CANBERRA (REUTERS).- An Australian council is rueing a decision to send street cleaners into a Melbourne lane after they painted over a priceless stencil of a rat by the celebrated British graffiti artist Banksy.
Melbourne Deputy Lord Mayor Susan Riley last week sent a clean-up team into Hosier Lane, renowned internationally for its colorful street art, to clean up garbage in the graffiti-lined passage after local residents complained.
But the request went awry when the cleaners painted over a Banksy stencil of a rat hanging underneath a parachute and adorning the wall of an old council building. "Unfortunately the contractors were not made aware by us that that was an important piece. It is the nature of graffiti art. It's very vulnerable to other people's work," Council chief executive Kathy Alexander told local radio.
The reclusive Banksy, who is regarded as one of the world's top street artists, painted several stencils in Melbourne during a 2003 visit. His satirical and distinctive art is often directed at anti-war, cultural and anti-capitalist themes.
Banksy in 2005 painted nine images on Israel's West Bank barrier, including a ladder going over the wall and an image of children breaking through to a tropical island.
In 2008, a London wall bearing one of his stencils was said to have sold on eBay for almost $500,000.
It is not the first time Banksy's art has been fouled in Melbourne. Vandals created another outcry in 2008 when they poured paint over the artist's stencil of a diver in an old-fashioned helmet and wearing a trenchcoat.
That work was afterwards protected by a sheet of clear perspex, although vandals struck again and poured silver paint behind the barrier, tagging it with the words "Banksy woz ere."
Alexander said the city council would rush through retrospective permits to protect other famous or significant artworks in Australia's second-largest city.
"In hindsight, we should have acted sooner to formally approve and protect all known Banksy works," she said.
(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Miral Fahmy)