Who is Banksy?

For most of us, a street artist. For others, an oil painter, a sculpturer, an organiser of enormous art shows, a social experimenter, a brilliant writer, and even a filmmaker. Our interpretation of Banksy depends on the narrative we create in our minds. Maybe the beauty of it all rests in the full picture: Banksy as a piece of art in himself. Accessible and comprehensive, but yet so difficult to grasp.

An icon for the alternative yet one of the best-paid painters in the UK. Anonymous but seeking the spotlight constantly. High voltage political figure claiming social justice and transparency, at the same time an incarnation of opacity. Collectors favourite investment, hitting “all-time highs” at top auction houses, but at the same time a constant provocateur of the art establishment. The contradictions and double entendres not only are essential in his paintings, but they are also the essence of the Banksy phenomenon.

A team or a single person?

The carefully crafted “official” narrative wants us to believe that Banksy is a single person. The sheer magnitude of his work and the many different techniques he uses in different genres points in the direction of a team of artists. It is well known that there is a production team helping out with art shows like Dismaland, “Better Out Than In” or “Banksy vs Bristol Museum”, nothing strange with that. Banksy’s street-art also points in the direction of a teamwork. Some of the stencils in recent years are large format and complex, and it would be an impossible task for a solo artist.

In the summer of 2009, Banksy mounts his most important exhibition up to date, ”Banksy vs Bristol Museum”. It’s a massive effort with approximately one hundred new pieces as well as some of the stuff from ”The Village Pet” the year before. It becomes the most visited art exhibition in the UK ever. Kate Brindley was one of the museum directors at the time, and she explains in the book ”Banksy, the man behind the Wall” by Will Ellsworth-Jones:

”It was like a big sort of Changing Rooms. We shut the museum, and it all came in. The only reason we could do that was because they (The Banksy team) had the manpower and the finances. They were incredibly professional. I am used to putting on exhibitions, but it was done in such a large and accelerated fashion. It was like working with a film crew”.

There are many reasons to believe that the creative core is also a teamwork of let say, three persons. It’s challenging to explain Banksy’s enormous production as a one-man effort: More than a thousand different pieces of artwork over 20 years in various genres in a wide array of techniques and styles. Add the film, the books and the organisation of the big exhibitions, and the theory of the single Banksy is impossible to support.

Misdirection

Key elements in Banksy’s artistic content is the playfulness, the accessible political message, the mischief and the constant provocation of the art establishment.  On another level, there is a carefully crafted narrative of mystery and subversion, held together with a masterful use of misdirection. Like a conjurer, the Banksy team wants our eyeballs to follow a dotted line while the real action is hidden from the public eye. The misdirection is used in many ways, mainly by the use of “different”  persons fronting as Banksy. Is it the same person that walks into Tate Britain in 2003 with a hidden painting as the hooded person who appears in “Exit Through the Gift Shop”?

The different persons fronting as Banksy in different contexts are members of the Banksy team. Part of the trick is that we will never know, the Banksy team is extremely tight, they all feel very much part of the project.

Other elements of misdirection are the pieces of information Banksy gives away in interviews by e-mail. Some of these interviews are found in Will Ellsworth’s excellent book ”The Man Behind the Wall”. A recurring theme is an issue of being anonymous. Banksy’s standard explanation is by going public he would be signing his own sentence to prison. That might have been true in the earlier days but definitely not after the major successes with Barely Legal in 2006 and “Banksy vs Bristol Museum” in 2009. From that moment any town council with a Banksy on its public walls had a free tourist attraction.

The social experiment side of Banksy

“Social experiment” is a growing genre within conceptual art. Artists like Caroline Woolard and Marina Abramovic fuse art and social experiments to challenge the way we live our postmodern lives. The film “The Square” by Ruben Ostlund is another example. If we perceive the entire Banksy phenomena as a piece of art in itself, there is unmistakenly a social experiment involved. Banksy not only challenges the art establishment, he questions our approach to confirmation bias, social constructionism, cognitive dissonance, and the collective narrative we create as a group of followers. Banksy is a ‘cultural identity marker’ for millions of persons around the world.

An example of a social experiment is the creation of the artist Mr Brainwash. In the film “Exit through the gift shop”, Banksy and the charming but chaotic filmmaker Thierry Guetta trade places in the middle of the film and the Banksy team transforms Guetta into Mr Brainwash. The experiment shows that talent and artistic intention can be replaced by sheer hype.

Banksy and geography

Roughly half of Banky’s production is street art, the rest is oils, acrylics and spray on canvas and other materials. There are also sculptures and installations. Approximately 80 % of Banksy’s street art is painted somewhere in the UK, mainly in London, followed by Bristol. About 13 % is painted in the USA and Canada – LA, San Francisco, NY, New Orleans, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, and Sundance. Approximately 7 % in the rest of the world, especially in Europe and Palestine. In continental Europe, we find Banky’s stencils in Paris, Calais, Vienna, a few in Barcelona, Berlin, Rome, and Napoles. Outside Europe, Palestine and North America, there are only a handful Banksys: A few in Tokyo, one in Australia and one in Mali, Africa. The only confirmed works in Latin America are the freehand paintings and a few stencils in the Chiapas region. I might have forgotten some places, but, the conclusion is that Banksy’s street art is concentrated in the UK and US, with Palestine in the third place. The top five Banksy locations are London, Bristol, Los Angeles, New York, Palestine.

But, if Banksy is a teamwork, it’s pointless to perform an exact geo-profiling, a member of the team can apply spray paint on the pre-designed stencils. At the same time, the location of the street artwork is very well planned. Nothing is done by chance or impulse. Especially after the shift towards more complex stencils around 2005.

Who is the creative genius behind Banksy?

Banksy and his successful anonymity rely on the old philosophical truth: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The project is organised according to this principle, i.e. there will be no “evidence”, at least in the foreseeable future.

According to a well-situated source in the Bristol street art scene, there are several prominent Bristol street artists involved with the Banksy project. One of them might be Tom “Inkie” Bingle, another one Robert Del Naja, also known as 3D. Another interesting possibility is the multitalented Derren Brown. Other staffers on the Banksy team might include James Ame, Wissam Salsaa, and Tristan Manco. But who is the creative leader? The beauty of it all is that we will never know for sure, because – who would confirm? We can only make more or less qualified guesses.