What can Nottingham’s Banksy tell us about property, care and the commons?

As a city, Nottingham isn’t known for much. Neither North or South, it is a middling sort of place – but one thing that residents are fiercely proud of is Raleigh bikes. Raleigh was founded in the city in the 1800s, and the company had a huge impact on the Lenton area of Nottingham. The factory occupied 60 acres of land in Lenton between Triumph Road and Faraday Road, land which was later sold to the University of Nottingham and is now home to the University’s Jubilee Campus. Raleigh closed down their UK production in 2002 and  gradually Lenton’s factory workers were replaced by students. 

Lenton is often the site of arguments about who Nottingham really belongs to. Sandwiched between the Park Estate (a wealthy gated community) and inner-city Radford, Lenton is home to both permanent residents and a large student population. It is not an easy co-existence. Students are regularly in the local press for being too noisy, messy, or just too abundant. But in October 2020, a slightly different battle played out in Lenton, less than 300 metres from the old Raleigh headquarters, that sparked new discussions about ownership. 
With some of the highest rates of new Covid-19 cases in the country, and students making national news for their lockdown house parties, the city desperately needed a lift. So when residents woke one morning to see a mural stenciled on a wall on Rothesay Street, the response was joyful. It was the image of a girl hula hooping with a bike tyre, spray painted next to a bike chained to a post. . The monotony of lockdown walking was briefly brightened by the excitement that Banksy might have visited – a sort of badge of honour usually reserved for more glamorous cities. Even those that took a disliking to the piece seemed to revel in the novelty of it. At last, there was something new to talk about!

Photo of a large brick plaque with carvings of bike wheels
Photo of the Raleigh plaque on the University of Nottingham Jubilee Campus (taken by John Sutton)

It wasn’t long until residents had their first test as stewards of their new artwork. As well as drawing crowds, the mural also began to attract graffiti. Knowing that previous Banksys had been destroyed, locals called on the council to act. The council decided to cover the mural with a sheet of clear plastic to protect it both from the elements, and any attempts to damage the artwork. Then the bike mysteriously disappeared. No one was really sure what happened to it – had the building owners taken it away for ‘safe-keeping’ as some claimed or was it stolen? Either way, people weren’t happy. Local delivery driver Kyle Myatt was quick to step in and spent £20 on a replacement bike. He said to the Nottingham Post,  “I just did it to see people happier”. 

Early one morning, residents woke to loud banging. Workmen were using circular saws to cut the section of the red-brick wall with the mural away, and the hula-hooping girl was bundled into a van. Left in its place was a large piece of chipboard. 

Once again there was confusion, which quickly turned to anger when the building owners explained that the mural had been sold to the Brandler Gallery in Brentwood, some 140 miles from Nottingham. People were quick to point out that the mural wouldn’t make sense anywhere else – street art is meant to be in a certain place. It wasn’t right that it would now be sat in a gallery where residents would have to travel and pay to see it. There was a strong sense that something that was ours had been stolen, even if the wall it had been painted on had belonged to someone, and that someone had the right to sell it.  

The gallery owner John Brandler’s response seemed like the verbal equivalent of a shrug. Speaking to the Nottingham Post, Brandler said “I didn’t turn up in the middle of Nottingham with a chainsaw and steal it. Anybody in Nottingham could have done the same thing. Everybody’s got 2020 hindsight.” He then argued that the perspex glass that had been erected to protect it would encourage mould to grow.

Sketch of spray painted girl hula hooping a bike tyre, next to a lamp post with a bike chained to it.
Sketch of the Banksy mural (drawn by Austin Hubbard)

There are lots of interesting things that we can take from this story, not least the controversy of high profile street artists bringing unsolicited costs and attention to cash-strapped councils at a time when their own arts programmes are facing cuts. But Brandler’s statements are worth unpacking because they reveal so much about how we understand property.  

I’ll take each of his statements in turn. Brandler argued that anyone could have bought the mural, he was just the entrepreneurial minded person that thought to ask. To him, this was a simple exchange between two rational parties: the building owner and the gallery. When they found a price that was mutually agreeable, the sale could be completed and ownership transferred. No one else had a claim. 

Yet the fact that there was outrage over this shows that there was a simultaneous property claim. Residents understood the mural as being theirs, something that had been gifted to them for their collective enjoyment, not to a private building owner. They saw it as a commons, something that is collectively owned and managed. And in fact, the mural does in fact meet many criteria of a commons[1]:

  • Access was open to all 
  • It was not generating private benefit, but collective benefit. It was collectively cared for – local residents repaired damage and replaced the missing parts
  • It was residents that bore the brunt of the negative impacts, such as the crowds of people that turned up making social distancing challenging. 

In many ways then, it felt like a commons, even if there was no property regime that named it as such. And commons rarely are defined by common property regimes. They can be established on private property or public property, or legally defined as common pool resources. Sometimes by just the simple virtue of a group of people using something for a period of time (like a playground or park) they gain a form of common claim over it. In fact, historically, most commons have not needed legal recognition to exist.

What Brandler’s statement shows then, is that in a capitalist market society, this kind of collective property is invisible. Common property is equal to no property. Ownership only exists when something has been divided up and allocated to someone. 

Now let’s turn to his second rationalisation – that the mural wasn’t being properly cared for by the residents and the council. This is interesting because it somewhat contradicts his first argument in two important ways. Firstly, rather than an objective exchange in a free market, there was a moral justification – there is a property way that things should be cared for, and that ownership comes with the responsibility to do this proper care.

This reveals a sort of Lockean understanding of property – that by mixing your labour with the land and “improving” it, it becomes yours. This logic been used to establish claims over land and also as a means of seizing property that is considered to be underutilised or improperly cared for[2]. Of course, “improvement” is in the eye of the beholder, and in a capitalist (and colonial) system this means making it profitable, and usually in line with a particular aesthetic of productivity

Notice how the residents’ labour that was mixing with the mural doesn’t seem to count for Brandler. This is the second contradiction. By acknowledging that the community were attempting to care for the mural, he rejected their claim to ownership by the same logic that he justified his own. This is achieved by subverting it into a tragedy of the commons narrative: when a property is collectively managed, it will inevitably lead to ruin. It is only when ownership is individualised that a resource can be cared for effectively. This narrative has been used time and time again to justify the privatisation of collective resources.

Sketch showing street art of a sad mask, with the words 'we want our Banksy back' beneath
Sketch of the new street art (drawn by Austin Hubbard)

This story shows us that property is more complicated than a name on a deed. It is a set of claims and practices that have to be constantly (re)performed, contested and negotiated, and that are embedded in power relations. It also shows that those that own something are not necessarily some predefined group with shared values and interests. In Lenton, residents were often in opposition to each other, and some to the presence of the mural in the first place – it is a surprise that they could be seen as a collective at all. The commonality was born through the shared claim of ownership.  

That isn’t to say that this experience has created a harmonious relationship in which everyone in Lenton recognises and respects each others’ right to be there – although that would be a nice ending. The same arguments rattle on. Walking past the site now, there is little sign that anything happened here. The bricks are brighter and newer – a scar that hasn’t fully healed. And now a new piece of art – a small mask sprayed on to the wall. It looks like one half of the theatrical comedy and tragedy masks, with big sad eyes and a tight frown. Beneath the paint, barely visible, are the chalked on words “We want our Banksy back”.


[1]  See the commons identikit from Take Back the Economy

[2]  For example,‘fortress conservation’ is based on the argument “local people use natural resources in irrational and destructive ways, and as a result cause biodiversity loss and environmental degradation”, justifying the seizure of land for conservation.as the Homesteading Acts in the US which allowed settlers to seize land from Native Americans

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