There was much controversy at the start of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture celebrations in January, when the much loved rat mural on the corner of Berry Street and Duke Street appeared to be getting covered up. It seemed as if the work by the infamous and shadowy graffiti artist Banksy was to be blotted out with hoardings emblazoned with ‘Liverpool 08’ advertising.
For many people this action seemed to represent all that had gone wrong with Capital of Culture. The erasing of real underground artistic expression with bland, generic, gentrified ‘regeneration’ that might look a lot nicer and cleaner, but was ultimately dead. The move was even mentioned on BBC’s Newsnight as a symbol of the Culture Company’s ineptitude, while local leaders were desperately trying to get the media to focus on the big opening spectacular at the other end of town.
The Council argued that the mural and the building had faillen into severe disrepair, and was beyond saving. But amid the protests, they halted the erection of the offending advertising hoardings and ultimately, quietly, removed the frames. Though it appears whichever contractor they commissioned to paint around the rat and improve the appearance of the structure either wasn’t very good, or a little annoyed at their was job being made harder by some artsy upstart, as they painted over a bit of the rat’s head.
The rat was originally commissioned as part of the 2004 Liverpool Biennial, and in the intervening period Banksy has gone from an underground name mentioned in trendy art circles, to one of the most famous and admired contemporary artists in the UK. Last April, a new record price was set for a piece by Banksy when ‘Space Girl and Bird’ reached £288,000 at London auction house Bonhams. Shortly afterwards he was given the award of Art’s Greatest Living Briton.
In the same time period Liverpool, and in particular the area where the work was sited, has also been transformed. The once mostly derelict and neglected area has since become filled with swank bars, flats and shops, often at the expense of more alternative and underground activities and establishments in the area. The abandoned Whitehouse pub and its rat decoration however, remains as it was.
The Council perhaps do have a point; the building is clearly a decaying shell and looks dangerously close to collapse. But council’s in London and Banksy’s native Bristol have ordered operatives not to remove Banksy’s work in their duties, no doubt sniffing the tourist potential in hosting work by an artist so popular with the public. From a pragmatic point of view, if Liverpool wants to market itself as ‘Art City UK’ this should be bore in mind. But there is I believe a deeper reason why The Whitehouse and its rat should not be covered up, demolished or re-developed.
As the area around it continues to be transformed, more and more buildings like The Whitehouse that have lain derelict for up to 40 years are either being demolished or converted, and as the area is ‘cleaned up’ its history is being erased, or at least the undesirable aspects of it. Although some of the developments have been give ‘characterfull’ and thus value-adding names like ‘the foundry’ or the ‘the box works’, it’s funny how no one has called a block of flats ‘the abattoir’ or ‘the crack den’ yet isn’t it?
So far though, The Whitehouse remains untouched, a big, fat sore-thumb of failure, a symbol of nothing more than decades of economic malaise. No wonder our leaders want to cover it up. And there in lies the point. Just like the International Slavery Museum down at the Albert Dock, and the bombed-out-in-the-blitz St Luke’s Church just up the road from it, The Whitehouse is a prominent symbol of one of the darker aspect of the city’s history and, as we all know, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.
The Whitehouse should be allowed to remain in as near as possible its current state, even if all around it is transformed into a shinning masterpiece of regeneration. It should remain as a memorial to the long recession that has so shaped our culture and the people who lived through it and kept our city alive through the bad times.
Shore it up, stick some Perspex around it and watch the tourists come and shake their heads at the horrors of the past before they move onto the other landmarks. Perhaps too the city’s leaders will walk past occasionally and shudder, and maybe we won’t get as cock-sure of our position in the world as we did in the past. This is what happened to our city before and it will happen again if we’re not careful.
Let’s not whitewash The Whitehouse, because amidst all the artist’s impressions of glittering tower blocks lining the waterfront and talk of monorails and restaurants in the sky, it should be kept to remind us that, although there are positives, the whole edifice of the new Liverpool could so easily come crashing down around our ears if we’re not careful.
And anyway, the rat’s fucking cool.
By Kenn Taylor