In Depth

Who is Banksy? Suspected sightings of the elusive street artist

Anonymous spray painter’s ‘ultimate’ artwork goes up for auction today

Crowds visibly gasped when Banksy’s 2006 artwork Girl with Balloon started shredding itself moments after selling at auction for more than £1m in 2018.

Now the “partially shredded” artwork, renamed Love Is In The Bin, is up for sale again, said WWD.

Sotheby’s chairman of modern and contemporary art Alex Branczik has described it as “the ultimate Banksy artwork”, which “sparked a global sensation”. More than 30,000 news stories were published on the “artistic happening”, said Sotheby’s.

Today’s auction will be eagerly watched. “A new record for the artist could be in the making,” said The Art Newspaper, with the piece expected to fetch between £4m and £6m. Art dealer Robin Barton told the publication “it could either make a really high price or people will sit on their hands”.

Further intrigue was sparked this week by the appearance of a “Banksy-style mural” on the side of a pub in Stockport, said the BBC. But the painting, which shows a boy flying a kite, was instead claimed by an artist using the pseudonym Mr Eggs.

He told the Manchester Evening News: “There are a lot of good artists out there, but it’s always Banksy who gets any air time and publicity.”

He added that stencilling had been “around for years” and “it’s not like he invented spray can art”.

Locals would be forgiven for mistaking the two artists. Mr Eggs revealed “I’m the only person in the world to have smuggled a painting into a Banksy show so I don’t think I’m on his favourites list.”

Has anyone ever met Banksy?

Here are some of the key Banksy “sightings” over the years:

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, 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.” 

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, was published in the Daily Mail. It showed a man wearing a green baseball cap who the 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 pictures claiming to unmask the reclusive millionaire street artist was taken in New York in October 2013. 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 in Tel Aviv, 2017: A woman claimed to have spotted the artist at an Israeli shopping centre just north of Tel Aviv. It came just days after Banksy had opened an exhibition in Bethlehem. Video footage shot on a mobile phone shows the mysterious man, wearing a white hat, blue shirt and camouflage trousers, carrying a stencil before putting up a hand to cover his face. Israeli newspaper Haaretz cast doubt on the report, saying the man caught on camera was indeed a British graffiti artist, but James Ame, who is married to an Israeli woman.

Banksy ‘spotted’ in Hull, 2018: Footage recorded by a scrap dealer in Hull is said to reveal the “original” Banksy – believed to be Gunningham. The man, who bears a striking resemblance to Gunningham, was caught on video in Hull at the same time that three “Banksy” artworks were discovered in the city. According to The Independent the artist was spotted wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses to shield his identity, metres from a daubing that was later confirmed to be genuine.

Banksy takes to the tube, 2020: A video posted by the artist on Instagram in July 2020 shows a man “presumed to be Banksy” enter a Circle Line train before spraying a stencilled rat onto a carriage, said the BBC. The man in the video was “disguised as a cleaner” - but before the artist was able to share the footage, real Transport for London cleaning staff had “wiped away” the work. “In the current climate, it’s perhaps reassuring that the cleaners on the Tube did their job quickly and efficiently”, said BBC London transport correspondent Tom Edwards.

Banksy ‘snapped’ in Norfolk, 2021: Gorleston-on-Sea resident Sam Jermy spotted an “elusive” street artist in August this year, after hearing that murals similar to the style of Banksy’s work had appeared in other nearby seaside towns. “What a shame he didn’t zoom in on the face” when capturing the supposed “man with the can” on camera, said ITV Anglia.

Is Banksy another well-known 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 suggested in 2016 that “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.

Is he really multiple people?

One theory that has long done the rounds is that rather than being a single lone artist, Banksy is in fact a number of people.

In his book The Unusual Suspects, William Kasper claimed he is actually four people. One of the “Banksys” he unmasked is James Hallewell, “a British born street artist believed to have earned his chops in the northern town of Sheffield in the late 1990s”, said the Daily Beast.

“While there is plenty of doubt that Hallewell is the ‘original’ Banksy, it is very likely that he is one of Banksy’s key assistants and collaborators,” the Beast added.

According to The Independent, journalist Craig Williams has suggested that Banksy “is really a collective of artists associated with Massive Attack rather than one person, cross-referencing the sudden appearance of Banksy murals with the band’s tour dates in a viral blog post of August 2016, finding a number of matches”.

“The ‘multiple Banksys’ idea… provides a simple explanation for how a graffiti artist who has daubed tens of thousands of images on walls around the world and even built mock theme parks has managed to avoid identification by mainstream media and hipster blogs,” said the Daily Beast.

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