Painted Pachyderm Draws Outcry

Times Staff Writers

When the enigmatic British artist Banksy decided to install an elaborately painted elephant -- a real one -- in a warehouse southeast of downtown L.A., he drew a contingent of Hollywood admirers.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, among other stars, were spotted at the Thursday evening opening of the outsized exhibit by an artist known for graffiti-sprinkled work, acts of mischief and never appearing at his own exhibits or granting interviews.

The warehouse was decorated as a living room, complete with furniture, chandelier and the standing Indian elephant.


Cards were handed out explaining: “There’s an elephant in the room. There’s a problem we never talk about. The fact is that life isn’t getting any fairer.... 20 billion people live below the poverty line.”

Although Banksy’s real-life creation of a metaphor -- hyperbolic population figure included -- may have enchanted his fans, it drew the ire of another group, animal rights activists.

Banksy happens to have set up his exhibit in a city with a vocal animal welfare contingent, one that has spent months criticizing the L.A. Zoo’s handling of elephants and is still mourning the death three months ago of the zoo’s beloved pachyderm Gita. Activists believe that elephants, which roam miles in the wild, don’t begin to get their physical needs met in the confines of a zoo -- let alone a downtown warehouse.

Perhaps Banksy didn’t know this, perhaps he did or perhaps he didn’t care. Whatever the case, the artist’s employment of an elephant in a downtown warehouse had activists e-mailing one another and prompted a rebuke from a city official.

“I think it sends a very wrong message that abusing animals is not only OK, it’s an art form,” said Ed Boks, general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services. “We find it no longer acceptable to dye baby chicks at Easter, but it’s OK to dye an elephant.”

Boks found himself decrying the presence of the elephant in the exhibit even though his agency had issued the two permits necessary to have the elephant there -- “to my chagrin,” he said. He tried late Friday to revoke the permits on grounds of public safety.

“Some of the experts I’ve talked to have told me there’s no way of predicting when an elephant will go berserk,” he said. “We want to do what’s right by the public and the animal.”

However, Boks would have to give five days’ notice to revoke the permits. And in five days, the exhibit will be gone. It is to run today and Sunday from about noon to 8 p.m.

“This situation is causing the department to rethink its permitting procedures so there will be more scrutiny, so permits will not be issued for such frivolous abuse of animals in the future,” he said.

Although people may be drawn for artistic reasons, he added, “they don’t understand what the animal is suffering. I think we’re dealing with the psychology of an animal that needs to roam over large areas of land.”

The animal appears to be looked after well. During her time “onstage,” she was fed and watered and watched over by two handlers and at least two city animal control officers.

The elephant was whisked away at 6 p.m., two hours before the exhibit officially closed, and driven back to her ranch home in Perris. She was provided by an outfit called “Have Trunk Will Travel,” which bills itself as providing “safe, educational, and recreational access” to elephants.

For the record, the elephant is named Tai. She is a 38-year-old Indian elephant. And Kari Johnson, who owns the company with her husband, Gary, said neither of them had any problems with the artist’s painting.

“Tai has done many, many movies,” said Johnson. “She’s used to makeup.”

The pachyderm works only six hours, according to staffers at the exhibit. The elephant’s floral covering is administered with nontoxic paint. The living room in which she stands is cordoned off by a picket fence.

Johnson sounded weary when asked about the criticism. “There are concerns by animal rights activist about elephants being in human care, period,” she said.

Bill Dyer, a regional director of the group In Defense of Animals, went to see the animal at the exhibit Friday afternoon.

“It didn’t seem the elephant was under stress,” Dyer said. “There were carrots and things, but it’s another example of our exploitation of animals -- so gimmicky and unnecessary.”

The political statement by the artist made no impression on Dyer: “If this man is an artist, then why couldn’t he build one out of papier-mache?”

Les Schobert, a former L.A. Zoo curator who is a prominent voice in the animal rights movement, said the exhibit “degrades the elephant. Here we have an endangered species. And we’re taking it and moving it into a warehouse and painting it. It’s a mockery. There’s no reason. This isn’t a religious ceremony in India.”

Among the few hundred visitors milling about on Friday evening was Miguel Avila, 21, of La Puente, who caught the elephant before its departure.

“I think it depends on how the elephant is being taken care of,” he said. “I don’t think it was hurt but ... they never asked him if he wanted to be spray-painted. And I don’t think that’s right.”

The show is called “Barely Legal.” Also in the warehouse are other pieces by the artist -- a sculpture of a rat brandishing a paintbrush on top of a garbage can, large pictures on walls and a graffiti adorned truck.