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Ukrainian activist explains why he ‘stole’ Banksy near Kyiv

Serhiy Dovhiy faces up to 12 years in prison after removing a Banksy artwork from a wall in a town near Kyiv

Maxim Kamenev
13 January 2023, 2.06pm

A mural by Banksy has been ripped from a wall in the Ukrainian town of Hostomel

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Instagram/ Maxim Kamenev/Graty.

A Ukrainian man who faces up to 12 years in jail for ‘stealing’ a Banksy mural has said he was saving it from destruction – and wanted to sell it to raise money for the Ukrainian army.

In an interview exclusively shared with openDemocracy by Ukrainian media outlet Graty, activist Serhiy Dovhiy has told of his plans to auction off a Banksy that he ripped from a wall near Kyiv.

In November, anonymous British artist Banksy confirmed he had painted seven murals in and around the Ukrainian capital.

One of these was an image of a woman in a gas mask, painted on the wall of a destroyed building in Hostomel, a town near Kyiv that Russian forces invaded during the spring.

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The following month, Ukrainian police announced that eight people had been detained over the attempted theft of the Hostomel mural.

Dovhiy, who is the only person to have since been charged for his role in its removal, has revealed that he planned to auction off the graffiti, and later release a film about it.

“I thought I’d apologise to Banksy in the film, explaining I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for the war,” the volunteer and local producer for the Associated Press recalls.

The Banksy has been painted on a yellow wall, it shows a woman in a dressing gown wearing a gas mask

A Banksy mural appeared on the wall of a destroyed house in Hostomel, near Kyiv in November

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Instagram

But Dovhiy could face between seven and 12 years in prison for the alleged theft of the graffiti – and many local residents remain upset by his actions.

Ukrainian media outlet Graty spoke to Dovhiy about what happened – and openDemocracy republishes an abridged version in translation here.

The dismantling

On 2 December, Dovhiy met Oleksandr Duvinskyi, a sculptor from the city of Cherkasy, and six other men, outside the destroyed three-storey apartment building in Hostomel that bore the mural.

Dovhiy had seen the graffiti on 7 November, when he visited Hostomel on behalf of an aid organisation in order to speak to affected residents – whom he hoped to help.

He recalled contacting Duvinskyi after coming across the mural near the town’s ‘military quarter’ near the airfield and thinking: “Well, this is a Banksy!”

Ten days later, Banksy confirmed that he was responsible for the graffiti via his Instagram.

A hole in the wall where the Banksy once stood

The men spent almost an hour cutting the mural out of the wall with a wooden saw.

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Maxim Kamenev / Graty

It took Duvinskyi almost an hour to cut out the mural with a wooden saw. As the men were preparing to load it in a pick-up truck, four Ukrainian National Guardsmen approached them.

“They asked what we were doing there and if we had permission,” Duvinskyi recalls. “Serhiy approached them, showed them his passport and began talking about the building, telling them it was going to be demolished and that we were saving the artist’s work.”

The National Guard called local police, who arrived minutes later. Dovhiy explained he wanted to sell the painting at an auction and use the money for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Serhiy Dovhiy

Serhiy Dovhiy, who has been charged over the Banksy’s removal, says he hoped to sell it to raise money for the Ukrainian army

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Maxim Kamenev / Graty

“I didn’t really understand how he would set up this auction. But I was certain that the money would go to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Serhiy has my full confidence,” Duvinskyi says.

The police officers asked Dovhiy why he had not contacted the local authorities in Hostomel. He replied he did not trust them.

“Is the Ukrainian government any good at preserving cultural heritage? Let’s recall how they failed to protect the modernist building Flowers of Ukraine [in Kyiv], the Dovzhenko Centre, lost mosaics and cultural sites throughout Ukraine,” Dovhiy says.

He is certain the mural would have been taken down along with the destroyed house – a French company planned to build eight multi-storey buildings with 300 apartments and a kindergarten in the area.

Police inspect Serhiy's ID

Local police speak to Serhiy Dovhiy in Hostomel after the removal of the Banksy

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Oleksandr Kondratiuk

Officials from the Hostomel military settlement administration, which runs the city, arrived on the scene shortly after.

“We only had one question: why didn’t they come to the military administration to ask us for permission? Every city has someone in charge. If they didn’t agree with us, they should have gone to the person who owns the apartment,” Oleksandra Kondratyuk, a spokesperson for Hostomel military administration, says indignantly.

That day, Dovhiy and his assistant were detained, interrogated and released. Kyiv police stated an investigation had been opened into property damage, and sent the mural to art historians for examination.

A volunteer

A calm, dark-haired bespectacled man, Dovhiy graduated from Ukraine’s Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics in 2014 and immediately moved to Canada. He completed his PhD and taught at the University of Manitoba before moving to Vancouver in 2020.

He came back to Ukraine in November 2021 and, sensing that a Russian invasion was inevitable, decided to stay. In August, Dovhiy wrote to Bansky, asking the artist to publicly support Ukraine, but did not receive a response.

The Banksy is seen painted inside a destroyed home, it shows a man in a bathtub looking out through a wall that no longer exists

Another Banksy graffiti in Horenka. In total, the artist painted seven in and around Kyiv

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Maxim Kamenev/Graty

“People might think that, as a Bansky fan, I just wanted to hang one of his paintings in my house,” Dovhiy, a member of Extinction Rebellion Ukraine, says.

“But I have a defence: what I’ve been doing for the last nine months, both as a fixer for the Associated Press and as a volunteer. If you need someone to speak for me, ask the Azov Kyiv special operations units or Ukrainian army’s 14th Brigade, they’ll have something to say.”

He decided he would make a documentary on the whole process with the help of several friends – to help prove the mural’s authenticity – and told everyone he was taking personal responsibility for the process.

“Any person who understands street art will agree that the dismantling of graffiti is also an artistic event,” Dovhiy says. “But I wouldn’t have sold it for a thousand euros,” he says, adding that he expected to buy about 40 trucks for the Ukrainian military thanks to the sale.

Officials in Hostomel declared the Banksy graffiti to be a protected cultural object of the town a week after the artist confirmed it was his in November, and suggested that local residents would choose to either place the murals on rebuilt houses, or place them in a memorial to the victims of Russia’s war.

Anna Shovkun, who lives in a house neighbouring the one where Banksy painted his mural, said residents of the town discussed this proposal in a chat on Viber, a messaging platform.

dsc_0061-2.jpeg

Anna Shovkun, who lives in a building next to the one on which the Banksy was painted, has criticised Dovhiy for removing it

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Maxim Kamenev / Graty

She said: “We decided that when they rebuild the military quarter, this mural should be built into the new house.”

This plan is also supported by pensioner Tetiana Semenova, who owns the building where the mural was painted. She and her husband are currently living in Germany, having left Hostomel on the first day of the Russian invasion.

“I could say that Banksy's work belongs to us. Because it was painted on the wall of our house. But we want to keep it for the town,” Semenova said.

Semenova said that before Dovhiy removed the mural, residents had been discussing having it guarded by the military administration until the eve of the demolition of the house, when it would be cut off.

She said: “We wanted to cut it off and save it so that it could later be installed on the wall of a new house. This is our memory, our pain, our life before and after [the war].”

Shovkun added after Dovhiy removed the Banksy graffiti, she had told him that he had no right to it. She said she had declared from the day it was painted that it belonged to the local community.

“What Dovhiy said sounded a little childish. I told him: ‘You didn’t come to a wasteland devoid of life. And you're not the only Banksy fan to come and get yourself a piece. Even if you have good intentions, please go to the administration, raise the issue and they will solve it, but don’t do things like this. Coming and cutting it off, what’s that?’” Shovkun said.

The Banksy shows a child spinning on top of a circle hole in the wall of a ruined building

Another of Banksy’s graffitis, this time in the town of Irpin

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Maxim Kamenev / Graty

Duvinskyi concedes he and Dovghiy “screwed up” with the inhabitants of the town.

“We got it wrong because this mural is such a symbol” the sculptor says with regret. He added that on their first visit to Hostomel, they didn’t see any civilians in the area and believed there was nobody living there.

“I can understand their reaction. But I had verified information that these houses would start being pulled down in December,” Dovhiy insists.

Graty and openDemocracy attempted to contact Banksy regarding the fate of the graffiti. At the time of publication he had not responded.

Dovhiy is pleading not guilty and is ready to defend his innocence in court.

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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