Was someone trying to steal this Banksy? Alert New Orleans neighbors rush to defend painting.
Construction work on the site of a much-beloved Banksy painting in the Marigny Friday alarmed neighbors who were worried that the valuable graffiti stencil might be sawed out of the wall and stolen.
Neighbors milled around the painting at North Rampart and Kerlerec streets, along with the members of a graffiti tour group that happened to have stopped at the artistic landmark. A television crew videotaped the scene as passersby wondered aloud about the cause of all the activity.
At the center of the commotion was one of the secretive British superstar’s most poignant paintings from his 2008 visit to New Orleans. The artwork, popularly known as “The Umbrella Girl,” depicts a forlorn, rain-soaked child whose umbrella not only leaks, but is actually the source of a downpour. The painting is presumed to be a metaphor for New Orleans’ levee system, which failed during Hurricane Katrina.
On Friday morning, two workmen arrived at the corner of the building, where they erected a steel pole beneath the overhang, shoring it up. They also apparently began drilling holes adjacent to the stencil, which rattled neighbors.
They had reason to be worried. In 2014, someone attempted to steal The Umbrella Girl by sawing it out of the wall where it was painted. Fortunately, the thief, who claimed to be a workman removing the painting for exhibition elsewhere, was interrupted in the process and fled. But since then, neighbors and passersby are always on alert for the possibility of theft.
Banksy is arguably the most famous living artist in the world, and his paintings routinely sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes more. The artist, who carefully protects his real identity, is presumed to have executed 14 paintings in New Orleans in 2008. A handful survive, three of which, like The Umbrella Girl, are still in the places where they were originally painted.
According to witnesses who spoke to the workers, the two men said they were merely conducting renovations, and that the holes were part of the process.
Robin Roberts, who lives not far from the building, said that someone called the NOPD, and First District officers stopped by to check out the situation. According to Roberts, “the police came and were really nice.” The officers entered the structure, spoke to the workmen and were apparently satisfied that they were legit.
Roberts said she contacted the news media and the New Orleans City Council to express her hopes that, whatever renovation is done on the building, the painting will be preserved. New Orleans has to “at least take a breath and make sure” that the Banksy is protected, she said.
The long unused building at 1434 N. Rampart St. was once the Drop-In Center, a community refuge for teens. Documents taped to the building indicate that the Safety and Permits Department approved $125,000 in work on the structure.
According to the posted documents, the building has been vacant 20 years, and the proposed future use would be an art gallery and studio. Miwako Hattori, a New Orleans architect who was named on the work permits, could not immediately be contacted for comment. The permit names MANTUA LLC as the owner of the property, which is valued at $249,500. The company could also not be reached for comment.
Since 2008, the whimsical stencil has been protected with a clear plastic sheet. But in 2020 a graffiti writer broke through the coating and sprayed The Umbrella Girl with scarlet paint. Banksy fans swiftly removed the paint and she survived. The painting was recently covered with a fresh sheet of plastic that remains in place.