Residents of a small town on the southern shore of Wales woke up one morning, just days before Christmas, to a surprise: A renowned anonymous street artist had painted a mural on the garage of a local steelworker. Banksy had come to Port Talbot.
Known for his meticulous stencils, humor, and politically conscious messages, Banksy confirmed the work, titled “Season’s Greetings,” on his Instagram page. The mural straddles two walls on the garage’s corner in Port Talbot, one of the most polluted cities in the U.K. On one side, a boy with his sled looks at the sky with his mouth open to catch snowflakes. On the other, an industrial heater spews flames and a plume of smoke into the air. And just a few miles behind the garage onlookers can see chimneys from the local steelworks peeking out from behind homes.
“It says quite a lot about things that people have raised about the pollution in Port Talbot, so it’s actually really good. I hope it raises some awareness about that, to be honest,” Joanne Ryan, who grew up in Port Talbot, said when visiting the mural.
Now, the local government hopes to use the Banksy art to change public perception of the town. Home to TATA Steel, Britain’s largest steelworks, Port Talbot is one of 17 cities at the limit of air-pollution levels set by the World Health Organization. In recent years, the plant has struggled economically and made significant job cuts.
“It’s been a difficult few years. We’ve had troubles in the steel industry and in the manufacturing industry. We’ve got Brexit, and who knows what that might bring,” Anthony Taylor, deputy leader of Neath Port Talbot Council, told VICE News. “We’re looking to find new ways to bring employment into the town, and culture is a massive part of that.”
Taylor estimates that the Banksy has brought tens of thousands of visitors, from all over the U.K. and the world, to Port Talbot. But how can the town capitalize on that momentum?
John Brandler, a gallery owner in Brentwood, just outside of London, may hold the key. He bought the Banksy off the garage owner for an undisclosed six-figure sum. Several people made offers on the piece, but Brandler was the only one who wanted to keep it in Port Talbot.
“I’ve got about a dozen Banksys,” Brandler said. “This is the Banksy I’m proud to own.”
Brandler wants to use the Banksy to turn Port Talbot into an international street art destination. He would move the garage walls to a central museum where they would be a main feature surrounded by other works. But he also wants to invite street artists to come to Port Talbot and paint more murals throughout the town.
“Street art is seen as an endorsement of a place. So when a thousand people a day or more come to Port Talbot, we’ll give them a map and then they can go around town and look at other street art we’ve put up on the walls,” Brandler said. “You’ll stop in the cafes, you’ll stop in the pub, you’ll stop in the restaurants, you’ll fill up with petrol, that sort of thing.”
But just as Brandler’s plans began, Gary Owen, who’s lived in Port Talbot for more than 50 years, started working on a plan of his own to bring more street artists to the sleepy town. Owen said he’s the reason the Banksy showed up in the first place.
“I thought I'd got to contact somebody who is world famous, maybe he'll do a bit of artwork in Port Talbot. And I put an Instagram message up. And that was in August and then in the fall in December he'd done some artwork,” Owen said. “I just thought well he's answered my prayers.”
Banksy never answered Owen’s Instagram message, but the appearance of “Season’s Greeting” was enough for him to reach out to another street artist to do more work in Port Talbot. In February, Ame72, known as the “Lego Guy,” spent a blustery, cold night painting two murals on Port Talbot. And he invited VICE News to watch.
“I’ve been a graffiti artist since 1985,” said Ame72, who asked VICE News to conceal his identity. “I do work on the street to evoke emotion in the viewer. Sometimes it’s humor. Sometimes, it’s a more serious issue, but at the end of the day, that’s what it’s for, for someone to walk past. It might open their eyes to something.”
The work from Ame72 added to Banksy’s statement about the pollution in Port Talbot. One shows a Lego figure dragging an industrial machine and spraying out a message, “I wish my wife was this dirty.” The other one, has a Lego figure with a circular saw, cutting artwork off of a wall. It’s a statement about what it means to remove street art for a profit — something Ame72 said is part of the deal for graffiti artists.
For Brandler, Ame72 and Banksy’s work aren’t competing works but a welcome surprise and further encouragement for him to pursue the street art project in Port Talbot.
“I want to use Banksy to bring other international artists to Port Talbot. And it's already started. It's brilliant,” Brandler said. “And they wouldn't have come without the Banksy.”
This segment originally aired February 13, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.