This is something a little different. I’ve had an obsession with Banksy for a while now. Recently a new biography was released. The author claims to know Banksy’s true identity but chose not to reveal it. I’m glad. Here I say why.
It was the rats I first noticed.
I moved to London in 2006 and right from the start, on the morning walk from my east end flat to work in the city, I began to notice half a dozen spray painted rats hidden in various little nooks and crannies along the way. Each rat was different and most held signs of some sort, or sometimes an umbrella. The last one on my journey was directly outside my office building, a belligerent little fellow holding a placard saying ‘London doesn’t work.’
I’m no fan of graffiti. Tagging disgusts me and I can’t stand the colourful American-style hip hop graffiti that apparently is edgy and cool but all looks the same to me. But I loved the rats and would greet each one cheerfully, arriving at the Job That Ate My Soul with a smile that lasted all the way through my first coffee. At that workplace, a smile was a rare thing indeed.
I mentioned the rats to my colleagues and while most had noticed them here and there, nobody seemed to hold the same affection for them as me. I didn’t think too much more about them, simply enjoying them for what they were, happy that they were there.
It was about a month later, walking home along one of the narrow streets behind my building that I spotted another piece I really liked. This one was of a little boy holding a paintbrush under some ugly tags, a defiant I-didn’t-do-it expression on his face. I pointed it out to my companion.
‘That’s a Banksy,’ he told me. ‘You know, the guy who does the rats.’ I immediately went home and googled Banksy and an obsession was born.
Banksy, I discovered, was much more than a graffiti artist. He was a political activist and prankster, who had pulled such stunts as climbing into the penguin enclosure at London Zoo and writing ‘We’re bored of fish’ in seven-foot high letters and smuggling his own works into the British Museum, Louvre and Tate Galleries to see how long before they were noticed (the British Museum added his piece, Caveman with shopping trolley, to its permanent collection). He created a million pounds worth of counterfeit ten-pound notes, replacing the Queen’s head with that of Princess Di, dumping them on the city from a light plane. His work was international, with some beautiful pieces on a Gaza Strip wall showing children breaking through to paradise on the other side, as well as a daring prank at Disneyland, where he added a Guantanamo Bay prisoner to the installations.
But most importantly, he was anonymous. Completely, utterly anonymous. And he gave away his work for free.
The more I read about his pieces and pranks – all deployed with a wicked sense of humour, a good dose of subversiveness and usually a message on consumerism or politics – the more I wanted to know. My online research bordered on stalking and I devoured every article, every sighting, every mention of Banksy. My favourite was a 2003 article in the Guardian Unlimited, by a reporter who actually met and interviewed him (at least, he was pretty sure it was him) at a pub local to me. His description of the artist as having been expelled from school and spent time in prison, “28, scruffy casual – jeans, T-shirt, a silver tooth, silver chain and silver earring. . . a cross between Jimmy Nail and Mike Skinner of the Streets,” fuelled my fantasies of a dashing maverick, a bad boy with a message.
I discovered that many of his artworks featured in my neighbourhood of Shoreditch and spent weekends scouring lanes and alleys for them, delighting in each one I found. Often I would only get to see them once before the Hackney Council, practicing a zero tolerance to graffiti, painted over them, although I preferred this to the practice of businesses protecting his works – always supposed to be temporary – with sheets of Perspex before the Council could get to them. I fantasised about catching him in the act during one of my 3am walks of shame back to my apartment. In my daydreams I would stop and chat and promise him his secret was safe with me, then we’d go for a coffee or a drink at one of the dozens of local all-night dives.
Some time in mid-2007 I came tantalisingly close to realising the fantasy. Walking along Old Street, I was struck by a large artwork that I knew had not been there the day before. It was an angel, dressed in a flak jacket and holding a skull, untouched, fresh and new. Somehow I knew immediately it was a Banksy. He’d been here, just a block away from my flat during the night whilst I’d slept. I kicked myself for not being out and about at whatever time of night it had happened.
But something else began to happen as my obsession grew – so did that of other people. Everywhere I went, Banksy’s artworks were being turned into prints, coasters, t-shirts and fridge magnets. Although Banksy himself initially had no control over or monetary benefit from this, his fans began to accuse him of selling out. His originals began to sell for tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of pounds to collectors and celebrities. A cartoon-like admonishment appeared on Banksy’s own website, stating “I can’t believe you people pay for this shit”.
British newspapers became rife with speculation on who the mysterious artist was. His name was Robin or Robert Banks. He was a painter and decorator or a butcher. He didn’t really exist, but was a consortium of street artists painting under one name.
Then, the bombshell. In mid-2008, the Mail on Sunday printed a lengthy article, the result of a year-long investigation, that concluded Banksy was a man by the name of Robin Gunningham. The photographs showed an unremarkable man closing in on middle-age and the biography described him as “a former public schoolboy brought up in middle-class suburbia”. No mention of expulsion, no time in prison, no dashing bad-boy.
The piece was convincing, but surprisingly there has been no follow-up articles either confirming or debunking the Mail’s findings. Banksy’s Wikipedia entry still lists his identity as undetermined.
With his numerous gallery shows, sales of authenticated pieces and the release of his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy’s identity must, it seems, be known by scores, if not hundreds, of people by now. It makes sense that those who hold a commercial interest in Banksy also have a vested interest in ensuring his identity remains a secret; like the members of KISS removing their makeup, Banksy unmasked would surely be the beginning of the end of his bankability.
With such remarkable commercial success and the public’s insatiable appetite for spoilers, it seems inevitable that it is only a matter of time before some other investigative reporter or a recalcitrant ‘friend’ identifies him beyond a shadow of a doubt.
In the meantime, his hooded, shadowed appearance in Exit has allowed me to revive my fantasies. So before anyone – including Banksy himself – spoils the illusion, don’t think you are doing his fans any favours.
We may just prefer not to know.
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