Is the Phantom Framer a vandal or an artist?

By Caroline Lowbridge
BBC News

image copyrightPhantom Framer
image captionThe Phantom Framer deliberately avoids safety signs, such as those for school crossings

A man who describes himself as a "Gilding Super Hero" has been roaming the streets at night on a crusade to beautify street signs with picture frames. Is it the work of a "middle class vandal" or is it art?

"Sometimes you might see a flash of gold out of the corner of your eye, if you do check the surrounding street signs for the work of the Phantom."

So says the Phantom Framer, who keeps his real identity a secret - just like Batman and Superman.

Since his first operation on 2 April he has framed about 25 street signs in picturesque Teddington, south-west London.

image copyrightPhantom Framer
image captionThe Phantom Framers has framed about 25 signs so far, but some have been removed

With bling on everything from street names to dog fouling signs, his work has made many people smile.

But not everyone approves. The Richmond upon Thames council has been removing the frames because they are "not in keeping with our corporate policy for street signs and logos".

Now a petition for the frames to be saved has hundreds of signatures from supporters.

Should the council embrace the frames or get rid of them, and is the Phantom Framer creating genuine art?

image copyrightBritish Problems / Twitter
image captionThe British Problems Twitter account said the Phantom Framer was a "middle class vandal"

"I like to think they brighten up people's daily lives," writes the Phantom, who has chosen to communicate by email to conceal his identity.

"If you see a sign asking you to clear up your dog mess with a gold frame around it you'll laugh."

He thinks the council does a lot of good work but he does not understand why it has removed his signs, and says the corporate policy seems like "a convenient excuse".

"In the past graffiti used to often be offensive. Perhaps that's when they [councils] drew up their rules," he writes.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Phantom Framer cites the work of Keith Haring as an inspiration

But things have changed, he believes.

"A lot of street art now enhances places and is liked by its locals.

"The works should be looked at on an individual basis. If street art enhances a place let it stay, but remove anything offensive."

When not wearing his cape, the Phantom wears T-shirts featuring the work of Keith Haring, who he regards as the godfather of street art.

image copyrightPhantom Framer
image captionLike Banksy, the Phantom Framer keeps his real identity a secret

The Phantom's own work has inevitably been compared to street artist Banksy.

Will Ellsworth-Jones, author of the biography Banksy: The Man Behind The Wall, very much approves of the Phantom's work.

"I think they are great, and I think it follows on a tradition of artists using one thing and turning them into another," he says.

"What is sad is that the London Borough of Richmond doesn't see the joke and they have taken them all off."

image copyrightPhantom Framer
image captionThe Phantom says he is "framing the mundane to beautify Teddington"

He said the frames also highlight the "dreadful typography" of the original signs.

"They should see the joke, see the enjoyment and understand that you can see art in many different things, even in these rather bad signs telling us what to do, ordering us about our daily lives."

He believes art does not need to be complicated and the Phantom's work is simple but effective.

"I'm not claiming it to be Renoir or Matisse, but it is a piece of art that makes people think about their surroundings and what goes on around them," he says.

image copyrightMaggie Jones Flickr
image captionThe frames have become a talking point in Teddington, as Mo Farah's gold post box is

The Phantom's fans include London athlete Scott Overall, who tweeted: "Got to love Teddington.. No wonder the house prices are so expensive when the street signs look like this..."

Teddington is already home to a gold post box to recognise the second gold medal for fellow London 2012 Olympian Mo Farah.

The gold frames complement the gold post box, according to Tracey Wardhaugh, founder of campaign group Totally Locally Teddington.

"Generally the overwhelming feeling is that it's a fun bit of street art," she says.

"We've got a town full of independents, we oppose the clone town and this makes the place unique."

She said the Phantom Framer has become a "mini celebrity" in a very short period of time.

image copyrightScott Overall / Twitter

The Teddington Society, which aims to "maintain the historic character of Teddington" and works on projects to improve the environment, are also fans.

"We have no idea who is behind it but it's a bit of light-hearted amusement," says chairwoman Sheena Harold.

"It's a great talking point, possibly even more than the Mo Farah gold pillar box."

Even the council has admitted the frames it removed looked "beautiful".

image copyrightPhantom Framer
image captionThe Phantom Framer said he "decided to put frames in my surrounding area to beautify Teddington"

However "they had to be taken down as they are not in keeping with our corporate policy for street signs and logos," a statement said.

"We have them at our sign shop ready for collection should the owner want them back."

The Phantom Framer is defiant and went out on Wednesday night to install new frames to replace those removed.

"As you talk I have hit a terrible dilemma," he writes.

"For the people I feel I should continue, but the authorities are upon me."

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