Banksy and Shakespeare have a number of similarities: a knack for making both scathing, satirical statements and sentimental ones; an ability to connect with the general public en masse; unrivalled genius in their field; the ability to fuse the classical with the contemporary; an ability to turn the topical into art (see Banksy’s latest work, a pro-EU mural, in Dover); and both men are rumoured not to be one man, but many.
How much truth there is in the argument that Shakespeare was more than one person has been debated for centuries and I’m not about to reach a conclusion; but over the last ten years numerous people have come forward claiming to have cold, hard evidence that Banksy is more than one person, that he is a collective. But then, numerous people have also actually met Banksy and described him as just one man.
Of the Banksy we have come to know and love, we don’t know much; but what we do know is: he is a he, he is from Bristol, he is king enfant terrible of the art world, and he is persistently hounded by people desperate to reveal his identity – from the press, to academics, to the grannies on Gogglebox. What we have previously taken for granted — that he is one (probably white) solitary man — has plenty of evidence to support it. Many reports — including images from the Daily Mail, and a geographic profiling study from Queen Mary’s university — purport Banksy’s true identity to be Robin Gunningham, a man in his mid-fourties who now, very famously, went to a Catholic private school in Bristol; others claim that Banksy is Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, fellow Bristolian, former-Street Artist, front man of Massive Attack and reported friend of Banksy. This rumour has been fuelled recently in an interview with the drum and bass DJ, Goldie, who’s been a friend of Del Naja’s since they were both graffiti artists in the ‘80s. In an interview for Distraction Pieces podcast Goldie let slip, “For something like graffiti, which has inspired the world with font or anything to do with anyone wearing a baseball cap and sneakers, at its centre it is still misunderstood. But give me a bubble letter and put it on a T-shirt and write Banksy on it and we’re sorted… We can sell it now. No disrespect to Rob, I think he is a brilliant artist. I think he has flipped the world of art over.” But still, ultimately no one’s sure how veritable any of these claims actually are.
“No disrespect to Rob, I think he is a brilliant artist. I think he has flipped the world of art over.”
So what about the journalists who have actually met Banksy? Simon Hattenstone met and interviewed Banksy for The Guardian in 2003, and describes Banksy as, “White, 28, scruffy casual — jeans, T-shirt, a silver tooth, silver chain and silver earring. He looks like a cross between Jimmy Nail and Mike Skinner of the Streets.” In her article, Banksy Was Here, for The New Yorker in 2007, Lauren Collins quotes Elizabeth Wolff, who describes Banksy as “ … the grimiest person I’d ever met. He looked like someone from one of those British industrial towns from the nineteenth century. There was a layer of grit on him.” — Banksy would like that one.
“He looked like someone from one of those British industrial towns from the nineteenth century. There was a layer of grit on him.”
Then you have footage of Banksy released by the man Banksy himself; but if you (like I) watched Banksy’s documentary/mocumentary, Exit Through The Gift Shop expecting gain a greater understanding of who Banksy actually is, you will have been disappointed. You may have learned more about the world he operates in, it’s dangers, and therefore the necessity for anonymity, but nothing about the man – bar his hands — is given away; even by the star of the show, the quixotic loudmouth Mr Brainwash. In his interview Mr Brainwash remains cunningly (and uncommonly) oblique: “He is what he projects …. He …. He …. I really like him.”
The Banksy we see in the film is a white-handed, hooded grim reaper figure with an equally grim mechanic voice warping a Bristolian West Country twang — he fits the profile constructed by both the people who have met him, and ‘geo profiled’ him. There is also the video of Banksy (dressed as a hooded white man) spraying a stencil on an anti-immigration politician’s (Pauline Hanson) residence in Australia and being caught by the girl filming him. Regardless of whether he’s a lone, white, man in reality or not, I would argue we can be pretty certain the video is a hoax, and that it was probably made by Banksy and his crew who, as the press and public become increasingly dogged in their quest, will need to do more of if they are to continue throwing us off the scent (plus, they have to find ways of publicizing the more obscure works).
But as Banksy’s ambition has grown, so too has his impact, and his collective of conspirators and collaborators. As Banksy’s pranks become ever more ambitious and global, the rumour that Banksy may be more than one person has been quietly gathering credibility – and surely the best way to keep one’s anonymity is to become more than one person.
Rumours of Banksy being an anonymous collective have abounded since his most embryonic years as a Street Artist in his hometown. Many living in Bristol during that era have reported either knowing or hearing of Banksy being a collective, and this theory of a collective has been mirrored by people I have interviewed personally over the last year, including an anonymous Banksy collector (Simon R) who told me in Flux Magazine, “Back then it seemed as if everyone in Bristol was friends with Massive Attack or Banksy. I was told it wasn’t just Banksy ‘solo’, certainly not at the start, there was a group of them.” Information from who knew him in his elementary years as street artist is probably the most reliable; that was a point when Banksy had little to lose (bar time spent in jail) in revealing his identity, and those in the know had the least to gain from revealing it.
In an article for Citilab by Kriston Capps, Canadian media artist Chris Healey claims to have proof that Banksy is a collective in his (specious) argument for Banksy being a woman, “Since there is so much misdirection and jamming of societal norms with Banksy’s work, as well as the oft-repeated claim no one notices Banksy, then it makes sense,” Healey tells Kriston Capps, “No one can find Banksy because they are looking for, or rather assuming, a man is Banksy.” Healey continues on his website, “I was wrong, as were my assumptions from square one. The answer to whom Banksy is not of question of who HE is, but rather who SHE is…. That’s right. You heard me – Banksy is not a him, but is a woman who leads of team of seven people. Any assumptions you had about gender and identity [sic] were purely your own projections, though I don’t think Banksy leading a team is news to anyone. But I really respect Banksy more than ever now. And who is my source? You’ll have to take me to the Supreme Court of Canada to find that out, but let’s just say it is legit and reliable information, and had the tell-tale ring of truth to it.” Capps suggests that the front-woman is, “potentially the same woman with long blonde hair who appears in scenes depicting Banksy’s alleged studio in Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
As much as I would like Banksy to be a woman, it seems unlikely such a socially motivated artist would allow us to wallow in our patriarchal-white-male-assumptions of their sex, and reports from journalists and people such as Joel Unagnst — who met Banksy in 2006 when he rented the warehouse space used for Banksy’s LA exhibition Barely Legal — to the contrary, just have that ‘tell-tale ring of truth.’
In Collin’s Banksy Was Here article she quotes Unagnst’s description of Banksy and his team, who he believes have ‘blossomed’ in numbers over the years, “Banksy and his confederates (a team of “fun-loving Englishmen,”) work flexible and light. Their m.o. is stealth: drop in on a city, perform reconnaissance, erect—in the style of a World’s Fair—a temporary gallery, and, almost before anyone knows they’ve been there, break it all down and get the hell out […] Unangst was instructed to refer to Banksy by an alias, which he refused to divulge, except to say that it was “a regular male name.” I asked Unangst what more he could tell me about Banksy, and he replied, “The only thing I can say is he’s like everybody, but he’s like nobody […] Banksy is a genius and a madman.” Unangst hypothesizes that the crew of 15 or so Englishman he met in 2006 has blossomed into more. Banksy — who he said was “very good at cutting stencils,” and “paranoid” about being outed — may well be sitting in the shadows while his army of “art warriors” execute the plans out on the street.”
In 2014, Laura Rosenfeld form Tech Times also argued Banksy had, if not started out as one, become a collective, “Whether or not Banksy is a man or a woman, I’m not really sure. But what I become more and more convinced of is that he is really a them. Banksy Does New York clearly showed that Banksy doesn’t act alone. Not only have eyewitnesses seen others helping him with his large-scale installations, but he also has people in his camp to communicate with organizations like Housing Works, who were notified by those working with Banksy that an anonymous donation of a painting featuring a Nazi officer looking out at a picturesque lakefront was in fact a Banksy original.”
We’ve known for a long time that Banksy has a team, but could he have selected a few fellow Street Artists he trusts to help him with the leading role? And who would this collective of lead Banksies be comprised of? Banksy has collaborated with numerous other street artists — including the DryBreadZ crew he was a part of in the ‘90s; then there were those involved in the Cans Festival he organized in 2008 that was help in London’s tunnels — he’s collaborated some of the other biggest names in Street Art and ‘Art, Art’: Damien Hist, Shepherd Fairey, Space Invader, and Fairey’s, Invader’s and Banksy’s Frankenstein creation, Mr Brainwash; he’s also teemed up with Brazilian twins, Os Gemeos, creating murals together in New York. But those artists are all well-known Street Artists in their own right (too well-known).
Now, a book by William Kasper, The Unusual Suspects, claims to have proof that ‘he’ really is a ‘them’, and proof of who ‘they’ are. Kasper thinks the slippery Street Artist is in reality a team headed by four people, and says that he’s rumbled them — or at least one of them: when a woman claimed she had filmed Banksy (a white man in a bucket hat spray-painting some walls) in Isreal earlier this year, Kasper felt it was time to corroborate this with the evidence from his up-coming book; claiming James Ame (who the Daily Beast in turn revealed was born James Hallewell), a Street Artist from the UK who lives and works in Israel, is one of the four Banksies.
Kasper told The Daily Mail in regards to images he had taken of that same white man in a bucket hat in Israel back in 2007, “I was tipped off by a former associate who identified the man on the ladder painting the wall as Banksy. He is the same man in the photo who appears to be holding a British passport next to the ‘Welcome’ mat prank at the Bethlehem check point. The man in both photographs is one of the Banksy members and hides behind the artist name James Ame or Ame72. He is the same man filmed last week in Herzliya Marina, Israel. Ame fits the profile perfectly – a long term graffiti artist from the 80s turned gallery and street artist […] I never believed Banksy was one person. The body of work over the last 10 years is too large for one person to accomplish. This proves the group use different artist names as a cover and all collective members are hiding in plain view. Whoever came up with that idea is a genius.” This could explain why Banksy has returned ten years after his famous adornment of the West Bank barrier — which included a trompe l’oiel stencil that made it appear as if a hole had been broken through the wall, revealing paradise on the other side — for his most recent stunt near the West Bank, The Walled-Off Hotel; noted for its “worst view in the world.”
Who else Kasper claims to have rumbled as a Banksy we will have to wait and see. For now, the Banksy collective is possibly comprised of James Ames, Inky, 3D and Robin Gunningham, and possibly fronted by an unknown woman, possibly. The true genius of Banksy is: Banksy has made pranking an art from, and if he/she/they came forward, passport(s) in hand, would we really believe it?
As for why no one who works with Banksy has outed him, Unangst tells Collins, “Even they don’t want to be photographed.” And as Julia Carver, curator of Contemporary Art at Bristol Museum, said in an interview with me earlier this year for MyArtBroker, “This is just what I know from people in Bristol who knew him but: there’s sort of an agreement with all of his peers that they keep quiet about who he is.” — even Banksy’s former agent Steve Lazerides, also from Bristol, who, though staging many unauthorized exhibitions of Banksy’s work since their split, has, to his credit, not revealed the identity of his former client(s).
In a more philosophical sense than Kasper, as Laura Rosenfeld said, whether Banksy started out as a collective or not, he is one now. The Banksy of Today does not stage his operations on his own: he did not create Dismaland on his own — reports that ‘Banksy’ was among the crowd can undoubtedly be true, in an ‘I am Spartacus’ way, the more people who work with Banksy can be Banksy; he did not create the Walled-Off Hotel on his own; he did does not create all of his own installations – see the animatronics in Banksy vs. Bristol Museum; he does not organize all of his stunts on his own, or the Cans Festival, or Exit Through The Gift Shop, or the many others. These are not events, artworks or practical jokes materialized for the public by the efforts of one man or woman, but by many, who are all sworn to protect the mystery of ‘Banksy’ like the nymphs of Artemis. And by doing so, they are creating a myth, a true legend.
Banksy said many years ago, “I have no interest in ever coming out. I figure there are enough self-opinionated assholes trying to get their ugly little faces in front of you as it is.” He also 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.”
My personal feelings towards Banksy’s anonymity? Leave it alone. Our ravenous desire to get to the bottom of who Banksy ‘really is’ seems to me as much of a moot point as finding out the origins of the universe: then what? Banksy is, for now, whoever you think he is. As Shakespeare(s) said, “Whatever it is—moon or sun or anything you like—if you want to call it a tea candle, that’s what it is as far as I’m concerned.”