Banksy: An Artist Unmasked

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Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

A woman examines artwork by Banksy in a tunnel near Waterloo Station in London.

For years the graffiti artist known as Banksy has been the art world's Deep Throat: a hugely influential figure whose identity remained shrouded in mystery. Now, like Deep Throat, he has been given a name.

Banksy is a 34-year-old native of Bristol, England, named Robin Gunningham, Britain's the Mail on Sunday reported on July 13. The thread that may have unraveled the mystery was a 2004 photograph taken in Jamaica, which many — including photographer Peter Dean Rickards — say is the only known picture of Banksy. (The artist's agent, Steve Lazarides, denied that the photo — which depicts a man in jeans and sneakers crouching above a can of spray paint — is of Banksy. A spokeswoman for the artist declined to confirm or deny the Mail's report.)

With the picture in tow, the Mail canvassed Bristol, unearthing former acquaintances who identified the man in the photo as Gunningham. A former schoolmate interviewed by the paper recalled that Gunningham was a talented artist, while Luke Egan, an artist who has jointly exhibited with Banksy, told the paper that he shared a Bristol flat with Gunningham in 1998. Asked by the Mail whether Gunningham was Banksy, Egan reportedly replied, "Well, he wasn't then." Gunningham, whose middle-class upbringing bears little resemblance to Banksy's renegade persona, has vanished.

Since striding onto the scene in the early 1990s, Banksy has vaulted from obscurity to international renown, all the while escaping detection. Among his catalog of greatest hits, Banksy has released an inflatable Guanténamo Bay prisoner doll at Disneyland, depicted England's Queen Elizabeth II as a chimpanzee, tagged the West Bank border fence and sneaked his own Mona Lisa — her inscrutable expression replaced by a yellow smiley face — into the Louvre. "He's kind of captured the zeitgeist," says Gareth Williams, a contemporary-art specialist at Bonhams auction house in London. "But he's done it in quite an accessible way, so it speaks to people." Even for a vandal, going mainstream has its perks: Banksy's handiwork has commanded millions of dollars at auction from acolytes like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

But anonymity has been as crucial a part of Banksy's mythology as irony and wit. "Anything that's ever been written about him centers around the anonymity — that he's this Batman, this cult figure," says Pedro Alonzo, who curated an exhibition in England to which Banksy contributed. But that doesn't necessarily mean being unmasked would hurt Banksy's popularity. The intrigue over his identity has been a "double-edged sword," Alonzo says, since it has occluded the messages bundled in his art. "His work is a call to action. It's about hierarchies of power, social injustice and paying attention to issues that aren't being addressed," he adds. "There could be a bright side to this — the attention being diverted from his identity [could allow] people to really look at his work and consider it." Says Williams: "I don't think the Banksy story ends here."

Pinpointing Banksy's identity has long been a popular parlor game, and it's yielded false positives before. Last fall, a passerby in the East London neighborhood of Bethnal Green snapped a camera-phone picture of a man spray-painting a mural later confirmed to be Banksy's. In May, the New York City–based media blog Gawker suggested that Banksy might be Nick Walker, a British artist who, after being spotted stenciling a mural on the side of a Manhattan restaurant, reputedly told an onlooker that he was the elusive artist. The precision and scope of Banksy's creations have led others to theorize that he may work with a partner or that Banksy serves as the nom de guerre for a group of conspirators.

If Banksy has indeed been identified, Williams doesn't think it will puncture Banksy's ballooning sales figures. But Jeffrey Deitch, an art dealer with close ties to legendary graffiti artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, asks, "When you can buy a superb Picasso drawing for $500,000 and a work dashed off by Banksy for the same price, does that make sense to you?" Still, Deitch, who says he likes a lot of Banksy's work, adds, "I don't think it will have any effect on his output. He's established the brand."

What exactly that brand represents has never been entirely clear. Banksy is a paradox: he used his anonymity to court attention and became a commercial success by condemning consumer culture. "I originally set out to try and save the world, but now I'm not sure I like it enough," he wrote in an e-mail to the New Yorker magazine last year. If his veil has been lifted, the world will have a chance to make an assessment of its own.