Who is Banksy? Six theories for who he really is

We love a good Banksy conspiracy theory here on Inspiring City. To be fair there is nothing better to get tongues wagging in the world outside the immediate street art sphere. People love to speculate and ask the questio, just who is Banksy?

Now another theory has been uncovered. It states that actually Banksy might well be a collective of artists. At least that’s what he might have morphed into these days.  Originally, so the new theory goes, is that he started out as Bristol graffiti pioneer 3D aka Robert Del Naja. He is a man who would later become more well known as one of the founding members of the band Massive Attack.

On the face of it, it’s plausible.  There is a link between 3D and the birth of Bristol’s graffiti scene.  Banksy himself even said in an interview that, along with Blek Le Rat, 3D was an influence on his work.  Del Naja even has a cameo in the Banksy documentary ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’. In it he talks about their friendship.

Banksy's Mild Mild West in Bristol
Banksy’s famous Mild Mild West on the side Hamilton House in Bristol was painted in 1997

Theories about Banksy

The blogger from Glasgow who uncovered the link was Craig Williams on the site Transmission Glasgow. He made the connection between Massive Attack tour dates and areas in which Banksy artworks had appeared.  He also goes on to make links between Del Naja and some other areas where Massive Attack might not have been playing but which from a personal perspective he might well have had connections to. Places such as Naples in Italy.

In addition he explores a rumour from 2010 that works which appeared in America were actually painted by a team. People who were following the Massive Attack tour.  Of course moving a little bit further into the future Banksy’s Dismaland venture in Weston Super Mare was a completely collaborative effort. As was his residency at the Bristol Museum.  A collaborative team of people who are now ‘Banksy’ is therefore not a completely out there suggestion.

The artist 3d painting a wall on jamaica street in Bristol in 1985
3D painting a wall in Jamaica Street in the north of Bristol in 1985 a really run down area at the time.  Picture is from ‘3D and the art of Massive Attack

Who is Banksy?

No-one outside the immediate circle really knows for sure. Banksy himself has become a bit of a folk legend. More akin to Robin Hood than being able to pin his identity down to any one person. Here I am too, referring to Banksy as a man. Certainly if the collective theory holds then there’s more than likely going to be some women involved.

So let’s have a bit of fun with this.  I’ve put together some of the conspiracy theories together in a nice little list. I’ll let you make your own mind up.

1.  Robert Del Naja aka 3D

Former graffiti writer and member of the Bristol crew ‘the Wild Bunch‘ he then became a founding member of the band ‘Massive Attack’.  Painting under the name 3D he was around at the birth of the graffiti movement in Bristol and  Banksy allegedly cited his work as an “influence” in an interview with the now defunct ‘Swindle’ magazine.  He appears in Exit Through the Gift Shop where he talks about his relationship with Banksy and where Banksy (or at least the shadowy figure depicted as Banksy) basically credits 3D with the bringing over of graffiti culture from the states to Bristol.  That in itself a big claim and (like much of the movie) could be seen as a slightly tongue in cheek in joke.

2.  Robin Gunningham

The Bristolian ex-public schoolboy outed by the Mail on Sunday in 2008.  The evidence? A picture taken in Jamaica of a grinning Gunningham making a balloon stencil with spray cans sitting around him.  The Mail also allege some other circumstantial evidence such as the fact that Gunningham once lived with artist Luke Egan who had once exhibited with Banksy as well as the fact that he lived in Hackney when pieces from Banksy started popping up around the area.  The original expose is here and then recent research from students at Queen Mary’s university has supposedly backed up this claim using geographic profiling.  The article to that is here although a much better read is from the altogether much better informed Graffoto blog with their ‘No I’m Banksy (bandwaggon post)’ article in which the author gives a delightful debunking to those claims.

robin gunnigham and a car park attendant
Robin Gunningham as exposed by the Mail and a car park attendant from Dismaland who sort of looks like him.  Conclusive proof?  Probably would be for the Daily Mail!  Picture taken from Widewalls

3.  Mr Brainwash

Ah Mr. Brainwash, the main protagonist of Exit Through the Gift Shop.  The supposed super fan / film maker who then became himself a world famous artist.  I remember going to a show of his in London at the Old Sorting Office in Holborn back in 2012, it was quite a big deal as I remember.  The interesting thing about Brainwash though is the way in which he creates his works.  In the documentary (or mockumentary if you so wish) he is clear about the way in which he creates his works i.e. he’ll have an idea and then a variety of other artists would put them together in a mass collaborative effort.  That was certainly the case with his London show.  Another hint perhaps as to how the works of Banksy are actually created?

4.  Blek Le Rat

Cited by Banksy as a key influence you can see this in the work of Blek Le Rat but is Blek really Banksy after all they both could be seen as pioneers of the single layered stencil form which made Banksy so famous?   The truth is that Blek is much older and has been around on the scene a lot longer but it’s easy to see how his work is an influence.  Banksy even went through a whole phase of painting rats all around the place.  A homage to Blek Le Rat perhaps or Blek himself?

blek vs. banksy
Blek vs. Banksy taken from Imgur

5.  Robin Banks

For many years the rumour that went around was that the real name of Banksy was Robin or maybe even Robert Banks.  It was thought the street name Banksy gave himself evolved from this.  It’s completely unproven of course and as this one goes it’s more of a lazy conspiracy with there being not much evidence around to back it up.  It has spawned a number of copycats though, alleging to be the artist himself.  One of the latest involved a mysterious benefactor on a Cumbrian train who supposedly gifted a piece of art worth twenty grand to a teenager.  Could this be indeed the Robin Banks of legend?  I might be a bit unconvinced on this one.

robbing banks
Robin Banks?  Oh wait…maybe not!

6.  The Banksy Collective

And so we come back to the idea of the collective.  A veritable Borg of Banksy’s all contributing to the greater good.  Perhaps the head of the collective was once Del Naja and maybe the likes of Gunningham, Brainwash and yes even Le Rat might be a part of it these days.  It’s unlikely to come out soon and this is entirely speculation but then who knows? After all the big shows such as Dismaland and the Bristol Museum were collaborative efforts as was the Mr. Brainwash show from Exit Through the Gift Shop.  

With such a body of work and with what has obviously been such a tight social network which appears to have formed around the artist, is Banksy merely in essence just a brand these days?  A convenient cover for a whole bunch of artists on the inner circle of art’s biggest mystery to have a bit of fun and to keep us all guessing.

The Banksy Borg

Remaining a Mystery

The world of Banksy  is veritable tabloid fodder and is always likely to stir up much excitement.  It’s perhaps not suprising as people love a good mystery and you only need to see the reaction which a new piece attributed to him gets when it goes up.  A recent piece in Kensington didn’t last two minutes before it was “protected” and covered over.

It is the excellent and sharp tongued Graffoto blog, run by our friend NoLionsinEngland, that has one of the best recent takes on the Banksy mystery that we’ve read recently.  In their post which followed the Queen Mary’s geographic profiling research the conclusion is reached that it’s still just as ambiguous as ever and anyway why would anyone really want to know who Banksy is?  That’s surely part of what we all find so interesting after all and so what good does it do us to find out.

As they say in the Truman Show when the transmission ceases “What else is on?  Where’s the TV guide?”


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