As one of the most elusive figures on the contemporary art scene, Banksy continues to be the subject of news stories and rumours. Mostly, these debate his true identity and above all else, the question lingers: "Who is Banksy?" While some believe him to be a member of the band Massive Attack, others have speculated that he is not, in fact, one person but many; meanwhile there are still those who believe the artist to be a woman. Here we take a look at some of these rumoured identies as well as other myths circling Banksy’s name…
The media and the public have been speculating over Banksy’s identity since the early 2000s, when he first broke onto the scene. For a long time, the most likely candidate appeared to be Robert del Naja of Massive Attack, who also grew up in Banksy’s hometown of Bristol. Further proof is suggested by the appearance of Banksy murals in places where the band has toured. But the most convincing evidence comes thanks to DJ Goldie who accidentally called Banksy ‘Robert’ during a podcast in 2017. Others have claimed del Naja is in fact just the leader of a team of graffiti artists but the picture remains unclear to this day, with Banksy’s lawyers neither confirming nor denying these allegations.
In October 2018, Banksy’s Girl With Balloon went to auction at Sotheby’s. Just as the hammer came down at £1.04 million the painting began to self destruct, appearing to slip down inside the frame only to come out the other side in shreds. The stunt was reported worldwide and Sotheby’s senior director Alex Branczik famously commented “It appears we just got Banksy-ed”. Many have speculated however that the auction house was in fact in on the trick, claiming that it would have been impossible not to notice the weight and bulk of the inbuilt shredder in the frame, which was so ridiculously oversized to begin with. However, this has been countered by those saying that Pest Control, who were called in to authenticate the work, insisted that it could not be removed and so the specialists could not investigate further.
Another clue is the fact that the painting was the last thing to be auctioned that night, providing the perfect headline act. Some have said this proves Sotheby’s collusion – if it had been placed in the middle of the auction it would have caused too much confusion and distraction from the rest of the works on sale. However, this too cannot be proved, with insiders saying that the painting was placed last because of annoyance with the consignor (thought to be Banksy himself using a third party for the process) who had insisted on having the piece in the evening sale, when it should have been in the day sale. As a result, it was put in the last slot, one of the least favourable in terms of the running order of an auction.
This one is true! In 2011, Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop was nominated in the best documentary category at the Oscars. Naturally, the artist would never be able to attend the event as his true self so he reportedly requested permission to attend wearing a monkey mask only to be turned down for fear of multiple imposters turning up on the night.
Some believe Banksy must be a woman, contrary to popular belief. This was claimed by a number of people but most famously by Canadian artist Chris Healey who believed Banksy was a team of seven artists led by a blonde woman who can be seen in Banksy’s studio in his documentary. This is widely considered to be implausible, however website Atlantic City Lab did back up the claim saying, “Girls and women figure into Banksy’s stencilled figures, for starters, something that isn’t true of 99% of street art.”
When Banksy painted over a King Robbo mural in London in 2009, the artist sparked a feud which made headlines and brought the lesser-known tagger to new heights of fame on the street and in the art world. While the rivalry continued for some time, with each artist painting over the other’s work until Banksy eventually backed down, some speculated if the two were perhaps the same person, out to get even more publicity with a fake ‘graffiti war’. Of course this theory was later disproved as King Robbo – or John Robertson as he is legally known – died in 2014, while Banksy continues to remain active both on the street and online.
In 2014 a story broke out saying that Banksy had been arrested by an ‘Anti-Graffiti Task Force’ and his identity revealed as Liverpudlian Paul Horner. In fact Horner engineered the whole thing but the news quickly gained traction and before you could say ‘fake news’ a number of newspapers and websites had begun broadcasting the story without fact-checking it first.
While to our knowledge Banksy has never been prosecuted for the thing you might expect, vandalism, the rumour about his arrest gives a pretty clear idea of why he would do his best to surpress the news if he had. The artist has, however, been the subject of other legal battles over the trademarking of his name and images. The saga began in 2019, when greeting cards company Full Colour Black, challenged Banksy's trademark rights for Love Is In The Air, arguing that Banksy was not actively using the image for business trading or branding purposes. It eventually led to the opening of his Gross Domestic Product— read more here.
In Banksy Myths & Legends, Marc Leverton writes that Banksy earned his ‘tag’ through his skills as a goalkeeper, receiving the nickname ‘Banksy’ by his teammates after the England goalkeeper Gordon Banks. Other sources claim however that his earliest tag was ‘Robin Banx’ which later became the more catchy ‘Banksy’.
Despite much evidence to the contrary, there are still many out there who believe the elusive street artist is none other than YBA sensation Damien Hirst. Though many have discredited this theory for a long time, the two did once collaborate on a piece called Keep It Spotless which features a woman dressed as a maid pulling up the edge of one of Hirst’s Spot paintings in order to sweep under it.
Some say Banksy is playing it safe as he gets more successful. With recent works selling for millions at auction and the opening of his online shop, many have said that Banksy has been playing it safe of late, becoming more and more part of the art world that he once snubbed. This criticism seems a bit too easy however, as Banksy proves again and again his ability to produce subversive works of art. Gross Domestic Product was not just an online shop of his merchandise but in fact a kind of lottery system where in order to purchase one of his products you had to answer the question ‘Why does art matter?’ The answers were then judged by comedian Adam Bloom and only those deemed worthy were awarded the opportunity to buy a piece. And while some claim that his sensational success has uprooted him from the subculture he started from, many others continue to admire the daring dissent and unerring innovation that continue to define his artworks today.
Okay, so this one might be true. Recently criminologists at Queen Mary University used a tool called ‘geoprofiling’ to map the movements of a man named Robin Gunningham to those of Banksy according to where his latest murals had popped up. While this seemed like definitive proof, Banksy and his lawyers have never accepted or rejected the claim, preferring to leave the papers and the public guessing. As the artist himself has said, “If you want to say something and have people listen then you have to wear a mask. If you want to be honest then you have to live a lie.”
Banksy has achieved the rare status of an artist whose personal life, while the subject of great speculation, is not become a distraction from his art's message.
As we argue in our article which asks "Why is Banksy anonymous?", it is only from behind the wall of anonymity, that Banksy has been able to produce the art he is so well-loved for and certainly, this much was true when he began his career as an unknown, greatly undesirable street artist up against the police and the law.
While he has now achieved the fame that allows him greater immunity from the law, doubtless his controversial art would draw far more distracting contention if his identity was public. Moreover, Banksy's chosen anonymity is a key part of his rallying against the tradionalism engrained in art history (see Banksy Vs. Art History).
Speculation is fun, but Banksy's enigma remains an integral part of his art.