Banksy is one of the most active and provocative presences in urban art, although his/her identity remains a mystery. An enigma as fascinating as the relentless critique that the artwork —whether appearing overnight on a wall or exhibited in the most prestigious galleries— makes of our present condition.
The most recent news about the acclaimed urban artist from Bristol, England, came in August, 2016, when a rumor began to spread about his/her secret identity. Was Banksy really Robert 3D Del Naja, the front man of the trip hop band Massive Attack? The theory originated when blogger Craig Williams floated the idea after noticing a strange pattern: every time Massive Attack performs in a city, the next day a new piece attributed to Banksy appears on the streets. According to Williams, the rumor that Banksy could be a member of a band comes from Italy, and has been bouncing around for a couple of years, but nobody had done any careful research to find out which band it could be. “This pricked my curiosity, because it seemed like the most reasonable way to make his artwork: hide behind a musical act while they are on tour,” he told us in an email. Let’s not forget that 3D has a background as a graffiti artist, and he comes from the Bristol collective The Wild Bunch, so it all adds up.
“So I began dating his works— which was no easy task— using local newspapers, blogs, or comments from radio shows to try to put a date on them. Then I looked up the dates when bands performed in each city, and when Massive Attack coincided once, twice, seven, nine times, I thought: I’ve got something super interesting and new here to add to the theories that are already going around.”
William’s discovery/conspiracy theory argues that the Bristol artist is not a lone entity, but a whole crew that is developing the Banksy concept. The August 29th entry on his blog (glasgowtransmission.wordpress.com) gives a detailed justification of the theory, starting with the band’s North America 2010 tour, which included shows in San Francisco. In April of that year several Banksy murals appeared, including one of the most famous and recognizable, titled This’ll Look Nice When It’s Framed. Painted on a building at the corner of Valencia and 20th Street in the Mission District, the painting depicts a young man in black and white holding a bucket of paint with which he has just painted the phrase in red and looking defiantly at the spectator. Around the same dates – on April 25 and 27- Massive Attack played concerts in the city.
Before the post about Banksy, Williams’ blog had enjoyed little success. Now it gets visits from people from over 165 countries. Electronic Sound magazine and the Bristol Post newspaper wrote about the discovery, and the news spread around the globe.
This is not the first time that Banksy’s identity has been debated, nor will it be the last. From the first time that a media outlet – the Daily Mail- claimed to have discovered that the elusive artist was in reality Robin Banks, “a former public school teacher who grew up in Bristol’s middle-class suburbs,” ‘discoveries’ have popped up regularly. Just a week after Craig Williams’ post, a video of a woman supposedly capturing Banksy’s face on camera went viral and people started speculating again. In this video1, the woman turns her camera toward a graffiti artist in action while he is putting the finishing touches on a mural. When she gets closer, she realizes that the mural is signed by Banksy. After a short chase she manages to catch up to him and captures a partial, blurry image of his face.
In the description of the video—the only one she has ever uploaded to YouTube— Mia S, the woman in question, writes: “Late last night, when I was walking home from work, I saw an urban artist painting on a wall on Hosier Lane. I went back to the spot with my phone ready, just as he was finishing his painting. I can’t believe I just met Banksy!”. But the video’s authenticity was immediately questioned: the artist is thought to be about fifty years old, and the “Banksy” who appears on the screen looks too young. We are talking about a person who has been on the scene since the late 90’s, and became famous just after the turn of the century.
What sets Craig Williams’ theory apart is that it seems to make sense: he cross-referenced clues and facts to reach his conclusion. Unlike the video, which has a lot going against it, it seems to be a more serious attempt to unveil who is behind the Banksy concept, because 19 years after bursting onto the worldwide street art and gallery scene, the uncertainty persists. Nobody knows the artist’s secret identity- or those who do have fiercely protected the secret. Days after Williams’ theory came to light, Robert Del Naja denied it publicly with the declaration: “We are all Banksy.”
We are all Banksy
A group of graffiti artists vandalize a train, except the train turns out to be Thomas, the little train on the famous children’s program Thomas and His Friends.
A police motorcade escorts an armored car, except what it is carrying is a giant doughnut strapped on the roof of the van.
And a group of police officers are caught on video about to beat up… a multicolored piñata shaped like a donkey.
A stick figure of a child pushes a flaming tire with a stick.
These are descriptions of some of the works that have made Banksy famous. They are clear and straightforward, with messages that address the capitalist way of life, police brutality, politicians’ behavior, totalitarianism, the lack of options for children and youth, religion, consumerism, and the marketing of art. Some are stencils, spray-paintings and posters – all traditional graffiti techniques— while others are oil paintings, a technique that allows for the leap from traditional graffiti to street art, which is more complex in its technique and execution. Some works are done on the street and others on canvases. There are several labels that apply to Banksy, many suggested by the painter himself: “high-quality vandal,” “cultural gangster” or “exterior painting specialist”.
Since 2002, when name Banksy began to reverberate, what has been learned about him is the following (and we start by analyzing the technical aspects of his work, because they lead us to his biography):
In terms of technique he has said that he “uses whatever is needed. Sometimes that means painting a mustache on the girl in an advertisement; sometimes it means sweating for days over an intricate drawing. Efficiency is key.” He started in 1994 as a member of the Bristol collective known as DeadBreadz Crew or DBZ. At this point, his work was more traditional, closer to the old-school graffiti that arose on the streets of the New York boroughs and neighborhoods. The turning point came around 1990, when he added stencils to his toolbox. He tells a story about why he made this change:
“Once I spent the night trying to paint the phrase LATE NIGHT in big, bubble-shaped silver letters on the side of a passenger train. The British Transport Police showed up and I tore myself to shreds running through a sticker bush trying to escape. My friends made it to the car and drove off, and I had to spend an hour hiding under a garbage truck that leaked motor oil all over me. While I lay there, listening to the cops on the tracks, I realized that I needed a way to cut down my painting time or else quit. I was looking at a stenciled number painted on a fuel tank, and I figured that I could copy the technique and make each letter 3 feet tall.”
This was a moment, an epiphany as Banksy calls it, that shaped the movement that would change the course of graffiti around the world. Street art was a 180-degree turn. These first efforts were known as neo-graffiti, which encompasses stencil technique, poster art, vector graffiti, stickers, installations, postal art, toy design, mosaics, and nearly any type of material or shape that adapts to the specific piece of art. Some of the relevant names of this movement are Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, Dave Kinsey, Buff Monster, Os Gemeos and Kaws, plus many others that have joined the movement at different times. And at that specific time, Banksy was joining.
His style has been compared to Blek Le Rat, a French graffiti artist who is considered the father of stencil graffiti, as well as his fellow Frenchman Jef Aérosol. Banksy’s work is known for its messages charged with political satire. A few years ago, his website listed 12 steps to create a stencil, which, more than a simple how-to manual, was a declaration of principles, a kind of manifesto. Some of them were: “Get out of your house before you find something there that is really worth it,” and “Intelligence is not as entertaining as shameless stupidity, failure, and public humiliation.”
He is also known for his originality, which is essential for artists to survive and make a name for themselves on the graffiti scene. In addition to his stencils showing Lenin wearing spikes, Winston Churchill with a green mohawk, Che Guevara wearing sunglasses with money signs, Christ on the cross carrying grocery bags, and Queen Elizabeth II with the face of a chimpanzee— all masterpieces of caricature— some of his works emerge from an intimate knowledge of his surroundings: using flowers growing from a crack in the wall, Banksy draws the silhouette of a man throwing up (the flowers form the vomit); or those that fall under the term that he coined, Brandalism, which scandalized environmentalists and animal protection advocates since it displayed advertising on live surfaces: livestock and other animals. This genre includes the Moo York (a cow displaying wild style graffiti), the piglet with the phrase “Fuck pigs”, or the elephant with an upholstery pattern painted on its body, exhibited in Barely Legal, his first show in the United States.
This is what distinguishes Banksy from a strange character like Mr. Brainwash— half Warhol, a quarter Banksy and a quarter Shepard Fairey— an artist who creates himself, who has a knack for smelling money in the street art industry, and who has managed to invent a pastiche out of his adventures alongside the great urban artists of the world, to the extent that Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2014), the movie that set out to tell the story of the artist from Bristol, ends up focusing on this character.
Dismaland was an amusement park created by Banksy, located in the Weston-super-mare complex in Somerset, England. It is a theme park deemed “inappropriate for children,” an ironic critique of Disneyland. Photo: banksy.co.uk
Mr. Brainwash, a Frenchman whose real name is Thierry Guetta, who documents the escapades of different street artists, and who must be the only person in the world with videos – authentic videos— of the real Banksy, is in the end the personification of the hypermarketing of street art and the decadence that this natural phenomenon brings with it. It is not hard to imagine the influence that Banksy has had on Mr. Brainwash, whose introduction to society was a grand event: the 2008 exhibit titled Life is Beautiful. Grand events are another Banksy specialty. One need go no farther than Dismaland, the overblown and disturbing project that the artist organized in 2015, bringing together 58 artists (including Damien Hirst) to create an apocalyptic version of Disneyland.
These actions, as well as his statues, are a way to change the environment. As Banksy says: “Graffiti is a form of retribution. The mere act of taggingis retribution. If you don’t own a train line, then you go and paint the trains […] you can own half a city by putting your name on it.” He already owns several places: in front of the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben he once wrote “This is not a photo opportunity” to discourage and disconcert tourists. When it comes to his statues— such as the “murdered” telephone booth— he uses the BOGOF (Buy One, Get One Free) formula. He makes two statues, sells one, and “donates” the other one to the city government. Other works consist of graffiti on the wheel clamps that lock the tires of illegally parked vehicles, as well as graffiti on monuments. He paints stone-faced bobbies (British policemen) urinating on walls, helicopters dropping pretty bows as gifts, or writes the words “Designated picnic area” on trash containers. Or his now classic poster “Designated graffiti area”, which he pasted on walls but also on the backs of city workers.
Stealing a Banksy
The 2005 documentary How to Sell a Banksy tells the story of Chris Thompson and his attempt to sell a part of Banksy artwork that he has stolen— the famous Wrong War, which hung for three years from the Shoreditch Bridge in east London- after finding out how much an original Banksy sold for in the market. Stored – or to put it more accurately, tossed and forgotten in the top of a closet— in the director’s mother’s house, the drawing of three policemen with happy faces ends up being valued at 25 thousand dollars after a restoration process, which the film divides into eight stages: Restoration, Presentation, Valuation, Promotion, Authentication, Desperation, Motivation and Exhibition. This has been a common fate of Banksy’s pieces: they are coveted by fortune seekers who know that one of his works can pull them out of poverty, or make them richer.
In 2014, the company Sincura Group organized an exhibition of eight original Banksys to auction them. The title could not be more revealing: Stealing Banksy consisted of pieces that were torn off the walls on which they were painted. Although Sincura claims that it does not traffic in stolen artworks, putting Banksy art on the market means removing it first from its original location. Old-skool, for example, is a piece that disappeared from its original spot in 2008 and was expected to fetch 350 thousand pounds at the auction. In a statement on his website, Banksy clarified: “This exhibit has nothing to do with me and I think it is despicable that they are allowed to exhibit art on walls without permission.” Ironic? It’s hard to say, since his work, as well as graffiti and urban art, are by nature based on invasion, intervention and surprise. They are unexpected jolts to society, passersby and, above all, to authorities.
Banksy’s work has transcended the streets to reach art galleries and auctions. Above, a security guard keeps an eye on a piece titled “Donkey Documents” at the Chelsea Harbor Design Center in 2015. Below, gallery workers hold “Love is in the Air” before it is sold at the Bonhams auction house of London in 2013. Photo: AFP
If we go by the texts included in Banksy’s book You Are an Acceptable Level of Threat (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2014), his reaction to the theft of his work would seem ironic. One of them says: “Property crime is no crime at all.” Another part of the book says: “The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules.” But if we considered no more than this, we would be jumping to conclusions, since the second phrase continues with: “It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.” Banksy exists in a context from which he cannot be removed- as an artist, character, entity or concept. Consider the actions that put him in the spotlight: unlike what art traffickers do, he planted his own works in museums. In the London Museum of Natural History, he put a transparent plastic box with a stuffed rat dressed as a graffiti artist (with sunglasses, a backpack and a spray can). And at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he “exhibited” his own pastiche of Warhol’s famous soup cans, until it was removed. And at an exhibit about royalty he hung a portrait of the Queen of England… with a mustache.
Creating a Banksy is a relatively inexpensive undertaking. But the artistic process creates works that can fetch exorbitant prices, which naturally invites forgery and deceit. This creates the need for companies like Pest Control, the only company authorized to authenticate Banksy artworks. Their website includes the text: “Please note that, since many Banksy pieces are created in an advanced stage of inebriation, the process can be arduous and challenging. Pest Control deals only with legitimate works of art and is not involved in any kind of illegal activity.” Only one non-original piece has been authenticated by the artist, and only for altruistic reasons. For Banksy, “Graffiti art has a hard enough life as it is before you add city workers wanting to remove it, kids wanting to paint mustaches on it, and hedge-fund managers wanting to chop it out and hang it over the fireplace. For the sake of keeping all street art where it belongs I'd encourage people not to buy anything by anybody unless it was created for sale in the first place.”
Give us back our Banksy
Banksy’s popularity is undisputed. The only artist who might beat him on this score is the American artist Shepard Fairey, the creator of the popular OBEY concept, now widely marketed and distributed. But the Bristol artist’s name began to appear on websites and specialized books between 2002 and 2004, and his fame grew with the publication of his books Existencilism and Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, as well as with the exhibits of his work during these years. This popularity spread initially among the graffiti community, which was amazed by his work and originality, but the accolades soon expanded to the mainstream public, which got used to hearing about his work or simply came across a Banksy in some city around the world.
In 2013, Bristol residents discovered that a Miami auction house was offering the piece Slave Labour at a price estimated between 500 and 700 thousand dollars. The work depicted a boy making Union Jacks, the flag of the United Kingdom, and it was a protest against the sweatshops that manufactured memorabilia for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympic Games. Protests against the auction sprang up immediately, and people took to the streets with signs that read “Give us back our Banksy.” The auction house ended up removing the piece from the sale, although without an official explanation. This is no small thing: when ordinary people— those who are exposed to the artist’s work and for whom it is intended— step up and defend it, it means that it has transcended the graffiti niche, the graffiti ghetto. Validation comes from the community of artists, but also from the audience at large. Banksy remains on the scene. Will we ever know who is hiding behind the name? Or will it continue being one of the great secrets of contemporary urban art? m.