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'Saving Banksy' investigates the tension between the ethos of street art and a desire to preserve it

The road to hell, the saying goes, is paved with the best of intentions, and that is very much the case with the complex art world conundrum explored in the lively, involving documentary “Saving Banksy.”

At first glance, Banksy would seem to be the last person who would need any kind of saving. The biggest name in the street-art universe, blessed with an instantly recognizable style and a savage wit, Banksy is a law unto himself. He even found time to direct “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a marvelous documentary about what he does.

But Banksy, like other celebrated street impresarios, did in fact need to be saved from a whole list of potential enemies, including jealous fellow artists, uncomprehending local governments, profit-taking galleries and more. And sometimes, as this documentary directed by Colin Day points out, the people who love him the most need to be protected from themselves.

This particular story begins in April 2010, when Banksy flew to San Francisco from his native Britain and put up a number of pieces all over the city, from the Mission to Chinatown to North Beach and the South of Market area.

But no sooner did these artworks go up than they were sabotaged, either by taggers who put their own work on top of Banksy’s or by vigilant city officials, who considered them illegal vandalism and threatened property owners with hefty fines if they did not immediately paint them over.

Though Banksy is not interviewed here, several of his fellow street practitioners like Risk, Revok and Blek Le Rat are, and they uniformly feel that the risk of defacement or destruction is part of the deal when you work the way they do.

Because they adamantly feel that what’s made on the street should stay on the street, these artists are aghast at a recent trend of entrepreneurial gallery owners buying the walls the artwork is on, removing the piece and selling it for large sums of money the artist does not share in.

Enter San Francisco collector Brian Greif, the man with the good intentions. Aghast at both the destruction of Banksy’s art as well as the profiteering galleries, Greif decided to buy a Banksy from a building owner and donate it to a museum so that the public could have access to it.

The piece of art he decided to purchase, familiarly known as the Haight Street Rat because of its location on the side of a building in the Haight-Ashbury district, was a classic Banksy (rats are one of his signature images) but nothing about Greif's public-spirited idea proved easy.

As related by both Greif and Ben Eine, a fellow street artist and friend of Banksy’s who functions as an acerbic on-camera commentator, things got complicated almost from the start.

For one thing, negotiating an acceptable price with the owner of the building was a cumbersome process that lasted nearly two months. And getting the work off the structure was, as we see, expensive and time consuming, with the deconstructed Banksy ending up wrapped in blankets in Greif’s closet.

Then came surreal conversations with curators from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art who were quite nervous about the whole business, wanting, as one observer noted, “to attach strings to a no-strings offer.”

Enter Stephan Keszler, a dealer who specializes, much to the artists’ displeasure, in selling street art in galleries and who comes to Grief with private offers that go as high as $700,000. Frustrating as the whole situation is for him, the owner never waivers in his determination to find a public home for the piece. In the midst of all the madness it’s heartening to note, as Eine does, “for once greed didn’t win.”

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No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Playing Arena Cinemalounge, Hollywood.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran

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