Writing a biography of the phenomenon that we call ‘Banksy’ is always going to be tricky because no one (except presumably Banksy himself) is certain who he is.
In various past ‘unmaskings’, Banksy has been named as either Robert (or Robin) Banks, born in the mid-1970s near Bristol and also, more recently, as Robin Cunningham, about whom nothing else is known. Bearing in mind the similar forename and the fact that nothing at all shows up on any kind of search on Cunningham, the suspicion has to be a strong one that Banks and Cunningham are one and the same – although whether or not they are Banksy remains to be seen!
Whoever this Bristol artist is, one thing we’re sure of is that his career has been a long one. He was first noticed for his freehand work in the early 1990s. Since 2000, Banksy has worked almost entirely with stencils and it is this element of his work that is most copied. What people often forget when trying to emulate Banksy is that not only is his work beautiful, it is also thought-provoking: he never tags a wall without reason, there is always a message if the viewer takes time to think it through.
Banksy’s work changes hands for huge sums; dealers occasionally sell the artwork complete with the wall and then the buyer has to manage the logistics of transporting their purchase home. To make his work more accessible, Banksy has written several books and his short film Exit Through the Gift Shop was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011.
Possibly the most poignant part of the growth of the Banksy phenomenon has been the random vandalism of Bristol City Council and many other local institutions such as the London Underground, which routinely removed pieces of Banksy art from their walls on the principle that they set a bad example. One of the pleasures of Bristol, London and other major cities is the opportunity to walk around a corner and discover a piece of Banksy art facing you. And whether you are the first or the millionth person to see it, it is always a thrill and a thought-provoking experience that will stay with you for a long time.
It doesn’t really matter who Banksy is, his art speaks volumes and Bristol is proud of him.