When Banksy came to Port Talbot.
Bethan Sayed, Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales West
‘They’re making Banksy mugs, coasters, t shirts and stuff in the town already to sell to the tourists coming! We’re getting 2,000 people a day visiting the garage, from as far away as Australia. I think someone wants to write a play about it. I don’t know. I can’t keep up with all the messages!’
I’m sitting in Ian’s living room that has a view of the steelworks from his window. Ian, like many others in the town, is a steelworker at Tata Port Talbot. Alongside his son, I chat to them as they recall the first moments of the Banksy phenomenon that hit the town in December. These are the excited, yet somewhat shocked words of the accidental owner of the now famous Banksy garage in Port Talbot.
If you haven’t heard about it yet, you’ve probably been engrossed in Santa films and tinsel, or the saga over Greggs’ new vegan sausage rolls, that nothing, even Banksy crossing the Severn Bridge the day after the tolls ended to create a piece of street art on the end line of a row of non-descript garages in the back streets of Taibach in Port Talbot, could distract you.
This all happened in the run up to the Festive season. Ian tells me he was simply scrolling through Facebook one morning, when he saw a post by a friend who had taken a photo of an alleged Banksy graffiti art on a garage in the surrounding area.
‘I thought it looked a bit like my garage’ Ian said, simply. Clearly not expecting it to be his garage.
He went up to the end of the road later that day, and sure to the word, it was his garage. Hours of speculation ensued as to whether this was a local graffiti artist (of which there are many with talent that could give Banksy a run for his money) or if it was the real Banksy.
Momentum was building in the community. ‘Experts’ flocked to the town to assess whether it was a real Banksy, studying the mural with beaded eyes. The media crafted stories covering all angles possible. Did you see the one about the man who wrote to ask Banksy to come to Port Talbot, or the local who tried to etch the art out of the wall with a knife, or the speculation over who the little boy in the picture was based on?
In the end, people decided that even if it wasn’t a real Bansky, they should acknowledge how good it was, regardless.
It was later announced, Banksy style, that it was in fact one of his pieces. He posted a drone video of the mural from the sky above the garage on to his Instagram page, with the message “seasons’ greetings” written below it. Then it all got a bit crazy.
Banksy’s art usually has a political message, and on this particular occasion, it was no different. There is a young child, open –mouthed, letting what appears to be flakes of snow fall on his tongue, but which could be interpreted as ash from a fire in a bin on the other side of the garage. The discussion, of course, being that of the pollution levels in the town. Be it from the steelworks nearby, or the motorway that cuts through the heart of the town itself.
My Assembly office is in Port Talbot. I know the area well, having represented the region of South Wales West since 2007. I have seen how the discussion around the street art/ graffiti/ mural (delete as appropriate) has sparked excitement and passion in the town.
Banksy had chosen Port Talbot as the first place in Wales to perform his artistic skills, after all. Other towns and villages swiftly initiated discussions of their own, on local Facebook pages, trying to concoct ways to entice Banksy out of Bristol again, and back to the rolling hills, or industrial towns of Wales. Why didn’t he come to our town, they would shout?
While the message of the art is serious, the over-riding feeling in the town, and in Wales in general, has been that of pride. It has managed to attract positive interest in the town, with tourists flocking to the area to visit it, and to spend time in the local area afterwards. With past job losses at Tata steel, the furore over the potential for a super prison in the town, and the ongoing debate over the potential to close Junction 41, Banksy coming to town was a welcome reprieve from the gloom of Brexit!
Now, it’s difficult to know how to gauge a situation like Banksy. I’ve been a fan of his art for some time. I can spend endless hours flicking through Banksy prints: I respect what he does and why he does it. The mystery around who he is, the secrecy of what he does. It makes it all the more alluring.
So should we all just sit back and see what happens? Let the graffiti stay, if it’s vandalised or changed, then just think, well so be it? I understand the intention. Paint or stencil anywhere, and for those who just happen to be walking by, well they can view it, take it in, pause for a minute, consider its message. I went backpacking to Montreal a few years ago, and there were official tours of the amazing street art in the city. The vibrancy of the colours and textures makes the city the place it is.
I asked in a survey on my social media page, and nearly half said just that – leave it as it is.
But it’s not that simple, is it? Others seem concerned that if it is vandalised, it will be ruined or forgotten, and will not be cherished. Some people have suggested potential new homes for it. Such as the town centre by the Council offices.
But ultimately, the view I was seeking to hear and understand was that of the owner. I got in touch with Ian, the owner of the garage. It’s a private garage, intended to be used on an everyday basis. It was never intentionally an art gallery for the masses. I wanted to see if he thought that leaving it as it is was a viable option.
‘I want it to stay in Port Talbot, to stay in Wales.’ Ian told me. ‘It’s brought attention to the town and I want to support that’. Ian says, while also admitting that thinking of a way forward had given him sleepless nights. It’s probably a big deal being the overnight owner of a Banksy, an artist he didn’t know so much about beforehand.
Ian took me up to the garage in the pitch dark, cold January evening. We couldn’t see a thing, and we put our phone lights on to get a glimpse of the garage art through the railings, put up around it to guard from vandalism (a controversial step in itself)
The local operatic society donated the laminate coverings protecting it, and Michael Sheen, the actor, is helping towards the security costs. It told me a story of how local people had tried to step in and support Ian. It didn’t surprise me. We have had to do this before when the local Council cut the funding for the Christmas lights, and the community rallied around to make it happen anyway. People underestimate the resilience of such communities.
Ian told me proudly how he had made the garage himself, laying the bricks as foundations and attaching the steel doors. He had started the art work, and Banksy had finished it.
For all the positivity that Ian emanated, I sensed that he was looking for support for a way forward. As someone born and bred in the town, it is clear that he wants the best for the art. But I am sure it cannot be an easy decision to make-one that could spark debate in a town where most people know one another.
‘I was walking up the mountain only the other day, and I heard some whispers behind me.’
‘Oh that’s him, the Banksy man, I recognise him from the TV with his bobble hat on’.
Ian, whether he likes it or not, is a local celebrity by virtue of this one event. He feels the weight of the town on his shoulders, and any decision that he makes matters. He wants advice and support, and that is something that I and others are happy to provide. Ultimately, it is his decision to make. I will stand by that. I am eager to work with him in a positive and constructive way to protect the Port Talbot Banksy for the town, and for Wales.
So, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on a potential way forward.
In the first instance, we need urgent support to ensure that we can either retain the security for the short to medium term, or erect a semi-permanent, protective railing around the art work so that Ian, the owner, can be rest assured that it is safe until a decision is made.
We need to instigate an urgent discussion between Welsh Government, the owner and interested parties about its long term future. In my view, every effort should be made for it to be retained in the Port Talbot area. The National Museum of Wales has the expertise, as the largest visual arts gallery in Wales, to support the owner on possible next steps if he does not wish to sell it to a private art dealer elsewhere in the UK or Worldwide.
The Museum has a specimen acquisition grant. While this has sadly decreased in funding due to Government cuts, this issue alone should send a clear message to the Welsh Government for such grants to be retained and sustained for the future.
This type of grant could support activity around exploring ideas for a permanent home for the Banksy art, but also kick start a discussion around the capacity of the Museum to utilise private funding via UK heritage/cultural trusts, for the retention of the Banksy art in Wales. To that end, I am meeting with the National Museum on Monday to discuss what expertise they could potentially offer, and any next steps. It is vital that the Culture Minister and the Welsh Government are part of any such discussions. This piece of art could be bought by the Welsh Government as a cultural asset, so that Wales can protect it in to the future.
As a Party, Plaid Cymru launched a policy for the creation of a National Visual Arts Gallery for Wales. Before Banksy was on the scene, our party Leader Adam Price AM announced that he would like said art gallery to be based in Port Talbot. A feasibility study is underway as we speak, to analyse where best to locate a gallery, as part of the budget deal reached between us and the Welsh Government. I believe this is the perfect opportunity to intensify the call for the Gallery to be based in Port Talbot, and for the Bansky art to be potentially put on display there when the Gallery is built, if a location in the centre of Port Talbot cannot be found in the interim.
Of course, if the Banksy art cannot be located in the town, for whatever reason, we could consider other locations in Wales. We shouldn’t rule out the Museum of Welsh life in St Ffagan, or other ideas that the community suggest.
I will be calling on the First Minister and the Welsh Government to take action next week, when we return to the Senedd after the Christmas recess. It is important to put this issue on record, and to ensure that the Welsh Government supports Ian on the most appropriate way forward for him.
I Chair the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee in the Senedd, and I intend to ask fellow AMs on the committee if they would be content to carry out a short, sharp piece of work, looking at how Wales could best support the retention of the Banksy art in Port Talbot, and in Wales.
‘You’re not on your own. We will support you. We will get this sorted’ I told Ian, as we walk back down the lane from the Banksy, where we greet a visitor from Neath, who tells us about a Banksy documentary, how he had the idea for the Port Talbot art some time ago, sketched out on his table. We nod with interest. If only we had known then what would happen.
I want to keep to my word, and support Ian in the next steps, with urgency.
I think Banksy came to Port Talbot because he knew we would do just that. Well, that’s my theory. Everyone else has one. It seems only right to join in.