Banksy is an English artist and writer, considered one of the greatest exponents of street art, whose true identity is still unknown.
Banksy is a pseudonymous England-based street artist, political activist and film director whose real name and identity remain unconfirmed and the subject of speculation. Active since the 1990s, his satirical street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humour with graffiti executed in a distinctive stenciling technique. His works of political and social commentary have appeared on streets, walls and bridges throughout the world. Banksy’s work grew out of the Bristol underground scene, which involved collaborations between artists and musicians. Banksy says that he was inspired by 3D, a graffiti artist and founding member of the musical group Massive Attack.
Banksy displays his art on publicly visible surfaces such as walls and self-built physical prop pieces. Banksy no longer sells photographs or reproductions of his street graffiti, but his public “installations” are regularly resold, often even by removing the wall they were painted on. Much of his work can be classified as temporary art. A small number of Banksy’s works are officially, non-publicly, sold through an agency created by Banksy named Pest Control. Banksy’s documentary film Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) made its debut at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. In January 2011, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for the film. In 2014, he was awarded Person of the Year at the 2014 Webby Awards.
Banksy’s name and identity remain unconfirmed and the subject of speculation. In a 2003 interview with Simon Hattenstone of The Guardian, Banksy is described 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.” Banksy began as an artist at the age of 14, was expelled from school, and served time in prison for petty crime. According to Hattenstone, “anonymity is vital to him because graffiti is illegal”. Banksy reportedly lived in Easton, Bristol during the late 1990s, before moving to London around 2000.
Banksy is commonly believed to be Robin Gunningham, as first identified by The Mail on Sunday in 2008, born on 28 July 1973 in Yate, 12 miles (19 km) from Bristol. Several of Gunningham’s associates and former schoolmates at Bristol Cathedral School have corroborated this, and in 2016, a study by researchers at the Queen Mary University of London using geographic profiling found that the incidence of Banksy’s works correlated with the known movements of Gunningham. According to The Sunday Times, Gunningham began employing the name Robin Banks, which eventually became Banksy. Two cassette sleeves featuring his art work from 1993, for the Bristol band Mother Samosa, exist with his signature. In June 2017, DJ Goldie referred to Banksy as “Rob”.
Other speculations on Banksy’s identity include the following:
- Robert Del Naja (a.k.a. 3D), a member of the trip hop band Massive Attack, had been a graffiti artist during the 1980s prior to forming the band, and was previously identified as a personal friend of Banksy.
- In 2020, users on Twitter began to speculate that former Art Attack presenter Neil Buchanan was Banksy. This was denied by Buchanan’s publicist.
- In 2022, Billy Gannon, a local councillor in Pembroke Dock was rumoured to be Banksy. He subsequently resigned because the speculation was affecting his ability to carry out the duties of a councillor. “I’m being asked to prove who I am not, and the person that I am not may not exist,” he said. “I mean, how am I supposed to prove that I’m not somebody who doesn’t exist? Just how do you do that?”
In October 2014, an internet hoax circulated that Banksy had been arrested and his identity revealed.
Banksy started as a freehand graffiti artist in 1990–1994 as one of Bristol‘s DryBreadZ Crew (DBZ), with two other artists known as Kato and Tes. He was inspired by local artists and his work was part of the larger Bristol underground scene with Nick Walker, Inkie and 3D. During this time he met Bristol photographer Steve Lazarides, who began selling Banksy’s work, later becoming his agent. By 2000 he had turned to the art of stencilling after realising how much less time it took to complete a work. He claims he changed to stencilling while hiding from the police under a rubbish lorry, when he noticed the stencilled serial number and by employing this technique, he soon became more widely noticed for his art around Bristol and London. He was the goalkeeper for the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls football team in the 1990s, and toured with the club to Mexico in 2001. Banksy’s first known large wall mural was The Mild Mild West painted in 1997 to cover advertising of a former solicitors’ office on Stokes Croft in Bristol. It depicts a teddy bear lobbing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police.
Banksy’s stencils feature striking and humorous images occasionally combined with slogans. The message is usually anti-war, anti-capitalist, or anti-establishment. Subjects often include rats, apes, policemen, soldiers, children, and the elderly.
In July 2011 one of Banksy’s early works, Gorilla in a Pink Mask, which had been a prominent landmark on the exterior wall of a former social club in Eastville for over ten years, was unwittingly painted over after the premises became a Muslim cultural centre.
On 19 July 2002, Banksy’s first Los Angeles exhibition debuted at 331⁄3 Gallery, a tiny Silver Lake venue owned by Frank Sosa and was on view until 18 August. The exhibition, entitled Existencilism, “an Exhibition of Art, Lies and Deviousness” was curated by 331⁄3 Gallery, Malathion LA’s Chris Vargas, Funk Lazy Promotions’ Grace Jehan, and B+. The flyer of the exhibition indicates an opening reception was followed by a performance by Money Mark with DJ’s Jun, AL Jackson, Rhettmatic, J.Rocc, Coleman. Some of the paintings exhibited included Smiley Copper H (2002), Leopard and Barcode (2002), Bomb Hugger (2002), and Love is in the Air (2002).
Banksy mural in Bethlehem
In 2003, at an exhibition called Turf War, held in a London warehouse, Banksy painted on animals. At the time he gave one of his very few interviews, to the BBC’s Nigel Wrench. Although the RSPCA declared the conditions suitable, an animal rights activist chained herself to the railings in protest. An example of his subverted paintings is Monet‘s Water Lily Pond, adapted to include urban detritus such as litter and a shopping trolley floating in its reflective waters; another is Edward Hopper‘s Nighthawks, redrawn to show that the characters are looking at a British football hooligan, dressed only in his Union Flag underpants, who has just thrown an object through the glass window of the café. These oil paintings were shown at a twelve-day exhibition in Westbourne Grove, London in 2005.
£10 notes to Barely Legal (2004–2006)
In August 2004, Banksy produced a quantity of spoof British £10 notes replacing the picture of the Queen’s head with Diana, Princess of Wales‘s head and changing the text “Bank of England” to “Banksy of England”. Someone threw a large wad of these into a crowd at Notting Hill Carnival that year, which some recipients then tried to spend in local shops. These notes were also given with invitations to a Santa’s Ghetto exhibition by Pictures on Walls. The individual notes have since been selling on eBay. A wad of the notes was also thrown over a fence and into the crowd near the NME signing tent at the Reading Festival. A limited run of 50 signed posters containing ten uncut notes was also produced and sold by Pictures on Walls for £100 each to commemorate the death of Princess Diana. One of these sold in October 2007 at Bonhams auction house in London for £24,000.
The reproduction of images of the banknotes classifies as a criminal offence (s.18 Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981). In 2016, the American Numismatic Society received an email from a Reproductions Officer at the Bank of England, which brought attention to the illegality of publishing photos of the banknotes on their website without prior permission. The Bank of England holds the copyright over all its banknotes.
Also in 2004, Banksy created a limited edition screenprint titled Napalm (Can’t Beat That Feeling). In the print, Banksy appropriated the image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, a Vietnamese girl who appeared in the iconic 1972 photograph The Terror of War by Nick Ut. Napalm shows the image of Kim Phuc as seen in the original photo, but no longer within the tragic war setting. Instead, he situates the young girl against an empty background, still screaming, but now accompanied by Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse. The two characters hold her hands as they cheerfully gesture to an invisible audience, seemingly oblivious to the terrified girl. The image of Kim Phuc is flat, grainy and monochromatic; in most of the prints, Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse are yellow. In a few limited prints, the corporate characters wear pink or orange. Banksy produced 150 signed and 500 unsigned copies of Napalm.