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Is it a Banksy? UK street art image appears to show spies at work

By Laura Smith-Spark and Lindsay Isaac, CNN
updated 8:54 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
 The latest street art attributed to Banksy. on the side of a house in Cheltenham on April 14, 2014 in England.
The latest street art attributed to Banksy. on the side of a house in Cheltenham on April 14, 2014 in England.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mural on side of house in Cheltenham shows three men huddled round a pay phone
  • Clad in trench coats and dark glasses, they hold old-fashioned listening equipment
  • The street art has been widely attributed to graffiti artist Banksy
  • Britain's GCHQ, the equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency, is based in Cheltenham

London (CNN) -- Clad in brown trench coats, dark glasses and trilby hats, what appear to be three secret agents huddle around a payphone box with listening equipment.

It's not a 1950s film scene but the latest street art attributed to Britain's famously anonymous graffiti artist Banksy.

The image -- apparently a comment on the issue of government surveillance -- appeared early Sunday, local media said, on a house wall in the provincial English spa town of Cheltenham, in Gloucestershire.

The location may be a reference to the town's role as host to Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, known as GCHQ -- the UK equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency.

The latest artwork from graffiti artist Banksy appears on black wooden board at a youth center in Bristol, England, on Wednesday, April 16. Called "Mobile Lovers," it features a couple embracing while checking their cell phones. Members of the youth center took down the piece from a wall on a Bristol street and replaced it with a note saying the work was being held at the club "to prevent vandalism or damage being done." The discovery came shortly after another image believed to be by Banksy surfaced in Cheltenham, England. The latest artwork from graffiti artist Banksy appears on black wooden board at a youth center in Bristol, England, on Wednesday, April 16. Called "Mobile Lovers," it features a couple embracing while checking their cell phones. Members of the youth center took down the piece from a wall on a Bristol street and replaced it with a note saying the work was being held at the club "to prevent vandalism or damage being done." The discovery came shortly after another image believed to be by Banksy surfaced in Cheltenham, England.
Photos: Banksy, the elusive street artist
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Photos: Banksy, the elusive street artist Photos: Banksy, the elusive street artist
Making a DIY 'Banksy'

The NSA has been at the center of the spying row sparked by revelations by its former contractor Edward Snowden about the extent of government surveillance. Some leaked documents also make a reference to GCHQ, although the UK government says the listening agency operates only within a strict framework of controls.

Asked about the image, a spokeswoman for GCHQ said, "This is the first time we have ever been asked to comment on art. Although we are not qualified critics, we are as intrigued as the rest of the residents of Cheltenham about the appearance of the mysterious artwork.

"For those who are interested, our website gives a glimpse of what modern day intelligence operatives are really like, although some may be disappointed by the lack of trench coats and dark glasses."

Karen Smith, who reportedly lives in the house, told the Gloucestershire Echo newspaper, "It's pretty good. It livens the street up a bit. There have been a lot of people about today looking at it."

The artwork emerged a day before The Washington Post and United States arm of The Guardian were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the NSA revelations, described as "marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security."

Banksy's own website makes no reference to the artwork. It instead features what appears to be a new artwork showing a man and a woman apparently embracing but each looking over the other's shoulder at a smartphone -- perhaps a comment on our modern-day addiction to technological devices.

Banksy's last high-profile project was a month-long street art "residency" in New York City.

Each day of October, Banksy unveiled new works of art around New York. The works were then announced on his website and posted to Instagram. Many of the surprise exhibits followed his signature street-art style: stencils spray-painted on streets, walls of buildings and under bridges.

READ: Banksy bids farewell to New York with balloons

READ: Bigger than Banksy: Polish street art goes large

INTERACTIVE: Banksy takes over NYC

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