A still from Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival
By Vanessa Zimmer
Everyone in Park City, Utah, remembers when Banksy came to town in 2010.
The famous — and famously anonymous — street artist left as many as seven of his surreptitious murals behind. The flower-admiring cameraman, the angel boy, and the rat are still around.
Sunday, May 14, marked the anniversary of the wide release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film that Banksy directed and took to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. A wild-ride story of the counterculture hybrid-graffiti movement that started in the 1990s — involving spray-painted designs made in the dark of night — the film was nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar.
Not to minimize the influence of the documentary, but it’s the street art that Banksy created in Park City, the heart of the Festival, that still resonates in that community today. “It’s a real draw for people who come to Park City,” says Randy Barton, director of the Egyptian Theatre and first caretaker of the Banksy rat, in a phone interview. “It’s another great part of our small town that has world-class art.”
But let’s back up a second for a quick bio on the artist. Banksy is a creative from Bristol, England, who became active in graffiti art in the 1990s. At first, he painted freehand, but he eventually developed a signature style using stencils. His works typically convey an anti-establishment, anti-violence, or anti-capitalist sentiment. (One famous piece depicts a masked man lobbing a bouquet of flowers as if it were a Molotov cocktail.) He often features children, apes, and, yes, rodents in his art.
Banksy’s true identity has remained unconfirmed all these years, in part because, as you may know, graffiti is illegal in most parts of the world. Still, there are Banksys in big cities around the world, London, New York, and Paris among them.
Park City’s rat, who wears 3D glasses, materialized on the lower portion of a stage door at the Egyptian during the Festival. Barton received a phone call informing him of the addition, and he and a theater employee removed the door that night and replaced it with platforming material. They didn’t want the art defaced.
Barton feels lucky that the theater, a major venue during the Festival, was targeted with one of Banksy’s iconic rat figures, and that it was placed on a surface that was removable. The rat remained hidden for nine years while the Egyptian raised money to put it on display and protect it. The project was combined with another campaign to acquire space for the nonprofit Egyptian’s youth theater program.
The rat, variously called the Dirty Rat, the Stage Rat, the Theater Rat, or the Cinema Rat, finally went on display in early 2020, in a covered breezeway on the north side of the Egyptian that connects Main Street with Swede Alley. The beloved rat is protected by bulletproof glass, an alarm, and cameras. Barton proudly proclaims it the only remaining Park City Banksy piece that hasn’t been vandalized and required repair. All three extant pieces are in the downtown area.
Most seriously damaged over the years was the figure of a praying boy with a pink halo and angel wings, located on another Main Street building. Around New Year’s 2014, a California man blotted out the boy with brown paint. Painting conservator Deborah Uhl, of Telluride, Colorado, spent some 70 hours painstakingly restoring the art, according to the Park Record newspaper.
The vandal was identified from video footage. He was ordered to pay restitution estimated at $9,000 to $12,000 and to perform community service, as well as receive mental health treatment and comply with five years’ probation, according to the Park Record. Some accounts referred to him as a frustrated artist.
Park City’s third Banksy is on the exterior wall of the Java Cow coffee and ice cream shop, also on Main Street and the most visible of the three. There, a videographer kneels, his camera pointed toward an uprooted pink flower held in his hand.
“It’s a nice piece of artwork from a famous guy,” says Java Cow owner Ken Davis, who adds that the mural has made its way to tourist maps over the years. “People do seek it out,” he says.
It’s been a “costly exercise” to maintain the piece, including a restoration early on after some vandalism and then the addition of a heavy frame (by a blacksmith!) and glass. But: “I’m happy to do it,” he says — not many small towns can lay claim to a valuable Banksy.
A plaque associated with the Cinema Rat indicates Banksy created seven pieces of art in Park City during the 2010 Festival. Two were immediately painted over by city officials because they defaced city property, according to the plaque, and two others were destroyed in construction projects.
Banksy’s stylized name in bright red letters adorned a large white barn near Kimball Junction and Interstate 80, the major entryway to Park City. Considered a historical building, and on city property, the barn was quickly repainted by the city.