Can graffiti really be “vandalised”?

A Banksy work in Paris. Image: Getty.

The news that a Valentine’s Day mural by world-renowned graffiti artist Banksy was “vandalised” attracted substantial media interest. The image of a girl firing red flowers from her catapult was defaced by spray paint within hours of appearing on a house wall in Bristol. News reports said measures would be taken to protect the artwork from further damage, but the incident has raised the question as to whether an unsolicited piece of street art can be vandalised.

“Vandalism” is not a legal term – in UK law, it equates to criminal damage and may amount to an offence under section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 if it were to be an intentional or reckless destruction or damage of property belonging to another.

The law does not, however, draw a clear distinction between great works of street art that have been thoughtfully applied and the casual tagging of a wall. In both cases, if permission has not been sought, then an offence may be committed regardless of the merit of the artwork in question. The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 defines graffiti as “the painting or writing on, or the soiling, marking or other defacing of, any property by whatever means” and graffiti artists may be subject to a fine or may be subject to prosecution under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 where more substantial damage has been done.

Several Banksy artworks have been removed or defaced. The Gorilla in a Pink Mask, one of Banksy’s first works on a Bristol social club, and his No Future mural on a Southampton wall were painted over – the first accidentally, and the second in an act of apparent vandalism.

Banksy’s Masked Gorilla artwork in Bristol was hit by vandals. Image: JOHN19701970/Flickr/creative commons.

Damaging property

What amounts to damage to property is broadly construed and includes where that damage is both temporary and minor. For example, the courts have previously held that painting a pavement with water-soluble paints amounted to damaging the pavement despite the fact this could be easily removed. Damaging typically means property has been rendered unusable, a cost will be incurred in repairing the property, or the property has been otherwise been reduced in value.

Though we can normally assume that graffiti amounts to criminal damage, graffiti of artistic merit or monetary worth may instead enhance the value of that property. So much so that homeowners who had Banksy on the side of their home offered that mural for sale in 2007 “with a Victorian house attached”.

The Valentine’s Day mural

What of the defaced Valentine’s Day mural? We know that a Banksy street mural can be worth upwards of £400,000 and it is likely that Banksy is one of the few graffiti artists whose unsolicited works may not be subject to criminal prosecution (though, they still would amount to criminal damage in law).

It is clear the homeowners were receptive to the Valentine’s mural, as they unsuccessfully attempted to protect it with a perspex sheet. One issue requiring clarification here is the actual “type” of property we are concerned with. The wall is part of a building and is therefore part of the land. With the addition of the artwork, the question becomes whether that wall has taken on a new “form”.

For example, has that wall become a form of “personal” property (like a framed painting)? Has that wall, now with the artwork in tow, become a form of “intellectual” property, the likes of which we speak about protection in copyright?

The damage inflicted by spray paint is a more clear-cut case of criminal damage – although whether this amounts to criminal damage of the Valentine’s mural or merely of the wall is a more difficult question. As the damaged “property” in question remains a wall – albeit a highly decorated one – it is likely the secondary graffiti amounted to criminal damage to a wall that had greatly increased in value.

Who owns the mural?

Where graffiti has been applied to the wall of a property, that physical piece of “art” belongs to the owners of the property, who may choose to lawfully remove it or to protect it. If the property is rented – as is reportedly the case for the Valentine’s mural – the graffiti becomes part of the fabric of that building and belongs to the property owner, not the tenants. Ownership of the intangible rights to the artwork (the copyright), however, will remain the property of Banksy as the artist.

Ownership rights have been a subject of dispute. In 2012 a Banksy mural entitled Slave Labour was painted on a property owned by Wood Green Investments to later be removed and offered for sale at auction. There was an outcry by local residents who considered it to be community property. Here, the law is once again clear. Regardless of the intentions of the artist – it is unlikely Banksy intended to gift an investment firm a mural – it clearly belonged to those owners of the property.

Banksy’s Slave Labour mural on Turnpike Lane in north London. Image: DeptfordJon/Flickr/creative commons.

While it is questionable whether the Banksy artwork is capable of being damaged, given that it itself is criminal damage, it is certainly the case that the wall (which will have increased in value as a result of the artwork) will have been further damaged by the act of vandalism.

The question of ownership will remain hotly contested as more Banksy artworks appear and the nature of the property – whether it remains land or becomes personal and intellectual property – will continue to enthuse property lawyers for some time to come.

The Conversation

Mark Thomas, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University and Samantha Pegg, Senior Lecturer, Criminal Law, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.