Who is Banksy?

There is one answer to the question “Who is Banksy?” that you really should know (if for some reason you don’t already): Banksy is a British street artist whose creative and audacious work has seen him rise over the past decade from just another graffiti painter to perhaps the world’s best known contemporary artist, with pieces sometimes fetching over $1 million.

The other answer to “Who is Banksy?” is more difficult, because the artist known as Banksy has never revealed his true identity. Before we try to figure that one out, let’s take a look at the work that has made the anonymous artist so successful…

Street art

Much of Banksy’s success is undoubtedly due to his distinctive stencilled style, which allows him to create large and detailed pictures relatively quickly, which is an advantage when you’re painting in places you shouldn’t. Banksy’s art is also defined by its ironic humour and social-political messages, often carrying anti-capitalist, anti-war, anti-consumerist, anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian themes.  It would be fair to say he’s something of an anti-hero of modern Britain.

The craft is finding a decent drainpipe to get access to the site as much as it is in the art…Van Gogh used short, stumpy brush strokes to convey his insanity – I use short, thin ledges above mainline train tracks.

Gallery art

Banksy has played a big role in bringing street art out of the backstreet shadows and into the gallery spotlights.  (This move probably has something to do with the fact that it’s quite hard to sell a piece of art that you’ve painted on someone else’s wall.)  But even when it’s hanging in a gallery, Banksy’s work always keeps an ironic distance from ‘real’ art, often featuring altered versions of famous artworks or openly poking fun at the art world.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

As Banksy’s notoriety has grown he has created street art around the world, published books with brilliant titles like Existencilism and Wall and Piece, and put on a number of high-profile solo shows (which he never attends).  The best way to learn more about his story is to watch the documentary he made himself, Exit Through the Gift Shop.  The Oscar-nominated film is a work of art in its own right, subverting the documentary genre in true Banksy style.  It actually focuses on the story of another graffiti artist, Thierry Guetta (aka. Mr Brainwash), who initially spent years filming graffiti artists with the goal of making a documentary about the subculture himself.  During that time he met Banksy and followed his early career, but by the end of the film their roles have somehow switched: Guetta achieves fame as a graffiti artist in his own right and Banksy is left with the job of creating the film.  Banksy himself appears in the film, but with his face hidden and voice distorted.

Many have speculated that Guetta himself is a Banksy creation, and although Banksy denies this, it is made clear in the film that Banksy was instrumental in Guetta’s rise to stardom.  Whether it was all planned in advance – and indeed whether art needs to be planned in advance – are questions we’ll leave for another day…

Dismaland (2015)

Banksy’s latest creation is a “sinister twist on Disneyland” known as Dismaland, which was recently open to the British public for just over a month.  To create it, Banksy contacted the 60 “best artists he could imagine”; 58 of them participated, including another of Britain’s best known living artists, Damien Hirst.  Here’s a look at what was in store for the 150,000 visitors who paid £3 for a ticket:

Banksy - Dismaland

So… Who is Banksy?

The most in-depth investigation into Banksy’s real-life identity was conducted by the Daily Mail in 2008.  They claim that Banksy’s real name is Robin Gunningham, from which he then adopted the pun-name Robin Banks, or Banksy.  The conclusion was based partly on the similarity between photos of a man thought to be Banksy taken in Jamaica in 2004, and the young Robin Gunningham pictured at the pretty posh Bristol Cathedral School in 1989 (where he was apparently noted as a talented artist), plus interviews with various people apparently connected to both characters – and the fact that Robin Gunningham seems have sort of disappeared…

Who is Banksy?

Banksy - Robin Gunningham

So now you know – Banksy is probably Robin Gunningham, though like most high-profile artists he probably does have help creating his work.  But does it really matter what his ‘real’ name is?  Banksy’s anonymity has now become as much part of his identity as his painting style, and in a world over-filled with celebrities it makes a refreshing change when the focus can be on his art and ideas rather than his private life.  Surely the myth surrounding Banksy is actually part of the key to his enduring success.  In the artist’s own words:

We don’t need any more heroes; we just need someone to take out the recycling.

And to really sum up his views on street art, you don’t get many quotes better than this:

“People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else.

They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. You, however, are forbidden to touch them.

Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity. Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

What do you think?

Our Correspondent
Cult United Kingdom correspondent
Duncan - Newcastle

After a largely trouble-free birth in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I swiftly grew up and moved to London to study Philosophy, before leaving to travel the world on my motorbike. I spent some time working in France, Germany, Italy, Canada, USA and (a long time ...

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