In 2004, the graffiti artist Banksy placed an exact copy of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker, with a traffic cone on its head, on the junction of Shaftesbury Avenue and St. Giles, near Soho, London. Less than 24 hours later the three and a half tonne statue was stolen.
In the days following the heist, the Guardian’s Simon Hatterstone received a cryptic voicemail from someone referring to themselves as AK47, a member of the Art Kieda group. The anonymous caller claimed they had kidnapped the piece and were now looking after it. The message was followed up with a letter to the newspaper demanding a £5,000 ransom, accompanied by photographic evidence and an artist’s manifesto. What happened next is a heist story akin to Ocean’s 11, featuring journalists, ex-porn stars and East End hench men. And it’s all about to be made into a film.
Starring AK47 himself, The Banksy Job is directed by indie filmakers Ian Gray and Dylan Harvey, who are trying to raise £15,000 through Indiegogo to finish the film. I went round to the self-styled art terrorist’s house in Hackney to meet them and find out why over a decade later, AK47 still has an axe to grind with the world’s most famous graffiti artist.
Andy Linky, aka AK47, is not your average art dealer. He’s a burly, sweary Yorkshireman with a neck as thick as his accent. His penchant for guns and gangstas made clear through the collection of artillery on his living room wall.
“I’ve been involved in almost illegal stuff all of my life” he explains. In his younger years, Andy organised the largest Acid House rave in Yorkshire which saw him face a stint in prison. After his release he went on to direct, produce and star in his own porn films.
“It was just a lad’s dream that came true but I made good money out of it.”
Now he makes a living out of collecting art and has even appeared on the Channel 4 show Four Rooms selling an Afghan rug embroidered with hand grenades.
His involvement in the art world didn’t come until later in life when he moved to Hackney and began dealing in street art and making his own work. He describes his style as "arto-political humorism". “It’s taking the piss. I’m not a comedian and I don’t insult people. I just I’ve always found a good way of making people think without bullying or being insulting.”
It was while dealing that he first came across Banksy. He went along to a very early show and bought an unsigned print, but decided he wanted it personalised. Andy’s knew Banksy’s driver and asked them to pass on a message.
“To this day it might not have been Banksy that said it, but apparently he said ‘tell Linky if he had wanted a signed print he should have paid the other seventy-five fucking quid that tight arse Yorkshireman. So that’s what hurt – I wanted him to sign it 'to Linky all the best Banksy' which generally deflates the value. If it’s personally signed, it’s not worth as much as a plain signature. So I thought – they’re in this for the fucking money.”
Andy didn’t think any more about it until he got a tip off from a friend.
“One of his people told me about [the statue going up] and as soon as I heard that I thought – right you bastard I’m having that.”
Moving a seven-foot statue the same weight as four polar bears isn’t an easy task. But Andy knew someone who was up for the job.
“I spoke to a mate who had a scrapper and he said ‘if you give me a wage I’ll do whatever you fucking say. I’ll tell them I took it from A to B. I’m up for it’. So we took the truck, went down and took it away. Simple as that.”
Straight after the incident, Andy went down to the police station to report it a lost item. Not because he felt a last minute pang of guilt, but because he knew if no one claimed it after a certain period of time, it would become the property of whoever reported it.
“I had this really strange conversation with a police officer saying ‘what do you mean you’ve got a fucking ten foot statue that’s on a four foot fucking plinth and you’ve fucking found it? How the fuck did you find that?’”
Three months later nobody claimed it and the statue became legally his. But word got round how Andy was storing it in his back garden and before long it was stolen again.
Whoever broke in and took The Drinker probably would have thought their luck was in, if it wasn’t for one thing. A key element was missing from the concrete replica. Locked up inside Andy’s house, separate from the rest of the piece, was its pièce de résistance – the traffic cone hat.
“That is the only original thing on that piece; it’s a conceptual art work. Bansky only created the traffic cone. Which is the concept. The cone is the concept. The statue is just the stand. His paws never even touched it.”
Now that the original artwork has gone, the new owners, whoever they may be, find themselves in a predicament. Banksy has never given the piece provenance, meaning it’s technically worthless on the art market.
Despite the lack of recognition Andy still says of Banksy. “I wouldn’t be an artist now if it wasn’t for him.”
No one ever found out who took the statue from his garden but Andy thinks someone grassed him up to Banksy’s people, who took it in revenge. However, the anonymous urban artist has never taken responsibility for the theft, choosing to remain silent about the whole affair.
An actor playing Banksy in the film
At the start, Andy originally made his demands via Simon Hatterstone, who then passed on the message to Banksy’s manager. The Guardian journalist did attempt to broker a deal but negotiations failed to take off and the whole ordeal ended with Banksy offering £2 towards a can of petrol to “incinerate the piece”. That was the last time Banksy spoke about the theft. But despite his refusal to play ball, Andy always seems to find a way of reigniting the dispute.
Several years after the piece was taken Andy got speaking to someone at a party. They mentioned how they knew the person who Banksy originally commissioned to replicate the Rodin sculpture. Andy saw an opportunity to seek his vengeance.
“So I went straight to find the guy, who was an interesting card we shall say – I can’t say too much about that because it will give too much of the story away. So anyway I met him and said ‘Can you make it?’ and he said ‘Yes, for a price’, which we agreed on and now we’ve remade the piece.”
Entitled The Drinker, the piece was originally gifted to the residents of Camden as a piece of public art. Now it's being recreated and garlanded with the orginal traffic cone hat, who owns it? Is it Banksy, who refuses to have anything to do with it? Is it Andy, who has done everything in his power to keep it, or is it a piece of public art owned by everyone, as was originally intended?
“People forget and seem to think Banksy is this great freedom fighter for the working people, and he’s anti-this and anti-that,” Angry retorts angrily. “They’ve created a big smoke screen around him like it’s for the man but it’s not, it’s part of the machine.”
Fighting the Banksy machine is a tough battle to take on. The directors of the film claim whoever originally made the piece is yet to be paid by Banksy and after trying to keep the project secret for as long as possible, they’re now ready to take on the backlash.
“Making this film has stirred a hornets’ nest,” he says. “They either want getting involved or they want it shutting down. People are going to get stung.”
After spending four years hawking the project round funders, the directors came close to signing a deal with Sky Atlantic. “We missed [an opportunity] and they dropped us.” Dylan revealed. After facing so many false starts what does he think the reception will be when it’s finally released? “It’ll either be at Sundance or in Tesco’s” Dylan smirked.
The film has yet to secure a release date, mainly because Andy has one final move up his sleeve. He’s going to try and sell the newly remade art work, without the much needed provenance, in order to provoke a reaction from the market.
“I wanted to fucking point it out in a funny way. I don’t want to be like Melvyn Bragg or Brian Sewell. I wanted people to laugh at the fucking stupidity of it all.”
And if the trailer’s anything to go by, that may be the only dead certain in whole the film.