Who is the Mysterious Street Artist Banksy?

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 question, 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 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.

Robert Del Naja aka 3D

Robert Del Naja is a 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. Banksy himself cited his work as an “influence” in an interview with the now defunct ‘Swindle’ magazine.  He also appears in Exit Through the Gift Shop where he talks about his relationship with Banksy. In the film, Banksy (or at least the shadowy figure depicted as Banksy) also credits 3D with the bringing over of graffiti culture from the USA 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.

Interview with Robert Del Naja aka 3D from ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’

Robin Gunningham

The Bristolian ex-public schoolboy was 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 alleged some other circumstantial evidence that supported their claim. First the fact that Gunningham once lived with artist Luke Egan who had once exhibited with Banksy. This 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. More 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. Here 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

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 at the time.  

The interesting thing about Brainwash 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 does this. First he’ll have an idea and then a variety of other artists would put that idea together in a mass collaborative effort.  That was certainly the case with his London show.  Exit Through the Gift Shop is a film full of easter eggs. As a main protagonist, could Mr Brainwash actually be giving clues to how Banksy himself goes about the creation of his art.

Mr Brainwash as seen in Exit Through the Gift Shop

Blek Le Rat

Blek Le Rat has been cited by Banksy as a key early influence. You can see this in the work of Blek Le Rat but is Blek really Banksy? Certainly their styles are similar. They also could both be seen as pioneers of the single layered stencil form which made Banksy so famous. The truth however is that Blek is older and has been around on the scene a lot longer. We also know for certain that Banksy is from the Bristol area and not France. However it’s easy to see how his work is an influence.  Banksy of course 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

Robin Banks

Robin Banks was the original street name of Banksy. There are many old graffiti picture books which credit his work in this way. Banksy therefore is just an evolution from this original street name. This however doesn’t really tell us much other than the etymology of the word. It does however lend some serious credence to the thought that Robin is his real first name.

robbing banks
Robin Banks?  Oh wait…maybe not!

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. Maybe the likes of Gunningham, Brainwash and yes even Le Rat might be a part of it. Something we do know is that the big shows such as Dismaland and the Bristol Museum were collaborative efforts. We also had the hint in terms of how Banksy might use other to help create his work from Exit Through the Gift Shop.

That said it’s also fairly likely that Banksy still creates solo pieces though some of the stunts he pulls off really does require a team. There’s also a mixture of styles that Banksy uses in his work. The first and most obvious is the famous single layer stencil technique which is so recognisable. That said he has also produced work such as ‘Devolved Parliament‘ which is a large scale fine oil painting. It’s perfectly possible that another artist produced this from an original idea by Banksy. The style is just so different.

Devolved Parliament by Banksy
Devolved Parliament. Was this painted by Banksy or by another artist as part of the collective.

Street work too like his Basquiat tribute at the Barbican in London really sends a strong hint that others are involved. Additionally we also know that early in his career Banksy would travel with others when painting on the streets. Ben Eine was one of those artists. Travelling around together they would paint each others styles. Many of the stencilled rats popping up at the time might well have been sprayed by Eine.

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 piece in Kensington didn’t last two days before it was “protected” and covered over. An image of a hula hooping girl in Nottingham meanwhile only lasted a few months before it was cut out of the wall and bought by a gallery.

The excellent and sharp tongued Graffoto blog has one of the best takes on the Banksy mystery.  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. 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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