What makes a person want to vandalize a cherished artwork? The factors often vary greatly.
Politics often play a role, as has been the case with the many recent protests led at museums by climate activists around the world. Personal interests often can become paramount as well, as they have with a variety of young provocateurs who have targeted others’ artworks, sometimes even as part of their own art practices.
In each case, however, the base motive remains the same: to raise a ruckus by disturbing the look or reputation of art people know all too well.
Below, a look at 25 instances of art-world vandalism, from religious iconoclasms to the climate protests that are still unfolding.
Conjure an act ofvandalism in your mind, and you probably think about it happening to an artwork hanging in a museum. In fact, the tradition predates Western art institutions, and was even in some cases state-sanctioned. The Byzantine Iconoclasm, which technically refers to two separate instances, was one such example. The emperor Leo III the Isaurian issued a spread of edicts to end the veneration of religious images, or icons, by calling for their destruction. The move was intended to solidify his reign by wiping out any pictures of God, forcing people to think of his own persona as the ultimate embodiment of power. As a result, various mosaics, sculptures, coins, and other artistic creations were struck, damaged, or destroyed altogether in the lands under Byzantine control. Successive emperors called for a similar measures.
Sometimes, vandalisms are tied to larger political strife, as was the case when a suffragette took aim at a painting held at London’s National Gallery. That painting, Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (ca. 1647–51), was slashed by a knife-wielding Mary Richardson, who was moved to action by the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, a fellow suffragette who had been protesting at Buckingham Palace in an effort to get British women the right to vote. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history,” Richardson once said. Although Richardson only managed to cut Venus at her hip and back, she had done enough damage for the museum to close for two weeks while it restored the piece. She was given a six-month prison sentence, during which time she led a hunger strike and got herself freed after no more than a few weeks.
Robert Rauschenberg was many things: a painter, a sculptor, and, in a sense, even on one occasion a vandal. In 1953, he began a project that would involve erasing a preexisting artwork. He tried it first with his own drawings, but no dice: he found the result inert. So he approached Willem de Kooning, a vaunted Abstract Expressionist painter, and asked him for a work to wipe out. De Kooning somewhat reluctantly agreed, leaving the young artist with a drawing that he deemed forgettable. Using an eraser, Rauschenberg scratched away at it, leaving behind just some faint traces of it. The resulting work, Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), is an example of what happens when the vandalism of an artwork constitutes a piece unto itself.
How many strikes from a hammer does it take to severely damage a Renaissance masterpiece? In the case of Michelangelo’s Pietà, it was just 12. In a 1972, Laszlo Toth, an unemployed geologist, dealt those dozen blows, knocking off the Virgin Mary’s nose and leaving her head covering pocked with indents. The Vatican Museums then undertook a painstaking 10-month restoration process in which conservators reassembled the three fragments of her nose and the 100 remaining shards that flew off during the hammering. (In some ways, those conservators werelucky—contemporary experts have said that if Toth hit the work at a different angle, he would have snapped Mary’s head off.) Ultimately, the piece was made good as new and exhibited behind bulletproof glass. Toth was deemed socially dangerous by a Roman court and put in a mental hospital, then released after two years and deported from Italy to Australia.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa simply cannot catch a break. In the past 110 years alone, she has been stolen, hit with a teacup, nearly sliced, and caked. But the most memorable vandalism of the piece involved a Japanese woman named Tomoko Yonezu and a can of spray paint. In 1974, the work had gone on tour from the Louvre in Paris to the National Museum in Tokyo, which had instituted crowd control measures that disability activists deemed discriminatory. Enraged by what she believed was an instance of ableism, Yonezu attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to spray-paint the Mona Lisa. Her resulting trial following her detainment became a cause célèbre in Japan. She was ultimately made to pay 300,000 yen, and the National Museum was forced to set aside a day when the disabled could pay a visit to the painting.
Tony Shafrazi is now known best as the early dealer of works by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but back in 1974, he became the talk of the art world for an entirely different reason. That year, he marched into the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Picasso’s Guernica had been on long-term loan, and spray-painted the words “KILL LIES ALL” on the modernist masterpiece. The phrase was, in fact, a reference to a protest regarding the release of William Caley, a lieutenant who had been convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War; Shafrazi had also been involved in antiwar actions led by the Art Workers Coalition. Shafrazi was charged with criminal mischief, and the painting was spared because its thick layer of varnish “acted as an invisible shield,” William Rubin, then the director of MoMA, told the New York Times.
In 1975, Rembrandt’s biggest painting, The Night Watch (1642), was targeted by a man wielding a bread knife. He had been sent to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, he said, by “the Lord,” who had ordered him to slice the piece. Although guards had initially attempted to hold him back, a dramatic scene transpired when he successfully cut a foot-long piece from the painting. “We must conclude the canvas is badly damaged,” P. J. Van Thiel, the museum’s acting director at the time, told the New York Times. Because the work was in such good condition prior to the vandalism, restorers at the museum were able to get the painting back to its original form in four years—though that didn’t stop another man from targeting the same work, this time with an unknown chemical, in 1990.
Here is a particularly rare case of an artist taking aim at another’s work without seeking permission first. In 1981, David Hammons paid a visit to Richard Serra’s sculpture T.W.U. (1980), a hulking mass of Cor-Ten steel installed in Tribeca. T.W.U. had already been defaced with graffiti, but Hammons was determined to add his own mark. He unzipped his pants and began urinating as the photographer Dawoud Bey snapped pictures. In the resulting images, a police officer stands idly by. In fact, this was no ordinary act of disobedience—it was also a Hammons performance that has now become known as Pissed Off. Hammons also lobbed dozens of sneakers over the sculpture, for a performance titled Shoe Tree.
If at first you don’t fully succeed in vandalizing a masterwork, try again. This seems to have been the approach taken in 1985 by a man—described in some contemporaneous reports as a “deviant”—who visited the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and defaced Rembrandt’s painting Danaë (1636), one of the crown jewels of the institution’s collection. He first knifed the work, slashing open a portion of the painting that depicts Danaë’s stomach. Then, when that was not enough, he threw a putrid liquid that some at the time believed was sulfuric acid. Whatever the substance was, it ate away at Rembrandt’s paint, leaving some wondering if the picture would ever be the same. Miraculously, after a painstaking 12-year process, it was fully restored and put back on view.
Hammons, who is no stranger to vandalism himself, found himself on the receiving end in 1989, when his public artwork How Ya Like Me Now? was damaged. The work remains one of the most controversial ones by Hammons. It pictures a white-skinned version of the Black politician Jesse Jackson, whose image is cast at 14 feet wide and 16 feet tall. When it was exhibited outside in Washington, D.C., vandals took sledgehammers to it. Some said this showed a clear lack of understanding of what the work was really about—Hammons was testing how race colored perceptions of politicians, according to curators who knew the artist’s oeuvre well. Once the work was repaired, Hammons added a new element to the piece: the very weapons that had once been used to deface it.
No, you are not meant to actually use Fountain (1917), Marcel Duchamp’s famed readymade, which is composed of an out-of-commission urinal turned on its side. But, in tribute to the Dadaist work’s anarchic sensibility, at least two artists have tried. One of them, the famed composer Brian Eno, recently recounted the way he did so in secret. The other, a French performance artist named Pierre Pinoncelli, did so in a much more public way. While the work was on loan in Nîmes, France, in 1993, Pinoncelli urinated in the piece and then proceeded to hit it with a hammer. He was put in jail for a month and made to pay a fine. That didn’t stop him from striking the piece once more, this time in 2006 in Paris, where it was on view at a Dada survey at the Centre Pompidou. That time, the porcelain sculpture was chipped, then restored.
It was initially thought to be an “unfortunate incident,” as the Museum of Modern Art described it. In 1996, Canadian art student Jubal Brown came to that New York institution and proceeded to vomit blue on a Piet Mondrian abstraction. It turned out that, several months earlier, he had done something similar, spewing red onto a Raoul Dufy painting at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Neither painting was damaged in the process.) Even as both institutions considered legal action against him, Brown seemed proud of his protests, which he said were meant intended to subvert “bourgeois” culture. He had initially planned the actions as a trilogy, with a third that would involve regurgitating yellow onto an unnamed work, but that last one never materialized.
Kazimir Malevich’s abstractions are spare and transcendent, the kind of paintings which push you to imagine planes of existence beyond this one. For a brief period in 1997, one of them also became a statement about capitalistic excess, thanks to Russian artist Alexander Brener. Standing in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum before an abstraction picturing a white cross against an off-white background, he spray-painted a dollar sign in bright green onto the painting. Dutch police said Brener attempted to make an “artistic statement” by way of a painting valued at around$8.6 million at the time; Brener said the vandalism was a protest meant to highlight “corruption and commercialism in the art world.” He was given several months in prison for the action.
The British art scene of the late ’90s was full of provocation, thanks to artists like Tracey Emin. Her sculpture My Bed (1998)—composed of a real bed where she remained for a four-day period, along with discarded condoms, bottles of vodka, and more—stands as one of the era’s most memorable works. Its notoriety may have been what led two Chinese performance artists, Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi, to target the piece. For a work of their own called Two Naked Men Jump on Tracey’s Bed, the two shirtless artists proceeded to prance up and down on the work and hold a 15-minute pillow fight while shouting “something unfathomable in Mandarin,” according to the Guardian. One of the artists had intended to pull off his pants and put on Emin’s underwear, which is part of the work, but security stopped him before doing so. The Tate, which had been exhibiting the work because Emin was nominated for the Turner Prize, declined to press charges, and both artists were quickly released. The work was quickly returned to its original state.
The Bamiyan Buddhas, which dated back to the 6th century, were for a while some of the most important artworks in Afghanistan. Standing well over 100 feet tall, they were carved into the side of a cliff and had at one point been surrounded by paintings. But in 2001, the statues were essentially vandalized out of existence when the Taliban undertook an effort to destroy them. Using blasts, spades, and hammers, the group gradually reduced the monumental statues to mere fragments, in an effort, the Taliban said, to get rid of “idols” that had acted as “gods to infidels.” The group’s minister of information told the press, “It is easier to destroy than to build.”
Ever loved an artwork enough to kiss it? Rindy Sam certainly felt overflowing passion for a Cy Twombly painting when she visited the Collection Lambert, a contemporary art museum in Avignon, France. Wearing Bourjois lipstick, she walked up to Phaedrus (1977), a mostly white canvas splashed with a blood-like smear, and added her own red mark to the painting, which was valued at 2 million euros at the time. “It was an act of love, when I kissed it, I wasn’t thinking,” Sam reportedly said when she faced trial. “I thought the artist would understand.” A judge made her pay a symbolic fee of just one euro to the artist.
In 2012, Houston art student Uriel Landeros spray painted a bull and a Spanish word onto Pablo Picasso’s Woman in Red Armchair (1932), which is owned by the Menil Collection. That word—“conquista,” meaning conqueror—seemed to elude most outlets that covered it at the time, especially since Landeros wasn’t immediately available to explain it. He’d fled to Mexico, where he remained for six months, evading authorities in the U.S. (During that time, the painting was restored.) Ultimately, however, he was detained and given two years in prison. It wasn’t until 2014, when he got out of prison on parole, that he expounded upon the political meaning of his message, which he said was a reference to the Conquistadors, Spanish and Portuguese settlers who had led violent expeditions in Latin America centuries earlier. “It also represents my own background and the Mexican tradition of bull-fighting, which is originally from Spain,” Landeros told Culturemap, adding that he also thought of bulls as being connected to Occupy Wall Street.
Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals, initially made for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York and now housed at Tate Britain in London, are among his most beloved paintings. And so it raised a good deal of alarm when, in 2012, the artist Wlodzimierz Umaniec tagged one of the murals when it was on display in Tate Modern with an inked message alluding to Yellowism, a self-proclaimed anti-art movement with which he was aligned. Umaniec claimed at the time that the gesture was an artistic one, but once he was sentenced to two years in jail, he changed his tune and apologized. Tate specialists were initially worried that some of his message had permanently stained Rothko’s canvas, yet they were able to restore it and put it back on view about two years later. Seen now, it’s hard to find any evidence of Umaniec’s meddling.
Paul McCarthy’s Christmas Tree (2014) became the laughingstock of the general public when it went on view that same year in Paris in tandem with the FIAC art fair. The giant inflatable’s title may have suggested Noël festivities, but in form, it more closely resembled a bright green butt plug. And so, when the work came down unexpectedly, it was hardly a surprise. Vandals cut the cables that held up the artwork, leaving Parisian officials with no choice but to deflate it—or, as Hyperallergic put it, to let the piece go flaccid. They did so without joy, however. “Art has its place in our streets and nobody will be able to chase it away,” said Anne Hidalgo, Paris’s mayor at the time.
When Anish Kapoor showed the grand steel sculpture Dirty Corner (2011–15) at the Palace of Versailles in France, it was savaged by critics, who compared it to giant vagina. (Kapoor said it bore no sexual connotations.) The piece was also attacked, in a more literal sense, by vandals, who took to the work several times over. In at least one case, it was tagged with antisemitic messaging. Kapoor, whose mother is Jewish, said he wanted to leave the spray-painted words intact, but a French court forced Versailles to partly cover the work to hide the graffiti. In response, Kapoor said that “racists in France have won,” and later on even claimed that the vandalism was an inside job.
Richard Serra’s East-West/West-East (2014), a set of four monolith-like steel plates situated in the middle of the Qatari desert, has become a destination for Minimalism lovers—and for vandals too, who have repeatedly tagged the work over the years. The Qatari government hasn’t released many details about the natures of these spray-painted phrases, but a 2018 CNN report featured pictures that showed what appeared to be messages of Qatari nationalist pride, which appeared politically fraught in light of sanctions placed on the country in 2017. At the end of 2020, Qatar announced that the works had been vandalized once more and that they were planning to legally prosecute those who did it. At the beginning of 2021, six people were arrested in connection with the vandalism.
The elusive street artist Banksy has long been known for showing unexpected art in unexpected places, but his most provocative gesture came when he vandalized his own artwork. That piece, the 2006 painting Girl with Balloon, had come up for auction in 2018 at Sotheby’s in London, where it sold for £1.1 million ($1.4 million). Seconds after the hammer came down, the painting appeared to slip through its frame and partially shred itself. Whether the auction house had been made aware of the stunt in advance remained unclear, even as officials with the house made statements that seemed to suggest surprise. “It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” said Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe. Girl with Balloon now exists in its partially destroyed state as an entirely different work, which Banksy has titled Love Is in the Bin.
Periodically, vandals go for ultra-contemporary works, as they did in 2018, when, at the Liverpool Biennial, a work about the European migration crisis was dramatically ripped. That piece, Banu Cennetoglu’s The List (2007–), was presented as a 920-foot-long list pasted to a long outdoor wall that itemized the 34,361 known people who had died trying to migrate to Europe since 1993. Rather than attempting to revise the work, Cennetoglu continued to exhibited it in its partially torn version. “We have decided to leave it in this current ‘state’ as a manifestation and reminder of this systematic violence exercised against people,” she said.
It’s not every day that a museum staff member becomes a vandal, but just this happened at at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in 2021, when a guard drew two eyes in ballpoint pen on a group of faceless figures in a painting by the modernist Anna Leporskaya. The mystery surrounding the case deepened when the museum waited two weeks to report the vandalism to the police. Initially, no charges were pressed. But by 2022, the guard, Aleksandr Vasiliev, was charged with criminal vandalism and fined. The story grew complex when Vasiliev gave an interview to E1 in which he discussed how his mental and physical health had been severely altered by his service in wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. He also claimed that he had been goaded into vandalizing the work by a group of teens, saying, “They gave me a pen. I drew the eyes. I thought it was just their childhood drawings!”
In 2022, climate activists began a series of protests in which they glued themselves to the frames of iconic artworks in Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, all in an attempt to move governments to act more speedily to stave off the threat of ecological disaster. These protestors took things to a new level when, at the National Gallery in London during Frieze Week, two activists with Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888). Because the painting was under glass, it was not damaged; indeed, the activists said they had specifically devised a protest that would not harm the work itself. But many worked under the presumption that the van Gogh was subject to potential destruction, and a mass outcry predominantly led by conservative pundits followed. Other similar protests came in its wake, including one in which mashed potatoes were tossed at a Monet in Potsdam, Germany, and another in which oil was splashed across a Klimt in Vienna.