Auction house Christie’s is conducting an online sale that traces “graffiti’s influence on contemporary art and embraces the energy, spontaneity and humour of artists inspired by the medium.” Titled “Trespassing”, the ongoing sale that is on till August 19, features 90 works of prominent street artists, including KAWS, Invader and Banksy. The auction turns the spotlight once again on Banksy, who recently made headlines after the $2.2 million sale of his triptych “Mediterranean Sea View 2017” at a Sotheby’s auction. Here’s what we know about the artist whose identity remains under a cloak of secrecy.
The elusive contemporary artist, who is believed to have been born in 1975, first drew attention in the ’90s for his graffiti and distinctive iconographies that commented on sociopolitical issues. Based in Bristol, United Kingdom, one of his earliest large-scale murals is The Mild Mild West — depicting a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot police — painted in 1999 in Bristol’s Stokes Croft. In 2009, in an interview with Swindle magazine, Banksy reportedly said, “I come from a relatively small city in southern England. When I was about 10 years old, a kid called 3D was painting the streets hard. I think he’d been to New York and was the first to bring spray painting back to Bristol. I grew up seeing spray paint on the streets way before I ever saw it in a magazine or on a computer. 3D quit painting and formed the band Massive Attack, which may have been good for him but was a big loss for the city. Graffiti was the thing we all loved at school – we all did it on the bus on the way home from school. Everyone was doing it.”
While his identity remains unknown, there are several speculations regarding who Banksy probably is. Here are some of the names:
Robin Gunningham: A former pupil at Bristol Cathedral School, Gunningham was a keen illustrator who drew cartoons in school. Several of his schoolmates reportedly believe he is the popular street artist. In 2016, in a study titled ‘Tagging Banksy’, criminologists at Queen Mary University used geographic profiling to link works created by Banksy in London and Bristol to the known movements of Gunningham. The belief is so popular that in 2018 an original work attributed to Gunningham sold at an auction for over £4,000. The artwork is printed on a 1993 cassette inlay sleeve for the Bristol-based band Mother Samosa’s album Oh My God It’s Cheeky Clown.
Robert Del Naja: A freehand graffiti artist in Bristol, who worked with the name 3D, Banksy has mentioned him as one of his inspirations. A founding member of trip hop band Massive Attack, he has designed album sleeves for the outfit, including the cover of Heligoland (2010). The musician was part of Banksy’s 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Banksy wrote the forward for Del Naja’s book 3D and the Art of Massive Attack. In 2015, DJ Goldie is believed to have revealed Banksy’s identity when he referred to the artist as Robert in a podcast, where he stated, “No disrespect to Robert, I think he is a brilliant artist. I think he has flipped the world of art over.”
While there are several other contenders — including French graffiti artist “Mr Brainwash” seen in Exit Through the Gift Shop — another seemingly plausible suggestion is that Banksy perhaps is a collective of artists and not one individual.
Estimated to be worth $50 million according to Celebrity Net Worth, Banksy makes money by selling art. He had his first gallery exhibition in 2002 in Los Angeles. Several of his works have also been auctioned, including the famous sale of Girl With Balloon that came under the hammer at Sotheby’s for £1 million in 2018, and minutes later slipped from its frame and was shredded into strips. Last year, another Banksy painting showing the House of Commons as full of chimpanzees sold at an auction for £ 9.9 million.
Last month, Banksy painted a mask-themed work in a London Underground tube, with his trademark rats wearing masks. Prior to this, in May, a Banksy work had appeared at Southampton General Hospital in the UK, dedicated to the NHS. He also left a note for hospital workers, stating: “Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.”
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June saw Banksy express support for the Black Lives Matter movement with a new painting posted on his Instagram, showing an American flag catching fire from a candle placed next to a framed portrait of a black silhouette. It was accompanied with text, where he stated, “People of color are being failed by the system. The white system. Like a broken pipe flooding the apartment of the people living downstairs… This is a white problem. And if white people don’t fix it, someone will have to come upstairs and kick the door in.”