The internet is a narc. Chalk it up to users and media outlets' insatiable thirst for knowledge, for new content to meme, for fun subversive facts to trade at parties. Presenting the internet with a secret is like leaving a full picnic spread unattended — the ants will smell it and start picking it apart in no time.
The identity of artist and activist Banksy has been one such fascination, since his satirical political commentary began growing from isolated graffiti and stencil works to full scale gallery installations in the early aughts. Pundits and casual conspiracy theorists have numerous guesses as to who could be behind the disruptive works, which have taken aim at factory farming, Brexit, the refugee crisis, the culture industry and everything in between.
Give me a bubble letter and put it on a T-shirt and write "Banksy" on it, and we're sorted. We can sell it now. No disrespect to [Rob/Robert], I think he is a brilliant artist. I think he has flipped the world of art over.
Did he mean Rob[ert] Del Naja of British trip-hop collective Massive Attack? Denying past rumors, the musician once told a crowd at a Bristol concert that "we are all Banksy." Or did Goldie mean Rob[in] Gunningham, a Bristol-raised artist, which a year-long investigation orchestrated by the Mail on Sunday settled on in 2008. Rob[ert] De Niro? Rob[ert] Pattinson? All of the above? What difference would it make if we knew for sure?
The search for the name is pointless, and a really great way to ensure we never see another Banksy work ever again.
Say what you will about the bluntness of Banksy's political punditry or the ways in which he's helped turn graffiti into a high-value art commodity, but Banksy's work has done the world a service. He's done to the graffiti world what Tony Hawk did to skateboarding: give it a lynchpin and an inroad through which any average law-abiding citizen can begin to understand the cultures they represent.
Those afraid of accruing trespassing violations can play Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. Those afraid of the harsher sentences that accompany a graffiti charge can think about what kind of political demands they would make if they were to pick up a can of spraypaint by scrolling through Banksy's online gallery. Tumbling down that Wikipedia hole, Banksy's art may lead the young aspirant to the work of other graffiti mainstays: Neckface, Sweet Toof, Zephyr, Futura et al. Their work poses questions about the limitations of free speech, the tools with which the powerless can have their dissent heard by the powerful and the supposed utility of art.
A tragicomic image of Steve Jobs, son of a Syrian immigrant, with Apple computer in hand offers an imaginative entry point for a mediation on the immigration issue — stripped of partisan politics or obfuscatory rhetoric.
Even a cursory look into the core tenets of graffiti culture will reveal that leaving the artist's identity a mystery is one of the most important and vital portions of what gives the work its power. It's about more than just protecting the individual from legal trouble.
"Whatever their class, race, ethnicity, religion or age, writers define themselves not by what they look like, or what language they speak, or what clothes they wear, but by what they do," Gregory J. Snyder, a sociologist at Baruch College wrote in his book Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground. "Their identities are as writers first, and as members of ethnic, religious, and other subgroups second."
"In its purest form, graffiti is a democratic art form that revels in the American Dream," he wrote.
Revealing the man behind the tag ruins this illusion; it shrinks the critique and limits the imaginations of those that engage with the art. Anyone could be Banksy, or at least wield the same level of cultural sway. These are facts, and they become much easier to believe if one doesn't have mental images of Robert Del Naja's sneering face coming between the viewer and the dystopian warning his work is trying to communicate.
In short, stop trying to figure out who Banksy is, and start trying to figure out more ways to encourage the kind of productive dissent his work inspires.
Mic has ongoing coverage of Banksy's work. Follow our Banksy hub here.