Banksy Unmasked? A Graffiti Mystery

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National News / PA

Left: The photo allegedly showing graffiti artist Banksy at work; Right: The new artwork in Bethnal Green, East London.

Banksy lurks in the shadows, outside the klieg lights of the celebrity he's generated. He shrinks from cameras like a vampire from the sun. The graffiti artist, whose work has fetched millions of dollars at auction houses from the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, has never been publicly identified.

But this week, Banksy may have been unmasked. A camera-phone photograph of a man painting on the side of a building in Bethnal Green, East London could be the first image of the guerrilla artist. The photo shows a man appearing to work on a mural of yellow lines that snake down the street, hop a curb and bloom into a flower climbing a wall. In the photo, the man dons blue jeans and sneakers and a dark green jacket. What appears to be a spray-paint mask is perched atop his head.

For fans of underground art and more than a few mainstream collectors, snapping Banksy would be like bagging the Loch Ness monster — and there are similar questions as to whether the photo is real. A spokesman for the artist confirmed that the Bethnal Green mural is Banksy's handiwork, but declined to say whether he is the man in the photograph.

There's no telling how becoming a public face would affect the artist, whose legend has been burnished by his invisibility. Little is known for certain about Banksy, whose name is reputed to be Robert Banks or Robin Banks. Banksy started painting graffiti in his hometown of Bristol, England, in the 1990s. Since then, his trademark stenciled murals and free-form creations have adorned walls and invaded public spaces across Europe and from San Francisco to Sydney.

Banksy's art is frequently political, often funny and always outré. He has fashioned a replica of Stonehenge out of portable toilets, spray-painted animals and released an inflatable Guantanamo Bay prisoner doll at Disneyland. He has portrayed Queen Elizabeth II as a chimpanzee, rebranded Warhol's iconic Campbell Soup can with a Tesco Value logo, and scrawled "Mind the Crap" on the steps of the Tate Britain museum. Banksy may be reclusive, but he's not without a sense of humor.

His art is often pegged as anti-capitalist or anti-establishment. But he seems gleefully eager to subvert even the most pervasive presumptions about him. For example, while he is generally described as antiwar, at a 2003 peace demonstration in London he reportedly distributed signs reading: "I Don't Believe in Anything. I'm Just Here For The Violence." Banksy specializes in a strange brand of self-promotion: he'll sell six-figure creations and then sermonize on the evils of consumerism. Such behavior doesn't seem to deter buyers. In April, the auction house Bonham's sold his Space and Bird, a spray-painting on steel, for almost $600,000, and recently a set of 10 of his works went for more than $1 million.

The Lazarides Gallery, Banksy's primary distributor, says that Banksy's work shows that "his generation are not the apathetic and unfeeling demographic they are made out to be." Others denounce him as a criminal. Abdal Ullah, a councillor in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, where Banksy's recent mural was painted, has said: "Graffiti is a crime. It spoils the environment, makes our neighborhoods feel less safe, and costs thousands of pounds each year to clean." Banksy has, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring did in New York decades ago, succeeded in elevating street art from a subculture to a mainstream interest.

Would being caught in the act lessen Banksy's mystique? Certainly, his work now seems to depend on anonymity. Perhaps, in the future, he should leave the mask on.