Who Owns Illegal Public Street Art Found on Private Buildings?


Who owns public art illegally placed onto private buildings? That’s a question that came up recently after a famous Banksy work in London was ripped out of the side of a building, shipped across the Atlantic, and put up for auction with an estimated final price of over half a million dollars.

The piece in question (shown above) is titled “Slave Labour,” and first appeared on the side of a discount store in North London in May 2012. CNN reports that many residents grew quite fond of the piece and the attention it gave the neighborhood.

Unfortunately for those residents, the piece was abruptly cut out of the wall last week. News soon emerged that the owner of the building had ordered the extraction in order to “preserve” the work.

Well, “preserve” is apparently synonymous with “profit off” in the owner’s mind: “Slave Labour” has turned up in the catalog of an auction house in Miami, and will be sold this Saturday in the “Modern, Contemporary and Street Art” collection for an estimated $500,000 to $700,000.

Needless to say, the locals who once enjoyed the piece aren’t very happy about this development. The case has also triggered a discussion regarding who technically “owns” the art, since it was installed without permission in a public location on a private building.

The Miami art dealer behind the upcoming auction, Frederick Thut, defended the sale to the BBC, saying “the work was painted on a private wall and the owner of a private wall can do whatever he wants with his own wall.”


Photographer JR also installs his photographic street art in public locations. Might these also be extracted and sold?

While this particular case isn’t very relevant to the world of photography, the concept of public street art is. In 2010, the photographer known as JR won the prestigious $100,000 TED Prize for his large-scale photos installed in slums around the world.

If the Banksy sale does go through and end up fetching a sizable figure, we may soon find many other examples of famous street art installations being ripped out of their original “canvases” and sold to private art collectors.

Image credit: Banksy by DeptfordJon, on the street by collectmoments

  • Steve Stevenson

    I’d say who ever owns the building is the one who owns the art.
    If it was placed their illegally, it’s theirs.
    If they hired an artist to put it on the building, then the artist owns the art.

  • Sean Walsh

    “If they hired an artist to put it on the building, then the artist owns the art.”
    That all depends on the contract between the artist and the land/building owner. But yeah, while the artistic difference between tagging a wall or creating a mural might be subjective, the situation is the same: the artist was not commissioned or paid to produce the artwork, and it was created on a canvas that did not belong to them, and had the artist been caught, they’d have faced a penalty. Street artists are going to have to accept this as a hard truth.

  • Mick O

    I hope that our concepts of who owns what in a public space continue to evolve. The right to own property is not without responsibility to the adjacent public space. Property rights derive from the community where it exists. What a private property owner does with that property has a deep inescapable effect on the quality of life for the whole community. We’re still many years away from figuring this out. Until then, get them dollarz.

  • Mark

    Correct, I agree 100%. And I bet Banksy agrees too.

  • Denver Mike

    If I hire an artist to paint artistically on the outer wall of my building, I own the art. If the artist RENTS my wall as HIS CANVAS, then HE owns the art. I agree that the building owner in this case owns the artwork.

  • wickerprints

    I would agree with the first two points. But the last point doesn’t make sense: if a building owner hires an artist, that means they commissioned and paid the artist to create the work on the building. Why should the artist then retain ownership? They were already paid for their work.

    It’s not quite the same as photographic copyright–a photographer can be hired by a client to take photos in a way that merely licenses the work, or full ownership could be transferred, depending on the terms of the agreement and the price to be paid for the work.

  • Steve Stevenson

    Yes you are all right about the last part of my pervious comment.
    I was thinking in terms of copy right.
    No matter what, the person who owns the building, is the owner of the art.

  • mrbeard

    is it definitely a Banksy though? did anyone see him make it? do a similar image on your own wall and flog it to other rich idiots

  • Albin

    You should google “moral rights” which is the legal regime relating to an artist’s residual interest in the attribution, integrity and other aspects of a work. The protected moral rights vary across international jurisdictions, even state jurisdictions within the USA. Artists can contract out of their moral rights upon sale but where the rules are in law the contract has to be explicit. That doesn’t answer this Banksy question but may frame it legally.

  • Bruce Garner

    The physical piece of the wall belongs to the owner of the building. He can dispose of it however he wants.

    The copyright to the image created by the artist belongs to the artist.

  • Loki

    You can’t own something that you did illegally.

  • tschroder

    You apparently don’t own property.

  • Bruce Garner

    Sure you can. If I had the talent, I could sketch out an original design for a mural. That design would belong to me, I’d have a copyright as soon as I drew it. I could then copy it to the wall of a private building. The copyright to the image is still mine. But, I lose control of the one copy on the wall. The Wall owner now owns that single copy of my work, but I retain all rights to future copies.

  • Carl

    I recently discovered that Banksy’s “Crayon Foreclosure” in Los Angeles has been surrounded by an 8 foot tall solid steel wall with 2 guard dogs roaming the area. That these owners of buildings that are near destruction should ‘hit the jackpot’ as it were, I am sure, was a much unintended consequence of his work. Considering Mr. Banksy’s humanitarian art, maybe he should start saving his paintings for the walls of homeless shelters and orphanages.

  • Burnin Biomass

    This might be apocryphal, but I thought I heard once that a graffiti artist had sued a photographer for reproducing their work.

  • Burnin Biomass

    I found this link, the answer an attorney gave as to who owns the copyright in instances of graffiti is interesting (I don’t believe this answer pertains to the ownership of the actual artwork, which I agree, is the owner of the wall).–abstracted-357157.html

  • Daniel Appleton

    Maybe if he’d asked the owner’s permission, gotten a legal document, this wouldn’t be in dispute.

  • Sten

    Sounds like you just agreed with Loki:

    – Copyrighted work done legally -> you own.
    – Copyrighted work done illegally -> you don’t own..

  • Jim Wilson

    If its illegal, owner of the building.

    If its legal, owner of the building.

  • Bruce Garner

    You own the copyright either way. You don’t own the building just because you paint on it. I don’t see a contradiction. The owner of the building only owns the single copy attached to his wall. He can sell that copy, but he can’t mass market reprints because he doesn’t own a copyright. As the artist (and more importantly, the copyright holder), you are free to make and sell as many copies are you want.

  • Ed Guidry

    You sound like a communist. Private property is private property over here.

  • Ed Guidry

    If Banksy was concerned about the copyright to the image, he would have created his “art” on something he had legal control over.

  • Jill

    The difference is between one single copy and the power to make more copies. The wall owner owns one single copy, much the same as if you download a song (without DRM that is). Downloading a song doesn’t give you copyright ownership of that song. Similarly, buying a painting or owning a copy of a painting does not confer you copyright ownership of it, but you do have rights under the law to sell it, make copies for personal use, etc. No contradiction here.

  • Cecil Burrow

    Well, technically, it would depend on the nature of the contract. But without any language in the contract stating otherwise, I imagine the assumption would be that you are indeed the owner of the artwork.

  • Cecil Burrow

    Is it in dispute? No-one credible seems to be disputing the legal facts here at all. Some people might be grumpy and upset, but that’s entirely different and entirely irrelevant.

  • Cecil Burrow

    And likely never will.

  • Mike

    But who owns the paint?

  • Ed Guidry

    I think if the photographer took a picture of only the art, there might be an issue. But if the photographer took a picture of the building, with some landscaping in the background, and the side of the building had the artwork, I think the photographer can argue that he/she created a separate work of art that includes that art in its context.

  • Bruce Garner

    I agree in principle with what you just said, except I don’t think a license is issued or needed in this case. No business transaction takes place between the land owner and the artist. The result is the same however.

  • Balzak Schlemp

    If an artist illegally and/or without solicitation fixes a creative work to the private building of an owner, then it is a gift to the building owner who can do with it as he pleases.


    How about someone selling prints of street art in both legal/illegal instances. Anyone have insight on those scenarios? My group does street art (legal thankfully!) and I’ve seen someone trying to sell prints they snapped of the art on the wall.

    I’m curious!

  • Bruce Garner

    Yes, but only that one fixed copy. The right to make addition copies [ie, the Copyright(c)] still belongs to the artist.

  • Burnin Biomass

    makes sense, I would agree with that.

  • Burnin Biomass

    Mick is right to an extent. Zoning laws are one such instance that limit what you can do on your own land. The city (or township) can tell you that your land is too cluttered with junk, that you have to mow your grass, or that your building is condemned and no one can go in there.

    This DOESNT apply to people spraying something on my walls however (and I hope it never will).

  • shivamatt

    Though I appreciate, applaud, and recognize graffiti art as an art form, the bottom line is that it is illegal to deface someone else’s property without their permission, no matter the beauty or artistic merit. Since the artist knowingly and deliberately chose an illegal manner to express themselves, I believe that they waive all rights to their creation in the process.

  • shivamatt

    If you legally created your art in a public space, then you should retain full rights to the copyright of your creation. Unless you officially gave those rights to the public entity (if any) that owns that space. All artists should have a contractual vehicle that outlines these rights before embarking on any public venture. It is a pain, but is a reality of the world we live in.

  • Ed Guidry

    If anything, zoning laws would make graffiti unacceptable. You’d have to remove that crap.

  • lala

    hes committing a crime, he is profiting off of something that is illegal. haha

  • Ed Guidry

    I was thinking that the license would be implied. Not an actual paper document, but he’s given license to do what he wants with that copy.

  • Ed Guidry

    White people love Banksy, don’t they? Personally, I think it’s graffiti. Saw enough of that crap recently in Brazil.

  • AK

    Any reference/links? Or it’s ‘as per common sense’?

  • Scott M

    Of course the owner of the building/wall owns the grafitti art that just apeared there one day as a gift. Banksie is a recluse and may have simply struck a deal with the owner. It’s all great publicity for this artist. All free too. Banksie won’t come forward. Then he wouldn’t be Banksie anymore.

  • lakawak

    IT is not street art…it is graffiti, and it is illegal. Artists don’t FORCE people to pay for their art. Or to may it go away. You can’t profit off crimes. You paint on my building, and it is mine. Period. I can paint over it…AND I can sell images of it to pay for the cost of repairing your criminal mischief.

    Those are the breaks when your life goal is to be loved by pathetic hipsters. Want to own your work? Then do it LEGALLY.

  • lakawak

    OR maybe he should stop being a crimional and stop traspassing and desotrying other people’s property entirely.

  • lakawak

    Nope..can’t profit off a crime. If you want to copyright something, then do it on your own property…be it a canvas, or your own building.
    Are you seriosuly so stupid as to say if someone destroys my property with their criminal mischief that I can’t take a picture of MY OWN PROPERTY and sell it?
    What if my property was something that people wanted pictures of even BEFORE these aholes committed the crime against me? So you are saying that I can no longer make a profit off my building in a way that I could have before they illegally trespassed?
    Sorry…but common sense doesn’t work that way. But I doubt you have much to worry about when it comes to common sense. The two of you have enver met.

  • lakawak

    Again, is the owners BUILDING! Just as he was perfectly entitled to take and sell pictures of his own building BEFORE the crime was committed against him, he is able to do so no. IT is not HIS fault that some criminal committed a crime against him.
    Look at it this way, if your brain actually funcitons…suppose I own a building and paint something on it myself. I make a decent amoutn of money selling pictures of that painting that I LEGALLY made ON MY OWN PROPERTY. Then that piece of crap Banksy comes and destroys my work by paiting oiver it with his own pathetic hipster crap. You are so incredibly stupid as to say that I have no recourse now and I can no longer profit off my own work.
    Sorry…but again, common sense does not agree with you. OR are you so worhtless as to suggest that I could go scribble on the Mona Lisa and now call it my own. SAME EXACT thing. I defaced someone else’s property. So you say that they no longer use it for their own profit and I can.
    And before you say this is unlikely…doesn’t matter. I can put a tiny chalk DOT on my building and claim it as art. Even a spot of mud or a water stain that I created when washing the facade. All of that is MINE. And no criminal can take that away fom me via trespassing and destruction of my property.

  • lakawak

    They are not artists. They are CRIMINALS. Period. You cannot profit off a crime.

  • lakawak

    No…pathetic hipsters like him. That’s all.

  • lakawak

    So what if the erson was taking a picture of the architecture of the building and the painting just happened to be there?
    Suing for that is EXACTLY the same as a record lable suing or threatening to sue a YouTube uploader because they had msuic in the background of their video…even if the music was not part of the video itself.

  • lakawak

    As I said above, your scenario would be like when record labels sue over YouTube videos because there is msuic in the background. Whether it is legal or not, anyone on the internet that whines about it when record labels do it better not say it is OK for Banksy to do it.
    And again, my scenario is ever more damning to the criminals like Banksy. Suppose I create a mural on my own building. Maybe it is abstract. HEll..maybe it is one simply black dot of paint on my wall. Banksy can’t destroy MY work by painting over or around it and then say thatI can no longer sell copies of my artistic black dot.