The well-known, unknown artist
Many people have tried to find out who Banksy really is. Some point to him being part of the trip-hop duo Massive Attack, some believe Banksy is actually a woman. Those who have made the most strenuous attempt to find Banksy's true identity were a group of students who in 2016 used police methods and techniques to track down serial killers. Using the technique, they found a man named Robin Gunningham. The man's whereabouts reportedly corresponded with the locations of Banksy's works. However, the theory has never been proven or disproven because no one has been able to make contact with this Gunningham.
One thing you do know is that Banksy started his career in the graffiti scene in the 1990s. He has been painting freehand graffiti since the early 1990s, and then started using stencils in 2000. Stencils are premade templates that you can spray on top, which are quicker to apply and have a completely unique look. Banksy quickly developed a distinctive style in the use of stencils, which is what he is best known for today. His works communicate, among other things, socially revolting and anti-authoritarian messages. Banksy has a number of recurring motifs; his messengers are often policemen, children, monkeys and rats.
That Banksy can remain unknown is impressive. In 2005, he himself exhibited some of his work at several of the world's most renowned art museums in both New York and London, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Tate Britain. One might question the authenticity of the stunt and whether it was done in collaboration with the museums, as security in such places makes it near impossible to hang even one work without being discovered.
Another work by Banksy in 2005 could be found on the Palestinian side of the wall that divides the West Bank. The work depicts children playing on the raw earth, while above them a motif is created of looking through the wall, through the hole one sees a paradisiacal tropical beach. A commentary on the narrative of settled life in the West versus war-torn Palestine.
One of Banksy's biggest projects to date was the temporary theme park Dismaland in Weston-super-Mare in 2015. The theme park acted as a piece of conceptual art for the whole family, designed to convey the message of inequality and impending disaster, in Banksy's own words - not exactly sounding like the theme of the classic family day out.
In 2017, Banksy made another big project. This time he took on an entire hotel for the art project the Walled Off Hotel. The hotel was located in Bethlehem and was right up against the barrier between Palestine and Israel. The hotel "sold" itself on "the worst view you can find in any hotel in the world". The hotel featured works by Banksy himself, but also works by Palestinian artists, a controversial choice given that the hotel was located in Israel.
The anarchist of the establishment
Although Banksy distances himself from the established art world, many of his works end up being included as part of the established art scene.
A piece of wall with a Banksy work can be worth a lot of money. With that in mind, several works have been cut out and put up for sale. In the month of November 2021, an incident took place in the English coastal town of Lowestoft, Suffolk. Here, Banksy had created the work Sandcastle, as part of the Great British Spraycation series, which consisted of a series of works with holiday-inspired motifs in British seaside towns. Sandcastle depicted a little girl in a bowler hat building a sandcastle, but instead of a little red shovel, she had a red crowbar in her hand. Locals in the town wanted the work to stay because it attracted a lot of people and generated business in the town, but the owner of the building of which the wall was a part decided to carve the work out to sell at an auction house in California - estimated value $400,000.
In Denmark, there is also a piece of wall with a Banksy work - just not in the cityscape. Danish art collector Peter Hvidberg has bought a piece of wall with a Banksy motif, but not just any piece of wall - a piece of the wall between Israel and Palestine. He paid a fortune for it, but expects to make his money back at some point in the future, and there should be quite a good chance of.
In 2018, the work Girl with Balloon from 2006 was put up for auction. The work depicts one of Banksy's most famous motifs, a little girl losing her balloon, painted on a canvas instead of a wall. Shortly after the hammer fell and the work sold for $1.4 million, a crazy scene unfolded. The work crashed through the lower part of the frame, in which a maculator was mounted. When the work was halfway through, it stopped. Here was Sotheby's auction house and the buyer now with a work that was half intact and half in tatters. Afterwards, Banksy himself proclaimed that it had now become a new work under the title Love Is in the Bin. The work with the new title was again put up for auction in 2021, where it fetched no less than $25 million when the hammer fell.
But why does he do it if it's not to make money? Banksy was asked the question in a rare interview with New York magazine Village Voice in 2013, incidentally after he approached them himself. He gave the somewhat cryptic answer: 'There's absolutely no reason to do this show. I know that street art can increasingly be seen as the marketing department for an art career, so I wanted to make art without a price tag tacked on. There is no gallery show, book or film. It's meaningless. Which hopefully means something." The conclusion must be that Banksy's motivation lies solely in the message of the works. It is his attempt to push the world in a better direction and make people realise and italise various issues from inequality to community building and climate crisis.
If you want to know more about Banksy, it is recommended to read one of his books; Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, Existincilism or Wall and Piece. It is also recommended to watch the film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which Banksy directed in 2010. The film follows Thierry Guetta, who has strong opinions about the commercialisation of art - some believe the man may actually be Banksy.
Despite his many projects and publicity, Banksy remains arguably the world's most unknown celebrity.