Censorship and Racist Pigeons: Another Banksy Piece Removed

Other | Friday 3rd October 2014 | Osh

The most recent mural by the guerilla graffiti artist Banksy has been removed by a local council for being "racist".

The notorious street artist's latest work appeared on a sea-front building overnight on 1st October in Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. Tendring District Council removed the work, having received a prompt complaint that "offensive and racist" remarks had appeared on the building.

The piece features five grey pigeons holding up plackards, including one reading "Go back to Africa", towards a more colourful, lone bird. The more colourful bird is a migratory swallow, representing immigration. One of the slogans held up by the pigeons also says “migrants not welcome”.

The prolific artist is of course accustomed to his public works causing controversy, with many of his pieces regarded (and intended) as anti-establishment political statements or incisive social commentary. No stranger to censorship, Banksy has had pieces removed before; the famous 'Slave Labour' painting in Wood Green, for example, which disappeared and turned up weeks later at a Florida auction.

As for this latest controversy, the question is, is the piece racist? And if so, then racist towards who?

It is relevant to note that the mural appeared in Clacton-on-Sea one week ahead of the town's by-election, which takes place amid political controversy over the defection of the local Conservative MP Douglas Carswell to UKIP. UKIP is seen by many as a racist party due to its views on immigration. Banksy's painting is clearly parodying the party's policies and therefore parodying the racism itself, along with the widespread anti-immigration attitudes that prevail in parts of the country.

It is very clearly a comment on negative attitudes towards immigration and not itself an attack on immigration. Clearly whoever made the complaints about the piece were not getting its satirical nuances; and evidently neither were the council officials who decided the piece had to go. We have to say the world-famous artist's intent is pretty obvious though; we are sure you got it as soon as soon as you saw it.

The only legitimate charge that could be levelled at the piece would be that it's offensive to UKIP supporters (by parodying their party's anti-immigration stance), but it's clear from the council's various comments that this wasn't the reason it was removed. In fairness, it is the Tendring District Council's stated policy to remove any public material deemed offensive within 48 hours. They have also stated they didn't know it was a Bansky piece; although that suggests they might've made an exception to their policy if they had known, which would undermine the policy's consistency and therefore its value, wouldn't it?

Political cartoonists put similar pieces of satire in the broadsheet newspapers all the time, lampooning any political figure or party they think deserves it at any particular time. It's the norm; a standard element of British political and journalistic culture. Granted, what Banksy does is still seen by some as, technically, graffiti or vandalism; but that's not the reason the council says it removed the work either.

The irony is that in acting out of a sense of political correctness, the council has essentially censored an anti-racist artistic statement. And one that would've been of cultural value, because of its famous creator, to the town.