The Leith Banksys: street art and gentrification in Edinburgh

This month has seen the mysterious appearance of yet another alleged ‘Banksy’ piece nestled in the heart of Leith. Tucked away as it is from The Shore, Bernard Street is easily missed for those of us who live further South, but since May it has played home to one ‘Banksy’ already: an EU/Brexit inspired twist on an authenticated 2003 Banksy Love is in the Air. Speculation has mounted surrounding the identity of the artist who has again chosen Bernard Street to host an Olympic design reminiscent of Banksy’s distinctive stencil aesthetic. For such a small close, Bernard Street certainly attracts some broad and overtly internationalist themes.

In terms of the works’ authenticity, most are uncertain. Whilst it’s true that both pieces typify the social commentary and satire that the public has become accustomed to from Banksy installations, their appearance within just five months of one another in the same quiet close perhaps lends credence to hypotheses pointing to a copycat artist. It would be surprising to see such frequent appearance at so unlikely a venue from an international artist like Banksy.

But perhaps more important than questions of legitimacy are questions of how these works might relate to localised gentrification and the changing relationship between artists and the urban landscape. Although the latest work has been tipped by some as a nod to recent protests in Hong Kong, which sits nicely in line with Banksy’s reputation for political sentiment, the works can be taken to express a more local message.

The location of these two politically charged art pieces is pertinent and speaks to a wider issue in Edinburgh: Leith is simultaneously at the forefront of guerrilla art and urban development. This is a duality troubling more than just an Edinburgh suburb, but the art world at large.
An incredibly similar stencil piece bearing the same Olympic rings and hooded thief design appeared in Hackney in 2012, and at the time stimulated debate regarding the ‘clean-up’ of street art in certain London boroughs in preparation for the anticipated tourist volumes for the Olympic games. Residents alarmed by the drastic loss of street art culture accused the council of quite literally ‘whitewashing’ the area in the name of urban improvement.

Debate has long raged over the extent to which local communities can withstand gentrifying measures and retain their original creative appeal and accessibility. Is the appearance, then, of a near identical design in Leith a purposeful attempt to draw parallels with the redevelopment processes currently underway in the area?

It certainly prompts us to consider the current ‘regeneration’ measures and planning applications being instituted by corporate developers in a region of Edinburgh that has witnessed its fair share of hardship-fuelled creativity, of which street art is undeniably an expression.

The Leith community has faced a turbulent eighteen months following the launch of the grassroots Save Leith Walk civic campaign in the face of sustained demolition and development proposals submitted to the City of Edinburgh Council. Campaigners have fought plans from Drum Property Group (which were ultimately rejected), a client of the University of Edinburgh, for the development of a 471-bedroom student accommodation block and 56-bed hotel. Leith locals argued that these plans fly in the face of responsible development in areas that remain a haven for young and emerging artists thanks to their typically low rents and low-cost amenities.

At risk of sinking further into the ‘Banksy’ quagmire, might it be considered that even Banksy himself has fallen victim to self-gentrification? The New Republic recently declared that the “creed” of the graffiti artist is to “ask for neither permission nor compensation” for their works. Street art at its heart is the embodiment of anti-establishment sentiment, an explicit rejection of the rules of the scene.
Yet Banksy has actively and openly commercially profited from his street-born notoriety.

Is this somewhat reflective of today’s society in which we are at continued risk of institutionalising traditionally anti-establishment, creative spaces in the name of economic and urban development?
And if so, how can we venture to redefine the balance between a developed society and a culturally enriched one?

In today’s world, all too often do we see artistic expressions of protest fetishised by disingenuous conglomerates that seek to profit from embracing the avant-garde.
It is now decidedly ‘fashionable’ to be culturally awake and it smacks of hypocrisy when we see capital-driven entities command formerly accessible art spaces, pricing out those that created them, in attempts to align with the rising cultural-awareness trend.

Illustration: Hannah Robinson

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