His name is known around the world, but few know who the street artist Banksy actually is. Those who know do are keeping are silent. And the man himself? He gives people reasons to talk about him …

A long line of people is standing in front of Hall 622b in Zürich-Oerlikon. People full of anticipation, curious people. Because they all want to see the current exhibition featuring around 150 works by the world’s currently most high-priced artist. We’re talking about Banksy. Internationally known as one of the best street artists in the world. And a mystery. To this day there is only speculation as to who is behind the stencil graffiti with its huge recognition factor. So it is fitting that the exhibition in Zürich is entitled «The Mystery of Banksy – a genius mind. The unauthorised exhibition». Because when an author does not officially insist on his rights, authorisation is difficult. Banksy is a phenomenon. One with influence.

An exceptional talent from day 1

He is an exceptional phenomenon and his anonymity, which has been preserved for decades, of course makes that even stronger. In addition, he is absolutely direct. His art is always socially critical – and has been from day 1. The first works appeared in Bristol, England, as early as the 1990s. Initially, Banksy worked here with other graffiti artists. Then, thanks to fellow artist «3D», he discovered stencil art. Or to put it in his own words from an anonymous interview: «When I was about ten years old, a boy called 3D was the first to bring spray paint to Bristol. So I grew up with it and graffiti was what we all loved at school and did on the way home from school.»

He created his first large mural one night in 1997. It was entitled «The Mild Mild West». It was an image of a giant teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at three police officers. The legend of Banksy was born. And it was clear to everyone that this artist is hiding behind a pseudonym, but hardly anyone denounces capitalism, society, the economy, politics, cultures as blatantly as he does – and people celebrate that, at least for the most part. The first rays of sunshine in the morning suddenly illuminate smooching police officers in Soho, a girl with a gas mask in Barcelona or a pair of scissors on a border wall in Israel. Cynical wit paired with humour, as his style is often summed up. And a style that receives worldwide attention.

His identity is practically a state secret

The fact is, there are people who know who Banksy is. Starting with 3D, who by the way is now the front man of the band Massive Attack under his real name Robert Del Naja. But the fact is that all these people are keeping silent. It doesn’t matter whether it’s his first companions or active artists, musicians and creative people who know him personally. And that bothers a lot of people. Among other things, the Daily Mail has undertaken extensive research into who is behind the pseudonym. Based on this, scientists at Queen Mary University in London used forensic and static methods to track down Banksys. Incidentally, methods that are actually only used in the search for serial killers and serial offenders.

Both the Daily Mail and the university researchers came to the conclusion that Banksy is the British artist Robin Gunningham. But Gunningham himself is having none of it. Others believe that 3D is Banksy, again various different comparisons were made when it came to where the band performed and where new images appeared. In 2003, Banksy also gave an interview to ITV News correspondent Haig Gordon. With a baseball cap and a T-shirt over his nose and mouth, he says, among other things, in the 35-second-long appearance: «I’m covered because you can’t really be a graffiti writer and then go public.» And Gordon himself insists that although he saw his face, he can’t remember it.

Headstrong and yet in the spirit of the community

What Banksy thinks of commercial art is anyone’s guess. But on the other hand, he has also made his views more than clear. Starting with the fact that he renounced his copyrights, with the statement «Copyright is for losers», to the day he destroyed one of his most famous works after it had secured the highest bid. No sooner had the hammer fallen at Sotheby’s for the «Girl with Balloon» for an amount of EUE 1.2 million when a shredder built into the picture began to destroy the work. Due to technical problems, it was finally only half disassembled into its individual parts. Fun fact: three years after the incident, the half-destroyed picture came under the hammer again under the new title «Love is in the Bin». And found a new owner for EUR 18.9 million.

Certainly, both the lack of copyright and transferable ownership rights mean not all the proceeds go to Banksy. Nevertheless, he earns a decent sum. And he wouldn’t be Banksy if he didn’t know how to use that for his own convictions. For example, in May 2020 he had his painting «Game Changer» hung exclusively in a hospital in Southampton and then auctioned off to benefit the National Health Service in the wake of the Covid pandemic. At that time, the highest price ever paid for a Banksy painting was EUR 19.5 million. The artist is also the financier and originator of the sea rescue ship «Louise Michel». This bears his drawings and is used to rescue refugees who try to cross the Mediterranean Sea in rubber boats and in so doing get into trouble.

And the story goes on …

Banksy is now believed to be in his late 40s or early 50s. It is therefore likely that new surprises will await people under his name in the coming years. It’s rather doubtful that he will one day appear in front of a camera and reveal his identity. And that’s actually a nice thing in an age when people promote their lives and their loved ones on every social channel going. Incidentally, those waiting in Oerlikon all agree.

Photos Copyrights: Dominik Gruss, Getty Images