Making Banksy: Millionaire Graffiti Artist’s Identity Still a Mystery

Banksy’s never been unmasked, but he keeps his agenda front and center.

Art & Fashion
5 min
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Making Banksy: Millionaire Graffiti Artist’s Identity Still a Mystery
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Art & Fashion

In 2010, the artist and provocateur known as Banksy became one of Time  magazine’s top 100 most influential people. In the process, he joined the ranks of Lady Gaga, Steve Jobs, and Barack Obama. Yet, unlike these individuals, Banksy’s real identity has never been revealed. How did he get around the portrait Time  Magazine asked him for? By appearing with a paper bag over his head.

Despite the refusal to self-identify, Banksy’s art has skyrocketed in popularity over the years. Never one to shy away from visual shock and awe, the graffiti-artist-turned-master continues to meld activism with art in brilliant and controversial ways. Keep reading for the incredible true (as far as we know) story of one of the West’s most essential and influential visual artists.

From City Walls to Canvasses and More

Banksy has elicited just about every response you can imagine since his graffiti art beginnings in the 1990s. “Debuting” in Bristol, England, Banksy spray-painted city walls, an illegal outcry against injustices of every sort. But the decades have brought a surprising evolution from an urban street artist to an established visionary whose canvasses sell for millions at auction houses worldwide.

Over the years, the anonymous spray painter has traveled extensively, leaving his mark from Detroit to San Francisco, Barcelona to Paris and Jerusalem. Besides moving from walls to canvasses, Banksy has also dabbled in other media, including conceptual art, and his 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop received an Academy Award nomination.

Humble Beginnings to International Fame

Banksy’s career began in the Barton Hill district of Bristol, where he signed his work as Robin Banx. He tried several handles before settling on Banksy, which proved easier to spray-paint on a wall. Apart from deciding on a public identity, the artist also dove headlong into using stencils, which would come to define his unique style.

The switch from freehand to stencils began with a practical impetus. After Banksy and his friends came within inches of capture by cops, he knew he needed to tighten up his artistic process. Stencils proved a natural answer. Moreover, they came ripe with meaning. Banksy once explained , “As soon as I cut my first stencil, I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.”

Garnering Public Attention

What sets Banksy apart from other activist artists around the world? His whimsical and pacifist approach to dissent. He juxtaposes images of street-fighting protesters with flowers. But perhaps the visual concepts that have brought him the greatest fame involve children.

Girl with Balloon or There is Always Hope, version in South Bank.
Girl with Balloon, in South Bank. Credit: Dominic Robinson Via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In 2005, Banksy traveled to Israel, where he stenciled children’s images on the concrete walls of the West Bank. The most notable featured a young girl holding balloons. But he also painted a boy with a ladder and two children with a spade and bucket. The theme of escapism permeated each work, heightening the political tension of the location — a wall constructed to prevent suicide bombings.

Raking in the Millions

The creative momentum didn’t stop there. Exploring the revolutionary juxtaposition of artistic masterpieces with elements of urbanity, Banksy created nods to Claude Monet and Edward Hopper, complete with window-smashing street criminals, shopping carts, and trash.

Some critics hailed these works, exhibited collectively as “Crude Oils,” as genius. Others disparaged them as vandalization of some of Western Civilization’s most sacred masterpieces. But almost everyone in attendance agreed that the 164 live rats running around the room went over the top.

No matter what critics had to say, the broader public latched onto Banksy’s work in a big way. A later exhibition in Los Angeles entitled “Barely Legal” attracted 300,000 visitors, including Brad Pitt. And his aforementioned 2005 painting Show Me the Monet , interpreted as a desecration of its Impressionist creator, raked in an incredible $9.92 million at auction in 2020!

Bringing Attention to Familiar but Overlooked Problems

Despite his rise to fame, Banksy has never changed his tune about staying anonymous. And the same goes for how he uses art to draw attention to societal problems that are an ignored part of daily existence. Not surprisingly, his performance art continues to spark controversy.

In Los Angeles, he exhibited a live elephant covered in scarlet paint and fleur-de-lis–inspired designs. Animal rights activists protested, demanding the paint be immediately removed from the pachyderm. Banksy used the confrontation to draw attention to one of the city’s most pressing problems — poverty — declaring it the “elephant in the room.”

He wouldn’t stop there. In 2008, he participated in the most successful charity art auction in history, helping to raise $42.5 million to support AIDS programs on the African continent. Work that sold at the auction included A Vandalized Phone Booth for $605,000 and Ruined Landscape for $385,000.

The Artist Known as Banksy

Over time, anonymity has become a springboard, too. As Banksy’s whimsical and revolutionary work appeared in more places, the art world took notice, comparing his pieces to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But unlike Haring and Basquiat, Banksy has managed to maintain the mystery surrounding his identity.

At least some of his biggest fans feel just as passionate about the artist’s anonymity. Over the years, they’ve slammed numerous attempts to unmask him. As a result, we may never know the true identity of this pop culture icon.

Of course, this raises many questions. Like, how do art collectors know when they’ve bid on and won an authentic Banksy masterpiece? Practical considerations require entrepreneurial flair, but that doesn’t mean Banksy can’t inject a little whimsy into things. As a result, he created the aptly titled Pest Control, an organization that handles the business side of his artwork.

The Ever-Irreverent Artist

The irony of Banksy’s acceptance by the mainstream hasn’t escaped him. He accepts it for what it is, noting, “I love the way capitalism finds a place — even for its enemies. It’s definitely boom time in the discontent industry.” But, of course, that doesn’t mean he has taken the commodification of his creative vision in stride.

In one of the most shocking moments from his career, the street artist’s Balloon Girl sold at auction in 2018 for $1.37 million. Containing one of his most recognized themes, the auction winner barely had a moment to congratulate herself before the frame of the painting sounded an alarm, and the canvas passed through a shredder built into the frame.

The shredding of Balloon Girl reasserted Banksy’s ambivalent relationship with the art world and those who collect his paintings. It also reminded the world of his cynical 2007 posting of an art auction online with the wording: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this s—.” Despite the celebrity he now enjoys, Banksy remains committed to anonymity and activism through art, holding nothing sacred as he unflinchingly underscores the world’s most significant social issues and injustices.

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