The 10-year quest to discover the true identity of the underground artist known as Banksy has become almost as captivating as his stylised graffiti which has popped up unannounced on buildings across the world.
While many have claimed to know who he is, the only reliable facts are that he hails from Bristol and his first name is Robin. Now the mystery surrounding the identity of Banksy may have been solved by a newspaper which has published a picture of a man whose antecedence is more public school than street artist.
The Mail On Sunday says it traced the artist using a photograph purporting to show Banksy at work with spray cans in Jamaica in 2004. Former friends and acquaintances identify the man in the picture as Robin Gunningham, a former pupil of the £9,420-a-year Bristol Cathedral School.
Since his emergence as a leading street artist, Banksy's work attracts six-figure price tags. In January a piece of his edgy graffiti in Portobello Road, west London – which shows a painter finishing off the word "Banksy" – received a bid of £208,100 in an online auction.
Yesterday the artist's agents refused to confirm the newspaper's claim that he was Mr Gunningham, 34, despite what the paper said was compelling evidence to support its assertion. "We get these calls all the time," said his spokeswoman. "I'll say what I always say: I never confirm or deny these stories."
The subversive political messages Banksy conveys through his stencils and sculptures can be found on streets, walls and buildings across the world, from London to New York.
Last year, he left a life-size replica of a Guantanamo Bay detainee at the California theme park Disneyland. And in 2005, he decorated Israel's West Bank barrier with satirical images of life on the other side.
He has become one of art's hottest properties, with Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera among those said to have splashed out on his work.
One of the first conventional exhibitions of his art was held in a warehouse in 2000, but Banksy gave out only the street number for the building and not the street. As mainstream interest began to grow, he concocted elaborate deceptions to shroud his identity, usually conducting interviews via telephone and using trusted associates to handle sales.
With the increased publicity, however, came greater danger of being caught spray painting on public sites, and so Banksy began to undertake more elaborate, one-off stunts. He got into the penguin exhibit at the London Zoo and stencilled "We're bored of fish" on the wall; in October 2003 he hung one of his own paintings on the wall of the Tate. It depicted a bucolic country scene bounded by police tape and the identification tag below it read: "Banksy 1975. Crimewatch UK Has Ruined The Countryside For All Of Us. 2003. Oil On Canvas." He pulled a similar stunt in 2005 at four major museums in New York City, including the Museum of Modern Art, which decided to add the piece to its permanent collection.
When he gives interviews, Banksy insists the public should never discover who he is. "I have no interest in ever coming out," he told Swindle magazine. "I'm just trying to make the pictures look good; I'm not into trying to make myself look good. And besides, it's a pretty safe bet that the reality of me would be a crushing disappointment to a couple of 15-year-old kids out there."
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