Banksy ‘unmasked’ by team of scientists

Man of mystery: Street artist Banksy has deliberately kept his identity a secret.

Eight years after a newspaper ‘outed’ the elusive street artist, its findings have been backed up by a groundbreaking academic study. Who is Banksy, then? And should we even care?

‘A genius and a madman.’ ‘Untalented.’ ‘A guy from Bristol.’

Banksy, the subversive street artist, is different things to different people. It helps, of course, that nobody really knows who he is.

He may now be a global superstar, but still Banksy refuses to reveal his identity. That has not stopped people from trying to discover it. Some claim that Banksy is in fact a woman; others, a collective of seven artists. The most convincing theory, put forth by the Daily Mail in 2008, is that he is a Bristol-born man named Robin Gunningham.

Last week, the Daily Mail was vindicated. A team of scientists tested its theory using ‘geographic profiling’ – a method normally employed to track down criminals and animals. They compared the locations of Banksy’s artworks with the addresses of places associated with Gunningham, including his primary school and favourite pub. Their findings strongly suggest that Gunningham is indeed Banksy.

Why the secrecy, anyway? Firstly, it is worth noting that much of Banksy’s work is, strictly speaking, illegal. (This explains why street artists are reluctant to reveal each other’s real names.) Then there is the privacy: he may enjoy walking around in public without being recognised. He has also implied in interviews that he dislikes artists who aggressively self-publicise.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – anonymity has become Banksy’s brand. It is as much a part of his appeal as his work. He has yet to comment on this study, but if he ever ‘comes out’, it will be interesting to observe the effect on his career.

Banksy is not the only artist to shun the limelight. Music producer Burial kept his identity a secret, even as he scored hits and won awards. Novelists J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon famously refused to give interviews.

Yet this kind of behaviour only seems to inflame the public’s interest in their lives. Are we just being nosy? Or is there something to be gained from getting to know the people behind the art?

Arts and minds

Artists say everything they have to say in their art, some argue. As Kurt Cobain put it, ‘It’s all in the music, man’. Reading up on the artist’s life story will only distract you; worse, it could colour your view of their work. This is what is so great about street art: it is made anonymously, and therefore judged on its own merit.

Not so, reply others. If you’re truly interested in how art is created, you need to know who created it. Artists often express themselves in coded ways, so it helps to be aware of some facts: where they have lived, what their childhood was like. These details are important – they are why biographies get written – and people are justified in trying to uncover them.

You Decide

  1. Do you like Banksy’s art? Why (not)?
  2. Is street art a force for good?

Activities

  1. You have been given permission to paint on a blank wall in your neighbourhood. Draw your design on a piece of paper.
  2. Write a letter to your local council, arguing that the street art in your neighbourhood should be either removed or preserved (depending on your views on street art). Give your reasoning.

Some People Say...

“Anonymity beats fame.”

Anonymous

What do you think?

Q & A

Surely the scientists have more important things to do than snoop on Banksy?
As they say in their paper, the study has broader implications. It is also meant to demonstrate the flexibility of geographical profiling, which has already been used to catch criminals and map disease outbreaks. If it has worked here, then the method could also help identify terrorists who use graffiti for propaganda.
I’ve never actually seen a Banksy artwork. Where can I find one?
You’re spoiled for choice. His street art is mostly in London and Bristol, but it crops up in unexpected places around the world, from New York to Timbuktu. He often paints in politically sensitive areas, such as Gaza and the Calais migrant camp – but these works are liable to be removed. Some of his paintings are housed in galleries.

Word Watch

Daily Mail
The second-best-selling newspaper in the UK. It is known for its conservative views and thorough investigations.
Bristol
A city in western England with a strong tradition of street art. Banksy started out here, before finding fame in London.
Robin Gunningham
After hearing rumours that Gunningham is in fact Banksy, the Daily Mail spent a year interviewing his friends, colleagues and relatives. While confident that it had the right man, the paper conceded that it could have been the victim of ‘a complex set-up’.
Findings
Published in the Journal of Spatial Science. The authors point out that they were only testing the Gunningham hypothesis, that their study is weakened by the lack of other suspects, and that it does not conclusively prove Banksy’s identity.
Illegal
The legality of street art varies between countries. In the UK, street artists can be prosecuted for the crime of vandalism. However, the law is being applied less often than before, as the artistic value of graffiti is becoming recognised.
Kurt Cobain
Lead singer of rock band Nirvana. He was famously media-shy.

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