Robin Gunningham, believed to be the anonymous ‘Banksy,’ has left his artistic expression on the world in many ways.
But who is the real Banksy? It’s a question that’s been on the lips of the contemporary art scene since their debut at 33 1/3 gallery in Los Angeles in 2002.
Banksy emerged as an artistic force within the ‘Bristol Scene,’ with his signature stenciling styles. Famous for social and political commentaries on walls, streets, and even props pieces. Cheeky in artistic style and quickly executed, the artist’s identity remains a secret.
Is it a collective of artists working under one name with the same goal? Is it one artist with a team of diversions?
But a growing case of interviews, possible sightings, and studies around Banksy’s art’s placement and movement reveal their identity as Robin Gunningham.
Banksy protects Robin Gunningham
Whether, Gunningham is Banksy, or just one of many supporting the outspoken persona, matters little to his own remarkable successes. Because Robin Gunnigham is an accomplished film director.
Gunningham’s documentary, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” received widespread acclaim and garnered him an Academy Award Nomination in 2010 for Best Documentary Feature.
The documentary showed Banksy hidden in the dark speaking through a voice enhancer, which only served to heighten intrigue. While at its core, the film followed aspiring street artists like Mr. Brainwash, Shepard Fairey (the artist behind Barack Obama’s Hope Poster), and Invader.
While being anonymous is not an option for Robin Gunningham, it is an essential requirement for the work Banksy does on publicly visible surfaces.
So who is the real Banksy?
He is a maverick who has successfully rattled the political and social scene of the UK.
Banksy is one of the few artists to cross the contemporary gallery scene’s boundaries right into the general public’s fascination.
Their work is divisive within the artistic community, with critics asking questions about the line between political activism and cultural representation. Does the designation between artwork and activism matter?
Even “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” created a stir about its authenticity. Was it an actual documentary or rather a “mockumentary” from Gunningham? And the blurred lines simply heighten the audience’s curiosity for the street artists and their work.
And this grey area allows the sobriquet artists to skirt and/or ignore the legality of the placement of their works while their alter egos enjoy freedom.
Artistic savants don’t just appear?
Banksy exhibits an extraordinary visual talent. During the 1990s, their initial graffiti work was noticed in United Kingdom cities like Bristol, Brighton, and London.
“The Mild Mild West” was Banksy’s first popularized mural. It featured a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at the riot police. Their work takes preconceived notions of people, places, and things to contrast them with often “shocking” scenarios.
In 2004, Brighton residents became witnesses to the “Kissing Coppers,” which featured two male cops kissing each other. A sobering commentary on the stop and frisk policy with a nod to Brighton’s increasing LGBTQ population.
Banksy has a way of taking lofty social commentaries and boiling them down into collectible items. “Kissing Coppers” later sold for $575,000 at auction.
The Banksy effect on social networking
Banksy, as the graffiti artist, has a cult following that can unleash viral moments.
This effective conversational tactic has even gained a term—the “Banksy effect”, or the ability to politicize contemporary art into the mainstream. Banksy has challenged conventions around the role of public art and continually questions the establishment.
Even pop culture icons have taken notice. Banksy’s artistic endeavors have caught the eye of famous figures from Brad Pitt to Justin Beiber. Brad Pitt, an avid art collector, owns several of Banky’s pieces. And the 2002 piece titled “There Is Always Hope,” shows a young girl looking up to a red heart-shaped balloon, is tattooed on Bieber’s arm.
Artistry with a social commentary
The elusive Banksy performed his most famous stunt when he did a remote-controlled shredding of his painting, Girl With a Balloon. While simultaneously auctioning the piece for $1.3 million in 2018. The act took place live at the Sotheby auction in London.
As soon as the auctioneer announced the final selling price and banged the gavel, the artwork suddenly started to beep. The painting began to slip downwards, and shreds emerged from beneath the frame. An audible gasp from the audience could be heard as the artwork “destroyed” itself.
Banksy assumed to be in the audience, filmed the auction proceedings, and then edited them into an additional video showing how he installed the automatic shredding mechanism. He posted this 3-minute video online with over 3.7 million views to date.
The original intention of the “artistic intervention,” as Banksy states, was a full shredding of the Girl with Red Balloon piece.
However, during the auction, the mechanism stopped halfway down, leaving a part of the original piece still visible.
Authencity lives for transformation
Art handlers immediately removed the piece as onlookers looked on in a mix of laughter and shock. The stunt was further commercialized by Sotheby’s after the fact, calling it “Love is in the Bin.”
Because as the narrative unfolds, before the auction, Banksy made certain restrictions to the inspection, placement, and time when the artwork was sold. The frame must not be inspected. It must be placed in the auction salesroom. And go up for auction during the last half of the night.
Banksy’s “artistic intervention” made the painting more valuable by calling it the first work of art that took place during a live auction.
A social challenge from behind a cape
It’s important to note the performative and conceptual nature of Banksy’s work harkens back to giants like Warhol and Duchamp. Artists like Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, and Banksy opened the door for Maurizio Cattelan’s infamous banana duct tape piece at Miami Basel in 2019.
Both the “Banana” and “Love is in the Bin” strive to question the bloated and unregulated art objects’ structure. These performances openly challenge establishment thinking to create new opportunities.
A new artistic landscape emerges
Perhaps Banksy’s most significant artwork is their refusal to fall within the confines of the contemporary gallery scene. From the original stenciled graffiti to the massive installation, Dismaland, they gracefully teeter the tightrope of being part of the establishment. Only to the edge that they can critique the rules put in place.
The 2015 pop-up “bemusement” park, Dismaland, brought in over 150,000 participants over five weeks. And charged audience members 20 Euro to take them through scenes that combined tragic cultural moments with Disney characters.
Cinderella’s cart crashed with paparazzi standing at attention, refugees in remote-controlled overcrowded toy boats – never able to get to their destination. Rubber duckies covered in oil are just a few of the installations overseen by the mickey mouse ear wearing staff at Banksy’s pop-up installation.
Where artists can be Super Heroes
In 2018 Banksy put their money where their mouth is. They sold the motorized refugee boat at auction.
They used the money to help fund an actual rescue boat along the Mediterranean, with 10 crew members trained in search and rescue. The rescue boat, named after a French feminist anarchist, Louise Michel, set out in August 2020 and is noted to have recently saved 89 people in distress.
If Robin Gunningham is indeed Banksy, they’re the Duchamp of the 21st century. Continually questioning the rules, the confines of space, commercialism, and the role of art in our lives. Banksy has expanded the institutional critique out of the gallery and brought it to the streets and the seas.
Kaeley is a contemporary artist and cultural organizer who loves good espresso and a cold Coke Zero.