Mystery is something humans are transfixed by. Information omitted or questions left unanswered often draw the attention of those who might not have been interested in the thing the mystery surrounds in the first place. It’s interesting to look at old mysteries, questions that people might never solve because centuries have passed since the relevant people were alive. For example, some scholars believe that Michelangelo da Caravaggio created The Beheading of St. John the Baptist almost as an apology for previous crimes and transgressions. The Baroque master even signed his name in the martyr’s blood. Then there are the reasons behind Vincent van Gogh’s suicide, or if it was even suicide in the first place. Some believe that Van Gogh actually may have died as a result of a dispute with an acquaintance named René Secretan. But in the contemporary arts, true mysteries are rather rare. But the big one that has been on many people’s minds for decades is the identity of the anonymous British street artist Banksy. Some podcasters claim that they have found the answer to this question. But I think it’s not as meaningful an occasion as some people would like.
Recently, the hosts of The Banksy Story podcast claimed to have uncovered audio recordings from a 2003 interview that Banksy gave to BBC arts correspondent Nigel Wrench. In the recordings, Wrench asked if his name was Robert Banks, with the artist responding, “It’s Robbie.” Many have tried to uncover Banksy’s identity, from Internet sleuths to major newspapers. There are about three or four major candidates people put forth as Banksy’s real name. In 2008, British newspapers like The Mail on Sunday claimed that they unmasked Banksy, pointing to a Bristol artist named Robin Gunningham, who some claim went by the pseudonym Robin Banks for a time, making him The Banksy Story’s candidate, I suppose. Then there’s Robert Del Naja, a member of the Bristol trip-hop group Massive Attack. Friends and acquaintances of both Gunningham and Del Naja confirm their respective identities as Banksy. Briefly, some people believed Banksy was Neil Buchanan, the creator of the British children’s television program Art Attack.
Personality has always been a part of the arts. The creator of a painting, a sculpture, a drawing, a film, or a piece of music is often just as important as the work’s content and message. Knowing who created a painting can greatly influence how an audience understands and interprets it. And in a time when personal data is so easily accessible online, the inability to identify a public figure will stand out to people. For example, why is the Mona Lisa so famous? Of course, you could say it’s the technique Leonardo da Vinci applied or the mystery of the subject’s identity that eluded art historians for centuries. Or perhaps it’s because it’s by Leonardo, and that’s all the information some people need to judge the painting as a masterpiece. Even though the name is just a pseudonym, the name Banksy carries a good deal of weight today. His work is graffiti and, therefore, illegal in most jurisdictions. Yet, his murals are often left untouched, protected even, while the works of other artists are painted over and declared vandalism. Two graffiti artists in Glasgow highlighted this double standard recently when they revealed that they had created a piece of street art originally believed by some to be an original Banksy. This was uncovered, and the local council voted to paint over the mural, somewhat proving their original point.
In the end, it just doesn’t matter. Not only does knowing Banksy’s real name not matter in the end, but I think it would distract from what makes Banksy special. Of course, there are lots of things that make Banksy special. Anyone familiar with graffiti knows Banksy’s creations require genuinely impressive skill sets. Not only is he artistically gifted, but he uses his talent and the platform he’s created to call attention to causes and issues that need to be highlighted, ranging from the mistreatment of refugees to domestic violence to the war in Ukraine to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But one of the great things that makes Banksy truly unique is his anonymity. When an artist creates a work that contains a meaning or a message, it’s not unusual to interpret it as their own message. But with Banksy, his anonymity allows us to depersonalize his messages, allowing people to think about the issues he addresses in his work not as something that comes from one person or another but as something that anyone anywhere can express. Banksy often physically manifests deep-seated feelings about certain issues that whole swaths of the population feel they cannot or will not say.
Plus, on a more practical level, Banksy’s anonymity is so integral to his image and message that taking it away would not do anyone any good. The mystery behind his true identity is often what draws people to him. Who are we to reject his wish to remain anonymous? It becomes an almost ethical question of when and how should people start poking around at those who want to stay unknown? Media and online detectives almost feel like Banksy owes it to us to reveal his identity when his real name is something that only he has the power to reveal when he chooses, on his own terms. If Banksy retires, hanging up his stencils and putting his spray cans on the table, then it may be acceptable to poke and prod at his true identity. If he passes away, then it becomes acceptable. But until that happens, it’s just none of our business.