They sang, recited poems and reminisced fondly about that wonderful winter’s day when the town of Port Talbot woke to find that a mural by the street artist Banksy had materialised on the walls of a steelworker’s garage.
Three years on the piece, Season’s Greetings, is on the brink of leaving this industrial corner of south Wales and residents gathered to bid farewell to an artwork they have come to love.
“We knew this day would come,” said Bev Simmonds-Owen, one of the organisers of a candle-lit vigil arranged to mark the end of an era. “We’ve been lucky to have it for three years and wherever it goes it will always be the Port Talbot Banksy. It will stay in our hearts.”
A local poet, Derek Davies, performed his bittersweet piece: Port Talbot’s Got a Banksy. Children sang Little Snowflake, the tune Banksy’s people dubbed over video footage of the mural. Speeches were made calling for it to be left in Port Talbot.
But Simmonds-Owen preferred to be optimistic, pointing out that the Banksy had given a huge boost to the cultural life the town, prompting others to take up spray cans and leading to the creation of an ever-expanding street art trail.
“We can claim to be the street art capital of Wales. We may not have the funding to build a big fancy art gallery, but we have the power to turn our streets into a gallery,” she said.
“Port Talbot has a reputation of being an industrial town, a grey town, the colour of concrete, the colour of steel. But I think it’s a beautiful thing to make it a colourful town.”
The Banksy appeared just before Christmas 2018 in the Taibach area of the town, close to the Tata steelworks (and the childhood home of Richard Burton). From one angle it shows a child apparently enjoying a snow shower and trying to catch the flakes on their tongue. From another it becomes clear that what is falling on the child is ash.
Tens of thousands of people visited. Round-the-clock security had to be introduced to protect the artwork and it created a cottage industry in souvenirs – mugs, coasters, keyrings – carrying images of the work.
The Essex art dealer John Brandler bought the piece from the garage owner and in May 2019 the Banksy, all 4.5-tonnes of it, was moved to a former police station in the town. But the owner of the building now wants its space back and Neath Port Talbot council is not prepared to meet the cost of transferring it to another venue. Any day now the Banksy will be trucked out of Wales. Brandler said he was sad it was having to leave Wales and said it may next surface in the east of England, or could even head out of the UK.
There are some who argue the council should do more. The Plaid Cymru councillor Nigel Hunt said if his party was in power they would buy the Banksy and build a gallery around it. “Banksy is a modern master,” he said. “For this town to lose such a wonderful piece of art is a travesty.”
So many people have a story about the piece.
Steve Bevan, a decorator, was passing on his bicycle on the morning of the Banksy’s appearance when he saw a member of the artist’s team filming drone footage. “I nearly fell off my bike when I saw it,” he said. At the vigil Bevan sang his song Black Smoke, honouring Banksy and the public health theme the mural highlights.
Paul Jenkins, a Cardiff theatre director, has been collecting reactions to Port Talbot for a play telling the story of the town’s Banksy and has secured funding for ARTwalk, which has given a platform for local artists and has also commissioned works from internationally renowned artists such as the Bristol-based HazardOne, who has created a mural of Richard Burton and is set to do one of another Hollywood star who hails from Port Talbot, Michael Sheen.
“We feel the Banksy has opened the door for Port Talbot,” said Jenkins. “There’s no reason why Port Talbot can’t be known for art and creativity as well as industry.”
The local street artist Steve Jenkins has just finished a mural on the garage used by Banksy . Called Speedings Greetings, it draws attention to the air quality problems caused by vehicles on the nearby M4.
“There is a sadness that it is going,” he said. “Many in this area feel it belongs in Port Talbot, but there are plenty of local artists that will help out brightening up the town.”