The Haight Street Banksy rat is looking for a good home

Pub date January 11, 2013
SectionPixel Vision

Kerfuffle attended the publication of my Street Seen column on the reappropriated Banksy street art that popped up at Context art fair during Art Basel week in Miami last month.

Hamptons gallerist Stephen Keszler wrote to tell me that my account of him taking two of the pieces from Palestine and affixing $400,000 price tags to the them was so boring that it made him fall asleep in the bathtub (probably just part of growing old, darling.)

But I also received an interesting communique from a man who claimed responsibility for getting the Banksy rat originally painted on Haight Street’s Red Victorian hotel and cafe to Miami. He says it needs a home.

Brian Greif wanted to clarify that the San Francisco rat was not under control of Keszler or Robin Barton of London’s Bankrobber gallery, Keszler’s partner in the Banksy scheme (Keszler and his staff had neglected to mention this fact in our back-and-forths.) Greif actually wants to donate the rat to a museum, but the process is proving a little complicated.

“I hate to see something important, beautfiul, something I think should be preserved painted over a day later, a month later, a year later,” Greif told me in a phone interview. Greif, who is general manager at KRON and self-described artist active in the SF creative community, had been considering making a documentary on street art when Banksy came to town in April 2010 for his spree of SF stencil art. (Now largely removed by thieving art merchants or painted over, the trip’s sole remaining piece is the bird and tree design on Public Works. The nightclub’s integrated the design into a multi-artist collage mural.)

Greif decided that the process of saving a Banksy piece from obliteration would make for the perfect documentary plot. But it took months to get clearance to remove the rat from the Red Vic. Owner Sami Sunchild was incensed when Banksy “vandalised” her building, as she described it to me when I contacted her to find out how the rat wound up in Miami. (She declined to comment about the rat’s fate.) Greif says the rat was scheduled to be painted over when he finally got permission to remove it intact in December 2010.

But then he couldn’t figure out what to do with the thing. Museums, you see, require authentication from the artist or estate to display a work, and Banksy won’t authenticate street pieces past sporadically putting them on his website for as long as they exist IRL.

A deal with SFMOMA fell through, Greif says. Enter Keszler, who Greif and his documentary team originally interviewed in the role of “bad guy” after the gallerist relocated pieces that the artist had completed on his trip to the West Bank. When Keszler found out about Greif’s rat, he asked to show it alongside his own Banksys at Context. 

“At first I wasn’t sure about that,” says Greif. Banksy’s representative agency Pest Control has condemned Keszler for his reappropriation of the Bethlehem murals. “My partner in the documentary and I discussed. We thought it could be a good part for the documentary.” He consulted street artist friends about the morality of the situation and they told him to go for it as long as he intended the piece to wind up in a museum and not a private collection. Last month, the rat was reassembled for the first time since being removed from its original wall in Miami. Conde Nast named the rat one of the hottest draws of the Art Basel season.

Though he hoped to find a museum interested in displaying the piece through the Miami exposure, Greif was instead deluged with private buyers untroubled by the lack of authentication. The highest offer he received, he says, was $500,000.

But financial gain from once-public art wasn’t the goal when he fought to safely remove the rat. “I think street art is one of the most important movements ever,” Greif told me. He wants the piece to be seen. And now he’s saddled with an incredibly valuable piece of wall. 

Anyone know of a worthy venue for the rodent? Contact Greif at