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‘His explanations sounded childish’ Man behind Banksy mural theft in Ukraine could face 12 years in prison
In November, after much speculation, the British street artist Banksy confirmed that he had painted seven murals in Ukraine since the start of the full-scale war, including in war-torn locations such as the village of Borodyanka and the city of Irpin. Less than a month later, thieves were spotted cutting one of Banksy’s works from the side of a damaged building in Hostomel, a city outside Kyiv. Now, the man who allegedly led the plot to steal the graffiti is facing 12 years in prison, though he claims he only ever wanted to use the art to help the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Police in the Kyiv region have brought charges against a man they say organized the theft of one of seven pieces of graffiti created in Ukraine by the British street artist Banksy. The stolen mural, which was painted on the side of a bombed-out building in Hostomel, depicts a woman in a gas mask.
The man stands accused of committing theft on a particularly large scale or by an organized group — a crime punishable by up to 12 years in prison under Ukrainian law.
Police noted that a group of people from Kyiv and Cherkasy on December 2 dismantled the portion of the wall that contained the mural and tried to transport it “with the help of wooden boards and polyethylene.” The plot was thwarted, and the offenders were arrested, “thanks to concerned citizens.”
The case was initially categorized as one of “willful destruction or damage of property.” After the graffiti was examined by experts and determined to be worth approximately $245,000, however, the charges were raised.
The Ukrainian outlet Grati spoke with the mastermind behind the theft, 32-year-old mathematician and green activist Sergey Dovgiy. He claimed he saw the graffiti in early November, and that he decided to save it and sell it at auction to support Ukraine’s Armed Forces after learning that the building was slated for demolition.
“I would have written to Sotheby’s. Because they’ve been selling Banksy’s works for many years,” Dovgiy said. “If they had said, ‘Who are you?’ then I would have written to some smaller auction.”
Dovgiy sought advice on how to remove the graffiti from the building from Alexander Duvinsky, a sculptor from Cherkasy. Duvinsky told journalists that he never doubted Dovgiy’s integrity, and that he didn’t consider that the plan might be illegal.
In addition to selling the art, Dovgiy planned to make a documentary film about the entire process and had already recruited multiple camera operators to that end. “I was thinking of apologizing to Banksy in the film. And saying that if it weren’t for the war, I wouldn’t have done anything like this. Because I’m 32, and for some reason, I’ve never done anything like this before. Then [I would show] what we’d done, and I’d say that our video is a tribute to what he had done in Ukraine,” said the ringleader.
Whatever the case, Dovgiy failed to notify both Hostomel authorities and the city's residents of his plans. In addition, by the time he made his attempt to steal the graffiti, the city’s administration had already declared the mural a part of Hostomel’s cultural heritage and decided to embed it in the wall of the building that will replace the demolished one.
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Hostomel residents who witnessed the attempted theft on December 2 told journalists that Dovgiy’s explanations to police “looked a bit childish.”
“He said that street art belongs to everybody and that anybody can take it down,” said a local resident named Anna Shavkun. “I told him, ‘It’s not like you’ve come to a wasteland where nobody lives. And you’re not the only admirer of Banksy who would want to come and get it. Even if you really did have good intentions, then please — go to City Hall, raise the question [with them], and they’ll decide, but the way you did it isn’t how things are done. Just coming and cutting it out — what is that?”
Dovgiy plans to plead not guilty and to fight the charges. However, he said that he has agreed to apologize to Hostomel residents: “I can understand their emotional response to this event. But I had 100-percent reliable information that the building’s demolition would begin in December.
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