Banksy is one of the most famous contemporary artists. Everyone seems to know his name. Banksy is best known for his political graffiti artworks painted across the globe. Still, despite his distinctive style, radical political message, and staggering auction prices, there is not much we truly know about the artist. Read on to know more about the mysteries concerning Banksy’s identity.
Who is Banksy?
Banksy is one of the most famous artists of our century and yet there is not much we can say about him with certainty. He made his first public appearances during the 1990s in Bristol, where he worked with several prominent graffiti artists. He started to work freehand, spraying the paint from a can directly. By the mid-late 1990s, he switched to stenciling, which allowed him to create more complex compositions within a shorter time span.
People who knew Banksy personally before his rise to fame described him as a white male who would be around fifty years old today. However, we cannot be entirely sure of anything. Banksy’s agents protect his privacy and sometimes leave false trails. In November 2022, Banksy was supposedly caught on CCTV camera in Irpen in Ukraine, while finishing one of his works. Nonetheless, the origins of the video are unclear, so we cannot be sure that the footage really shows the mysterious artist.
Artists and Anonymity
The idea of an anonymous artist is far from new. Until the concept of an artist as a creative genius emerged, painters and sculptors rarely signed their names on their works. Until the Renaissance era, creating art was more or less another type of craft. At that time, people saw painting as something that required skill and not a long process of education and mental effort, unlike music and writing. The identities of those artists, even if they were known during their lifetimes, were forgotten after a while.
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In the modern era, artists often concealed their identities or presented their art under fictitious ones in order to avoid institutional barriers relying on gender or race. Women artists sometimes exhibited works under male names so that they would be taken seriously. For example, the legendary Abstract Expressionist Grace Hartigan changed her name to George.
In the twentieth century, secrecy became a conceptual tool, not limited in its use to the domain of visual arts. For graffiti artists, in particular, secrecy has its perks. Graffiti is classified as vandalism and is illegal in many countries. Although graffiti artists have diverse and recognizable styles, putting their real names under their works would put them in danger of imprisonment. However, in the case of Banksy, his anonymity has another function. By eliminating a particular face from the equation, Banksy essentially becomes a masked superhero. Anyone who is angry, oppressed, or just not indifferent to the world around them could be Banksy.
Banksy’s Famous Works
Banksy became known to the public in the 1990s when he made a series of anti-establishment graffiti in Bristol. His style was easily identifiable by the use of stencils, a predominantly black and white color palette with small patches of color, and direct political messages, not devoid of irony. Soon after public recognition came financial success. Although in one of his interviews, Banksy stated that commercial success equaled failure for a graffiti artist, he certainly did not withdraw himself from the art market. To avoid imposters and scammers, Banksy’s company Pest Control takes care of verifying and selling his works.
Apart from graffiti, Banksy sometimes works with sculpture and installation art. His largest work by now featured a pop-up exhibition called Dismaland which was built on the site of an abandoned public pool in Somerset, England. Dismaland in its essence functioned as a distorted parody of Disneyland. Banksy’s theme park, however, brought despair and not joy. Instead of fun rides, the visitors received installations on police brutality, racism, consumerism, and climate crisis. Banksy both mocks and preys upon the inflated art market, ready to consume everything with a brand attached to it. However, Banksy himself became a brand that ridicules other brands by highlighting greed, exploitation, and sheer meaninglessness of actions.
The average buyer of a Banksy piece is inconceivably far from his anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, and anti-establishment ideas. One of his famous gestures of protest happened during the destruction of a painting Girl with a Balloon during a sale at Sotheby’s in 2018. Banksy implemented a self-destructing mechanism to the painting’s frame, which shredded the work right after it was sold to a customer for $1.3 million. However, Sotheby’s solved the situation by stating that this was the first work of art created during an auction, later selling the frame and the shredded pieces for almost $23 million.
Who is The Real Banksy: 1. Robert del Naja
Two decades after Banksy’s rise to fame, the question of his identity still haunts the public. The theories are numerous, but some of them seem more credible than others. Robert del Naja, also known by his pseudonym 3D, is the founder of the band called Massive Attack. He is also a graffiti artist and one of the most popular Banksy candidates. Even if del Naja and Banksy are not the same people, they certainly know each other: del Naja was the pioneer of stencils used in graffiti art, and Banksy acknowledged him for it in his interviews.
Del Naja is a touring musician and Banksy’s artworks appear worldwide. Sometimes the pieces appear in unexpected areas, and sometimes, although not always, the locations coincide with the cities where Massive Attack shows are held.
Version 2: Neil Buchanan
Another popular Banksy candidate is called Neil Buchanan. He works as a host of several children’s art shows on British television. From 1976 until 2017, he was a member of a metal band called Marseille. Like in the case of Robert del Naja, their tours coincided with several works of Banksy’s. Some experts have pinpointed the similarities between the style of Buchanan and Banksy, while others see them as polar opposites. During the pandemic, Buchanan was forced to release a statement denying his involvement with the Banksy persona, yet this certainly did not convince the proponents of the theory.
Version 3: Robin Gunningham
Robert Gunningham, a Bristol resident and an artist, is perhaps the most popular candidate for Banksy. Unlike del Naja or Buchanan, Gunningham is a regular citizen and not a celebrity. In 2016, a group of researchers claimed that they confirmed Banksy’s identity using geographic profiling, a form of statistical analysis used to arrest offenders. They identified Banksy as Gunningham, yet the research was quickly put on hold. Geographic profiling is not only a method not precise enough to jump to conclusions, but it also lies too close to privacy breaches.
Still, even without profiling, Robin Gunningham seems like a plausible candidate. In June 2017, a British music producer DJ Goldie accidentally referred to Banksy as Rob during a radio interview. However, the name could refer both to Gunningham and del Naja.
Version 4: Jamie Hewlett
Another famous cultural figure on the list, Jamie Hewlett is a co-founder of the band Gorillaz and a comic book author. In 2017, an anonymous forensics expert claimed that he traced the ownership of several companies associated with Banksy. All of them supposedly belonged to J. Hewlett. Banksy’s publicist responded to the inquiry in a suspicious matter. The message to a British journalist representing Metro tabloid stated the following: I can confirm that Jamie Hewlitt is not the artist Banksy. Some researchers believe that the typo in Hewlett’s last name was made deliberately in order to avoid lying to the press directly.
Version 5: Could Banksy Be Multiple People?
The witnesses supposedly stated that Banksy is a middle-aged white man, but can we really trust them? Some enthusiasts believe Banksy can be a woman artist or even a collective of artists. Although there is no direct proof that Banksy is a woman, there is also no proof that he is a man.
Still, the most compelling and plausible idea is that Banksy is a collective of artists operating in various parts of the world. Perhaps, the theories of Jamie Hewlett owning the company and Robert del Naja painting murals between shows are not as mutually exclusive as they seem; or maybe, all of the names on this list have nothing to do with the real people behind the Banksy project.
Banksy’s Identity: Do We Really Need to Know It?
As tempting as finding out the real identity of this mysterious artist sounds, you might be asking yourself, do we really need to uncover it? At first, the anonymity of a graffiti artist served as a way of protection from police prosecution. However, as Banksy’s popularity grew, his concealed identity became a part of the brand. His identity might just be the most important part of the Banksy brand. Banksy obviously uses a network of trusted accomplices, leaves false trails, and taunts the public with rumors and unconfirmed appearances.
Uncovering the true identity of Banksy would also mean taking away their principal way of artistic expression. Although the quest for his identity only works in favor of his popularity, solving the puzzle would symbolically kill the artist. Banksy is elusive, omnipresent, and unpredictable—maybe things need to stay that way.