banksy looters

This mural attributed to Banksy was photographed Aug. 26, 2008, on the wall of a building at 501 Elysian Fields.

PHOTO BY JOHN D'ADDARIO

It appeared in 2008 on the side of an old, unused warehouse at 501 Elysian Fields Ave. in the Marigny, depicting what looks like a pair of National Guardsmen lifting a television through a window. 

And like most of the post-Katrina murals in New Orleans that have been attributed to the mysterious British graffiti artist Banksy, it quickly disappeared under new layers of paint. 

On Saturday the piece now known as "Looters," is set to make its return, removed in a 1,200 pound chunk of plaster from the old warehouse and restored to its former condition. It will be the centerpiece of an event that also includes a film screening and a panel discussion on such weighty topics as graffiti's place in art.

Developer Sean Cummings, who owns the piece, made the announcement Thursday. He plans to relocate it to his International House Hotel on Camp Street for display next month. 

It’s believed to be the work of Banksy, though his identity is not known and no one has taken credit for it or any of the 17 Katrina-inflected murals in the same style that showed up around town in August 2008.

When the mural appeared, 501 Elysian Fields was owned by Cummings, who’d bought it in 2007 for $1.1 million. Like most of the other presumed Banksy creations, "Looters" was quickly and thoroughly defaced.

"In the course of six years, in Banksy's own words, the vandal got vandalized," Cummings said. "There were layers and layers of paint, paper, glue."

After a failed attempt to turn the building into 70-plus residential lofts, Cummings sold it in late 2016 for $3.5 million — though not before having the “Looters” mural cut out and moved.

Fine arts conservationist Elise Grenier spent seven months with the help of an intern restoring the massive work in a "secret location" in Arabi after it had been reinforced by another team from the Mississippi Stone Co.

"The first thing you do in any restoration, small, paper, anything — you test," she said. "You want it to be the least invasive method possible." Small amounts of chemicals were dabbed onto tiny areas of paint, taking care to see which worked without damaging the underlying mural. After that, paint was painstakingly pared away with a scalpel. But because graffiti are part of street art, not all was removed.

"The point is not to bring it back to its pristine condition, because technically sometimes it's not even possible," Grenier said. "That artwork, like ancient things that I usually work on, has undergone, as part of their history, whatever has happened to them. Abrasion is part of it. You want to be able to read it correctly, but you don't want to rectify every single tiny thing."

The restoration of the work was shrouded in secrecy. Works by Banksy can be very valuable and subject to theft, Cummings noted.

“Slave Labor (Bunting Boy),” stenciled on a wall in London as a pointed commentary on the extravaganza surrounding Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee, was torn out and auctioned for about $1.1 million in 2013, according to an article in The New York Times.

Questions have always surrounded graffiti, which are unauthorized markings on property that doesn't belong to the artist — or vandal, depending on one's perspective.

Some of the Banksys around New Orleans were overwritten by other graffiti-makers; others were painted out by angry property owners; others were pried off their walls, presumably by people who recognized the artist's renown.

That kind of uncertain fate is part of the process for Banksy and other street artists, said Katie Pfohl, curator of contemporary and modern art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. "He is a real provocateur," she said, choosing to defy artistic convention, make political commentary and challenge ideas of what is public and private space.

Banksy is "quality," said Grenier, the conservationist. "It's a difficult subject, but bad graffiti is just vandalism. Good graffiti or good street art has to enrich the area where it is located, and his definitely fits that."

On Saturday, opening day for the unrelated Prospect.4 citywide art exhibition, Cummings will invite the public to see the restored 10-by-10-foot "Looters" at StudioBe, 2941 Royal St., the workspace of his partner in business and art projects, New Orleans artist Brandan “BMike” Odums.

Graffiti artists, collectors and conservationists will be on hand starting at 8 p.m. for panel discussions and the screening of a documentary called “Saving Banksy” by filmmaker Colin Day.

Actor Hill Harper, best known for his role on “CSI: NY” and another business partner of Cummings, will moderate the discussion. Others taking part are British graffiti artist Nick Walker and the muralist SWOON, along with conservationists Michael Davidson and Grenier, who restored “Looters.”