Who is Banksy? Elusive street artist to get biggest ever London exhibition

Who is Banksy? Elusive street artist to get biggest ever London exhibition

The largest collection of works by Banksy ever assembled in a London exhibition will be displayed in a Soho gallery later this week.

The Art of Banksy will showcase more than 150 pieces by the elusive street artist at the 100 Charing Cross Road Gallery from Thursday (April 11).

Famously publicity-shy, the artist has not authorised the exhibition — which has toured the world. Cities including Sydney, Chicago and Gothenburg have hosted it.

It will include some of Banksy’s most famous works including Flower Thrower and Girl With Balloon — although many of his larger pieces still adorn London’s walls.

Most recently, the artist confirmed that he was behind street artwork in Finsbury Park where a wall is decorated to look like a tree in bloom.

Michel Boersma, curator and producer of the exhibition, told the BBC: "What could be a better location for a Banksy exhibition than London's very own bohemian hub, Soho.

"We can't wait to share everything that we've got planned for our new home."

The exhibition is expected to be in London for a year. It will contain the Mona Lisa work which Banksy sold in 2003 and then worked on further once he was given it back.

Banksy has not given an in-person interview since that year and has never revealed his true identity. However, many theories have swirled around over the years about this.

Here’s all you need to know.

Why does Banksy keep his identity a secret?

Banksy has continually refused to reveal his identity, which he says is to prevent incriminating himself because of the illegal nature of graffiti.

Erin-Atlanta Argun, of MyArtBroker, said his reasoning may have changed over time.

“During his early years, Banksy was anonymous for fear of being prosecuted for the criminal damage inflicted by his street art,” she wrote.

“Nowadays, he continues to paint covertly to dodge the limelight and protect that air of mystery so distinctive to graffiti artists.”

Here are the most commonly speculated reasons why he prefers to retain a mysterious aura:

  • Anonymity allows him to maintain independence and freedom: "Banksy can create art without fear of personal repercussions or legal consequences by keeping his identity hidden. This anonymity means he can express his views and critiques of society more freely.

  • Focus on the art, not the artist: Banksy has said he wants the focus to be on his artwork rather than himself. By remaining anonymous, he shifts attention away from his identity and towards the messages conveyed by his art.

  • Avoiding commercialisation and commodification: Banksy's anonymity adds to the intrigue and mystique surrounding his work, which can increase its value and appeal. Revealing his identity could cause his art to be commodified or commercialised against his artistic principles.

Who is Banksy?

He rose to prominence in the early 2000s for his distinctive stencilled graffiti artworks that often carry political and social messages.

A 2003 Guardian interview by Simon Hattenstone said: “Bansky is 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.”

That same year, Banksy told the BBC his name was Robbie but did not reveal his surname. The interview did not show his face.

Theories have flown around for years about his true identity. Here are some of the best guesses:

Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja

Robert Del Naja performs with Massive Attack at Glastonbury (Ben Birchall / PA Archive)
Robert Del Naja performs with Massive Attack at Glastonbury (Ben Birchall / PA Archive)

This is one of the most popular theories — of course, it would be fun if Banksy was someone we already know.

Massive Attack musician Robert Del Naja is also a graffiti artist and spent years in Bristol, strengthening the claim because this is where Banksy is from.

Fans believed they’d finally cracked the puzzle when DJ Goldie supposedly let Banksy’s name slip on Scroobius Pip’s podcast. While discussing Banksy, Goldie said: “No disrespect to Rob, I think he is a brilliant artist. I think he has flipped the world of art over.”

Theorists have matched Massive Attack tour dates with the appearance of new murals. Both Banksy and Del Naja have cited each other as inspirations.

But Del Naja has denied being Banksy and the “Rob” Goldie mentioned also reportedly refers to Robin Gunningham — another potential candidate.

Robin Gunningham

Robin Gunningham is a name widely speculated to be the true identity of Banksy.

However, there hasn't been any official confirmation from Banksy himself or concrete evidence linking Gunningham definitively to Banksy.

Gunningham's name first surfaced in a 2008 investigation by the Mail on Sunday, which claimed to have identified him as Banksy based on various sources and evidence.

The Mail on Sunday claimed that Gunningham was born on July 28, 1974, in Yate, 12 miles from Bristol.

Criminologists at Queen Mary University of London even used geographic profiling to identify Banksy in 2016. The technique is usually used to find repeat offenders, but the researchers analysed 140 artworks in London and Bristol attributed to the artist.

Gorillaz founder Jamie Hewlett

The Gorillaz founder Jamie Hewlett is rumoured to be Banksy (Francois Durand / Getty Images)
The Gorillaz founder Jamie Hewlett is rumoured to be Banksy (Francois Durand / Getty Images)

Another famous face to get caught up in the speculation is Jamie Hewlett, comic artist and founder of the English virtual band Gorillaz. An anonymous forensic expert in 2018 reportedly obtained data showing J Hewlett associated with every company connected with the artist.

Adding fuel to the fire, Banksy’s gorilla artwork was used in the band’s music video for Tomorrow Comes Today. However, Banksy’s publicist denied the claims.

Thierry Guetta – aka Mr Brainwash

Mr Brainwash is among those suspected to be the famous street artist (Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Republic Records)
Mr Brainwash is among those suspected to be the famous street artist (Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Republic Records)

Banksy’s 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop tells the story of Thierry Guetta, aka Mr Brainwash. He is a street artist in Los Angeles who runs a vintage clothing shop and obsesses over filming his surroundings.

Guetta subsequently rose to fame and rumours began to spread that he was Banksy and that the documentary was a hoax. Many sources have contradicted these theories.

An unnamed woman leading a group

Most assumptions have been that Banksy is one man, but there have been theories that Banksy is a woman in charge of a group of artists.

Canadian artist Chris Healey puts forward this argument in the documentary Banksy Does New York. He says Banksy is the blonde woman who appears in studio scenes in Exit Through the Gift Shop. Healey refuses to reveal his source but maintains this stance.

Richard Pfeiffer

Richard Pfeiffer was simply in the wrong (or right?) place at the wrong time. The Brooklyn freelance engineer and artist and his girlfriend were in 2014 admiring one of Banksy’s works in Manhattan when he was arrested and accused of drawing the image.

He had a pen in his pocket but proved it was not the same one that drew the graffiti and the charges were dropped six months later.