We know from sources his agent has allowed made available that Banksy came from Bristol, UK where he once had trained as a butcher. His interest in & involvement with the Bristol underground art & music scene in the 1980s though, helped lay the foundations for his 'art-guerrilla' paintings so ubiquitous today. He had been involved with musicians & artists such as Nick Walker & 3D (who went on to join successful band Massive Attack) in an era of collaborations & crossovers involving designers & the bands for what they designed. Labels such as London-based Rough Trade encourage bands to design their own sleeve art; it saved money & save the work a 'street' credibility in keeping with the punk DIY ethos.
Banksy's initial works are said to reflect the influence of French graffiti-artists Blek Le Rat & Jet Aerosol, both of whom were experimenting with the stenciling technique. Banksy's early work could also be said to acknowledge the London Tube system campaign of stenciled political sloganeering initiated by the anarchist-punk band Crass from 1978 to 1982. Banksy himself claims his number one influence is in fact 3D, which he describes as being 'able to actually draw '.
The stenciling style he ever made his own is said to have been inspired by a rubbish skip he was being hiding in to avoid the police. He'd become aware of the skips' serial number, admiring the neatness & expressive qualities. He soon realized that it was a faster way of working, often on the run and under threat of arrest for an act of 'vandalism'. His distinct approach soon became recognized through Bristol & London, where he had become something of a celebrity in the underground. This was boosted by his provocative anti-establishment themes using images of monkeys, policemen & protesters delivered with a fashionable cynicism & wit. These were the early days of Thatcher's Britain after all.
By 2002 Banksy's 'Existencillism' exhibition had successfully debuted in Los Angeles at the city's 33.3 Gallery. In 2003 his 'Turf War' exhibition caused outrage among Animal Rights activists. The exhibition featured a large warehouse full of animals that had been painted on. The RSPCA had ruled that the exhibition was in no way cruel or unsuitable for the animals, but this did nothing to quell the outrage. One activist is said to have chained herself to the entrance gates. All great publicity for an artist who uses controversies as both his subject & inspiration. His 'Elephant In A Room' caused a similar stir, featuring a live elephant in the warehouse which had been painted on & draped with fabrics. The idea was to draw attention to world poverty, the elephant in the room so to speak. Banksy also staged warehouse exhibitions at the Alexandria in Sydney which was attended by 1500 visitors. One of his most poignant & controversial exhibits was a series of provocative images painted on the Israeli West Bank Wall in 2005.
He then began a new series of paintings he described as subverted. What this meant was that the theme or pictorial meaning of a classical work could have been interpreted in terms of contemporary times. His 'subversion' of Monet's 'Water Lily Garden' includes the depiction of urban litter, pollution & a submerged shopping trolley to replace the idyllic, genteel imagery of the original. It was shown along with twelve other similar works at a 12-day exhibition in Westbourne Grove, London in 2005.
In 2007 a new record was set for the sale of 'Space Girl & Bird' which sold for £ 288,000; far in excess of the reserve price set by Bonhams Of London, the art auctioneers overseeing its' sale. The same year Banksy won the award for Art's Greatest Living Briton. True to his status as anarchist / art-guerrilla, he never showed up to collect it. He has always preferred anonymity. This did not harm his commercial appeal. By the end of 2007, most of the catalog managed by Bonhams had more than doubled its' reserve price
It should be remembered that the original street paintings – actual photographs, Banksy t shirts or Banksy clothing – are never sold directly by Banksy himself. These are handled by art auctioneers who attempt to sell them 'on location'; leaving the problem of their removal with the successful bidder. This bizarre approach is best described in his film 'Exit Through The Gift Shop' which was billed as 'the world's first street-art disaster movie'.
It made its debut at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival & was released the same year in the UK. In 2011 it was nominated for the Academy Award For Best Documentary
The dispute as to whether his work constituents art or vandalism remains an element of his appeal & modus operandi; befitting his reputation as anti-celebrity / establishment political activist & art-guerrilla. There can certainly be no doubt that his outsider-style has raised many issues that the mainstream media often chooses to ignore these days; whether it be poverty, globalism, the excesses of capitalism or plain political stupidity. Banksy remains true to his political & artistic grass-roots; beautifying other ugly urban environments while jarring the public conscience.
So who is he? Like Spider-Man he sees to protect his secret identity. There is an identical photo of him that is said to have been taken in Jamaica at the Two-Culture Clash Project. Another photo taken by a member of the public purports to show him in Bethnal Green, London where he can be seen at work atop scaffolding. The photo is lent some credence by Tower Hamlets Council's decision to seek to remove all Banksy works, deeming them to be graffiti.
Such pictures have led to speculation that his name is Robert Gunningham, a Bristol-born man educated at Bristol Cathedral Choir School, who is said to be 'extremely talented at art'. This same man is known to have moved to a flat in Hackney, London about the same time as Banksy's paintings began appearing in the area. Banksy's agent is somewhat enigmatic about this, either condemning nor affirming whether there is any truth in the speculation. Banksy himself, speaking via his website says:
"I am unable to comment on who may or who may not be Banksy, but anyone described as 'being good at drawing' does not sound like Banksy to me"