Who is Banksy? Artist avoids awards-show unmasking

Jun 10, 2016

Researchers believe the elusive street artist is really Robin Gunningham, but other theories abound

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Banksy artwork decorates the walls of Cheltenham, in Gloucestershire

Speculation was high that elusive street artist Banksy would finally show his face this week after he was nominated in the South Bank Sky Arts Awards.

The mystery man was nominated for the visual arts prize for his Dismaland Bemusement Park, a surreal pop-art installation in Weston-Super-Mare.

However, the illusive graffiti master once more kept his distance – and the Bristol Post later revealed that he had chosen a local arts student to go in his place.

For now, at least, Banksy's identity officially remains a mystery – although there are some who think the puzzle has already been solved.

In March, researchers at the Queen Mary University of London unveiled a geographical profiling of more than 100 of Banksy's alleged works in Bristol and London. Using a technique more commonly applied to tracking down criminals, they identified several of the artist's "hot spots", including a pub and playing field in Bristol and three addresses in the capital.

And many of the locations were associated with just one person: Robin Gunningham.

"For Banksy junkies, this comes as little surprise," says Gizmodo, adding that the method employed was "incredibly imprecise". Rumours that former private schoolboy Gunningham is the mystery artist have been doing the rounds since at least 2004, while in 2008, the Daily Mail claimed with great fanfare to have "unmasked" him.

However, with no official confirmation, there are still plenty of other theories and key Banksy "sightings" to ponder:

Banksy meets The Guardian, 2003: One of the only journalists to have met Banksy is The Guardian's Simon Hattenstone. He described the artist as "white, 28, scruffy casual – jeans, T-shirt, a silver tooth, silver chain and silver earring. He [Banksy] looks like a cross between Jimmy Nail and Mike Skinner of the Streets."

Banksy in Bethnal Green, 2007: A passer-by "familiar with Banksy's work" snapped the artist and an assistant painting a mural in Bethnal Green, east London. The picture "could show the reclusive artist at work," said The BBC.

Banksy is "nice middle-class boy", 2008: The Mail on Sunday broke the mould by running a sharp picture of a smiling, curly-haired man it insisted was Banksy. His real name is Robin Gunningham, said the paper, which also claimed he was a public schoolboy educated at the £9,240-a-year Bristol Cathedral School. Fans of the artist's "anti-establishment stance" would doubtless be "shocked" to learn of his true identity, the Mail added.

Banksy self-portrait confirms his identity, 2009: When a Banksy "self-portrait" appeared on the side of an office block in east London, the Mail on Sunday felt vindicated. "The image is almost identical to the Mail on Sunday's picture [of Gunningham]," it said. "It is possible the graffiti art was created by someone else," the paper admitted. "But evidence compiled in a Mail on Sunday investigation suggests that Banksy is indeed Robin Gunningham – and that in his latest graffiti he has coyly acknowledged his unmasking." 

Mrs Banksy unmasked, 2011: The woman sitting in front of a laptop looks like "just another unremarkable young professional", said the Daily Mail. In fact, she is Joy Millward, the "very secretive wife of the world's most secretive artist, Banksy". Millward, a parliamentary lobbyist who is married to Robin Gunningham, declined to comment.

Banksy goes to the Playboy Club, 2011: Was that Banksy wearing a vicar's outfit and a skull mask to a celebrity bash at the Playboy Club in Mayfair, London? Members of the paparazzi insisted it was, Digital Spy wasn't so sure.

Banksy unmasked in Santa Monica, 2011: Another grainy, out-of-focus picture, this one taken in Los Angeles. It shows a man wearing a green baseball cap who the Daily Mail says has just painted the words 'This Looks a bit like an Elephant' on a container near a busy motorway.

Banksy in New York, 2013: One of the most recent pictures claiming to unmask the reclusive millionaire street artist was taken in New York in October last year. It shows a gaunt-looking man wearing a flat cap and "paint-spattered overalls". The snap, taken by one of the stencil artist's fans, was captured as a delivery truck being used to display one of his art works was parked on a Manhattan street. When a battery failed and the lights illuminating the picture of a lush garden went off, the man in the cap "sprang into action". There were several men at the scene, but the one in the hat "stood out from the group", said the Daily Mirror.

Banksy is another artist

Perhaps rather than holding a Clark Kent-style ordinary day job, Banksy's alter ego is already well-known in the art world. The Daily Telegraph suggests "Banksy" could be an alias for trailblazing British artist Damien Hirst. "The pair collaborated for the piece Keeping It Spotless, which features a French maid sweeping under a spot painting," the paper says.

Banksy is a woman

A recurring theory is that "he" is in fact a "she". Previous evidence supporting the "flimsy theory" that Banksy is a man is likely to be a form of "misdirection" planted by the artist herself, suggests CityLab writer Kriston Capps. "Girls and women figure into Banksy's stencilled figures, for starters, something that isn't true of 99 per cent of street art," he says. 

Canadian media artist Chris Healey has maintained since 2010 that Banksy is a team of seven artists led by a woman, although he refuses to reveal his "legit and reliable" source.

Should the quest to unmask Banksy continue? Salon thinks not. "It's inevitably much more fun to think of some masked Warhol biting his thumb at the mainstream art world and taking the mystique of an anonymous graffiti tag to its inevitable conclusion," it says. "Banksy is everywhere and nowhere at the same time."

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