representing artists from around the world, you know, sitting back in our Lexus, riding back to our home in Bloomfield Hills. We’re here, in Detroit, volunteering, in a community, open-door capacity.”
Asked if he ever wishes 555 hadn’t taken it, Goines emphatically disagrees, but it’s obvious the decisions of that day four years ago have loomed over the arts group. He says, “I think there are people who were involved with the original removal of it that got a little too freaked out by it. You know, some of their new friends thought it was not cool. So, there have been some people who have stepped away and don’t want that association and that’s fine.”
555’s Erik Garant, who joined the organization after it took the Banksy, dismisses such criticisms, saying, “We knew the naysayers would come out and there would be people who would try to block the sale or try to put things out there that just weren’t true or talk about an experience with 555 that never happened. You know, if you go and look at the negative press when this happened, when we put it up for sale publicly, I can tell you that none of those people have been to 555. And do you know how I can tell you? Because I’m here every day and I’ve never met them ever.”
Whatever the accusations, Oxley and Naimi are sticking to their story, though their merry prankster demeanors don’t help seal the deal. Whether they painted it or not, they seem to care about it as passionately as if they did.
They relive the moment, four years ago, when 555 hauled the Banksy out of the Packard.
Naimi says, “The outcry at the time when they took it was, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’”
Oxley fires back, “Oh, we’re saving it! We’re preserving it!”
Naimi runs with that: “They said, ‘We’re preserving it,’ which is when a lot of the dogs were called off. OK, they’re preserving it. It’s in the name of art. It’s in the name of the public good. We’re going to preserve this piece of art for all to see. Most artists … were super vocal at the time. They were like, ‘This is absolutely wrong. Don’t take that out of the context.’ The preservation angle was what allowed people to give  the benefit of the doubt. If you are going to preserve it and you’re going to allow people to see it, if it’s going to extend its life, then we’re going to give you a free pass for what you did. Then, it all quieted down.”
Oxley chimes in again: “I think it’s important to note that societies of preservation don’t usually remove an item, preserve it for less than five years, and then sell it.”
Naimi seems to sum up the duo’s gripes and fears best: “I don’t have a problem with [555’s] social mission; this is a specific issue that I have with this piece of art that should never have been removed in the first place. The can of worms was opened up the second they took a chisel to a wall that wasn’t theirs.”
At least the work is viewable by the public right now (555’s Garant estimates between 50 and 100 people have come to the gallery to see it). But Naimi dreams up a worst-case scenario, in which the work falls into the hands of a private buyer, “and it’s going to be some backsplash in Miami, and you’ll look out the window and it’s going to be a forest of trees and it won’t mean shit because it’s not about the art, it’s about the name on the back — or the purported name on the back. ‘I remember when all this was trees,’ and they’re going to put it in the fucking forest because of the name on the back.”
J. Monte Martinez, 51, is at work in a large industrial space in Highland Park, getting his work ready for an exhibition at 333 Midland, to be mounted by venerable Detroit artist Jim Puntigam in a few weeks. A founding member of 555, Martinez joins us outside on a warm spring day to discuss his involvement with the group.
He remembers that day four years ago when the 555 crew first inspected the Banksy at the Packard. “There was a beam right next to the wall, holding the wall up, and so the scrappers were there and that’s why they came to us and asked if we’d save it, because the scrappers said, ‘Hey, look, man. We’re going to tear this wall down. We don’t give a fuck about that wall. We want that steel. That’s what we’re here to get.’”
After the artwork was unloaded at 555 headquarters, a reporter from the Associated Press who had accompanied the group asked if it was kosher to let the word out. Martinez recalls, “He said, ‘Do you want me to send it out?’ We looked at each other and he said, ‘It’s going to be like fire, bro. It’s going to go and go.’ We were like, ‘We already did it. We don’t care. Sure!’
“After that, it was all history. We were reading the hate mail, like, ‘What?’ ‘Fuck those fuckers! All they want is publicity.’ They didn’t understand that we were sitting down, talking about how broke we were and somebody came to us. We didn’t go looking for it, somebody came to us. Somebody came to us and said, ‘I want to save this piece. Nobody else wants to save it. Nobody else wants to do anything.’
“That’s a misconception that we were trying to get publicity trying to get the Banksy; that was never true. We didn’t even know who the fuck he was. … Then, some graffiti artist said to us, ‘I know Banksy and he doesn’t approve of what you did.’ I was like, ‘You know Banksy? I just heard that nobody knows Banksy. There is no Banksy.’ But he’s a graffiti artist and their circle is tight. ‘You broke the rules!’ ‘We broke the rules? What rules? You’re a graffiti artist. You have no rules. How can I break your rules when there are no rules? How does that work?’ … It just kept going … and I just read the hate mail, read the hate mail, read the hate mail …”
That chorus of criticisms may have had an effect on Martinez’s views. He says he feels the artwork should not be sold, and adds that he said as much to 555’s board before he was forced out of the organization, asked to leave by Goines, who felt Martinez’s maverick style didn’t lend itself to a smoothly functioning organization. Martinez claims that newer members, including Garant, urged Goines to ask him to leave, complaining that Martinez was lording his status as a founding member over everybody else. Martinez admits, “I’m like, ‘It’s true! I’ve been here 10 years. I’ve given my money, my time, my passion, everything.’ So, what’s wrong with me saying, ‘I’ve been here 10 years?’ It was like my baby.”
Goines swears that Martinez and 555’s parting of ways had nothing to do with the question of selling the Banksy. Yet Martinez describes a workplace rich with gossip about the Banksy, about a rumored buyer, or about board members’ opinions on a potential sale. It seems, despite the organization’s heavy schedule of events and residencies, the Banksy was like a ticking time bomb setting off and heightening anxieties about its eventual fate. In that sense, it’s hard to believe that anything happening during this period had nothing to do with the Banksy.
Practically speaking, Martinez feels the answer for an embattled gallery like 555 isn’t to look for a one-time infusion of cash that may alienate the art community, but to pursue fundraising more aggressively and embed itself in the community. He says, “If you can make 555’s current location work, and have a strong footing, and show the foundations that you’ve survived the storm, they’re more likely to fund you. … There are other organizations that have been around for two years that got $85,000.
“With all the money that’s being poured into the arts through foundations right now, there is no reason the organization shouldn’t have acquired funding from foundations. They’re giving money everywhere! Everywhere! So, why isn’t 555 getting money? The only thing they can come up with is sell the Banksy, right?
“Obviously, there is something [555 is] not doing right. On the board, I could see where some people wanted to sell it and some people didn’t care, but there’s maybe one person on the board who lives in Detroit. The majority live outside the city. So, you have outsiders making decisions on an asset of the city that was appropriated by the organization, by the founders. They feel that they need to sell it because there’s no funding coming in.
“Half a million dollars is good, but what is that going to last you? [555 has] another building on the east side that needs a half-million dollars in investment, so there goes all your money into that building, you know? Do you have a plan for the money? Where’s the money going to go? I need a five-year plan of where exactly it’s going to be spent.”
Listening to Martinez describe it, one might begin to think emerging from the Packard with the Banksy was a pyrrhic victory for 555, saddling a fledgling arts organization with a controversial relic. Whatever the group’s good works in the community, would it ever-after be known as “the gallery that took the Banksy”? Was it worth it? Martinez gives a surprising appraisal of the artwork, one Banksy might appreciate:
“It’s really not worth anything,” he says with a smile. “It’s a wall. It’s just that we put prices on things because of the market, and because Banksy plays it pretty well. He gets up, goes to Detroit. He gets somebody to do something and all of a sudden, headlines. ‘Banksy. Boom!’”
Wait a second. Martinez said Banksy “gets somebody to do something”? Does Martinez believe Oxley and Naimi painted the Packard? Has he seen those layers?
“But you could cut out layers,” he says. “You could look at the photo and cut out layers. Who knows? And if it is them, great, but again, where’s the proof? Did you take a picture?” (For his part, Naimi says, “You don’t exactly shoot a video of yourself doing this kind of stuff.”)
The art curator Eaton is less equivocal. “You know what’s funny?” he says. “I totally get what they’re doing. They’re trying to disrupt the flow. And I agree with them in a weird way. But it’s too late. … Why weren’t they talking about Banksy four years ago? Where were they when it was being removed, at the very moment you shouldn’t be silent? You let it happen and then you outcry several years later when someone wants to make some money off of it?’
It’s all said in a good-natured tone, and Eaton concludes: “I don’t buy it. It’s just a fact: It’s not true,” before bursting into laughter.
In fact, Eaton now feels that if selling the Banksy is what will save the arts organization, then it should go forward — with some provisos.
“The important thing right now is, what are the facts? Is 555 struggling and trying to stay afloat? Is that more important than the mistakes they’ve made? To me, I don’t even struggle with that: Yes, they fucked up and did something that was totally against what I believe, but the institution that’s struggling is a positive force in the community; if they sell this Banksy, does it help them? I hope so. I hope so. If that’s what this whole thing came down to … then, by all means, sell it, if it keeps them afloat. If that’s what needs to happen, that’s fine.
“What I’d prefer, and what I’d advise them to do, is to find someone who will buy it and donate it to the DIA, then use most of the proceeds on increased funding for the arts community. Yes. That’s what I’d like to see, but who am I to tell them what to do with what they have now? We can only hope for the best at this point, but the last thing I want to see is an arts organization go under for lack of funding.”
But Eaton feels the work needs to be exhibited in Detroit in a public place where people can see it. And he has little patience for private buyers of stolen artwork. He says, “When you buy a stolen piece of artwork, you’re doing a few things. You’re slapping the artist in the face, by not supporting them as an artist. The other thing you’re doing is you’re ass-fucking cultural history!”
Asked to pin down a price, though, he says, “Funny thing is, Banksy’s a hard sell and an easy sell, but once the piece was taken out of its context, Banksy disowned it. So it will never be authenticated. He will never step forward and say, ‘Yes, I authenticate this piece of artwork. It is of this value, and it is from my hand.’ That’ll never happen. So you’ll never have a certificate of authenticity or anyone backing that up.”
But wasn’t it featured on Banksy’s website?
“Sure, it was documented and it was on his site. But it speaks volumes more that it was removed.”
Plus, sometimes the sale of a purloined Banksy can be so controversial that sales die or auctions are canceled. But, at auction, when the gavels fall on a final bid, Eaton says authentication can make the difference.
“When I found out they were trying to sell it,” he says, “I was watching two other Banksy auctions, one of them authenticated, one of them not. One of them sold for several hundred thousand, one of them sold for under a couple hundred thousand. The difference in the authentication was very obvious. But that piece, realistically, if someone wanted to buy it, someone who didn’t care [about authentication] and was confident of its provenance, I can easily see them paying a few hundred thousand dollars at least for it.
“But if it was at a Banksy show, it would probably be a $500,000 wall.”
OK, so maybe Oxley and Naimi are putting us on. If it’s all a prank, it’s not a bad opportunity to be heard. And, as artists, their criticisms are worth a listen.
Oxley says, “This is an artwork, made by an artist. At the core of the issue, it doesn’t really matter who the artist is. An artist made a painting and displayed it. A gallery took that painting and said they were going to preserve it, and now they’re going to sell it. This gallery is selling an artwork by an artist with zero dollars going to that artist.”
It’s a point even Goines finds reasonable. Goines says, “I would concede that we are attempting to sell a piece of art that an artist created, and we do not have a direct link to compensate that artist. That’s all I would concede. I mean, me personally. If we could compensate the artist, that would make things whole for me.”
But only those unfamiliar with the outlaw muralist would think compensation was important. Could Goines and company somehow wire some of the proceeds to Banksy, Eaton says, “He’d push it right to a charity anyway. He doesn’t need the money. He’s legitimately sold millions and millions of dollars of work. There’s a huge trail of massive amounts of money that he will never need in his lifetime. [For Banksy,] it was never about money. So giving him the money would be totally irrelevant and defeat the purpose.”
It’s an argument Oxley finally arrives at: “It’s the artist’s intention to put something up for free and it not to be monetized. For them to monetize it, it’s not about the art. It was never about the art. It was always about who did it and the value of that work.”
In fact, that central point, that the work is valuable, that its stunning value is the reason it was removed from the Packard, is something those in the crew who took it gloss over. The facts are that, on May 9, 2010, a bunch of nearly broke gallery operators were pitched about a valuable artwork by a charismatic fan. The story goes that it was imperiled by scrappers, but it was the potentially sky-high value of the wall that motivated its removal, even if it was for “preservation and protection.”
And did it need to be protected? Were the scrappers going to damage the wall? Not necessarily. Eaton says of that part of the Packard: “It’s still there, minus a wall. I was there last summer, and it was still there.”
Though Goines insists the organization did the right thing, you really have to wonder what might have been had the 555 crew not gone prospecting on that day four years ago. The group might instead have been known more for its arts programs, fundraising parties, and community engagement than its pricey totem. Its whole dynamic may have been different had it not been burdened with this white elephant. Instead, the organization has run right into all the thorny issues Banksy trades in, suggesting the artist may have the last laugh in this farcical drama.
That’s why observers like Eaton think it’s best for all concerned to arrange a responsible sale and end the matter.
Eaton says, “If they do sell it, fix up their arts program and get themselves stable and donate the rest of it. And at this point there’s an arts organization in Detroit that’s in danger of closing and needs money, and the unfortunate thing is they’re in possession of this tainted piece of art that is almost their only life preserver. Do you let them throw the life preserver and survive, or do you try to fuck it up for them? … It’s a really weird place for everybody to be, honestly. I hope everyone comes out of it shaking hands. That’s probably the best outcome.”