Most artists have an obsession that defines their work. Monet had light, Hockney has color, I’ve got police response time.” — Banksy

Once seen as a vandal, he’s now revered for his work, which sells for millions. But the famously anonymous street artist’s most ambitious masterpiece may be keeping his identity hidden. Banksy is now the subject of his first authorized exhibition in 14 years – and not even the man responsible for hosting the exhibition has ever met or spoken to the artist. “This is one of, I suppose, the great mysteries,” said Gareth James.

Putting together the exhibition, “Banksy: Cut and Run – 25 Years Card Labour,” required extensive planning, and a cover story.  James, who manages the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, Scotland, was telling people they’d be “refurbishing the windows.” “Had to keep it secret from colleagues, family and friends,” he said. “We just didn’t want to risk it getting out.”

And yes, there was a non-disclosure agreement.

The exhibition “Banksy: Cut and Run – 25 Years Card Labour” was secretly installed at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, Scotland. 

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The idea, James said, was for this show to just “appear” unannounced, like Banksy’s work.

“Cut and Run” features the stencils from some of his best-known images, and work from as far back as the late ’90s. Banksy recreates his desk, and his childhood bedroom. In his own words, he explains how a scene from the movie “Jaws,” where a graffiti artist paints a shark on an advertising billboard, inspired him: “It showed me everything I needed to know about graffiti. It should be audacious and funny.”

Banksy’s captions are a big part of the exhibition. James said, “You really maybe come away with a feeling of having an insight or maybe even trying to get to know Banksy a bit, because that voice is there.”

Banksy’s political voice has always been there in his art. In Ukraine last year, ruins were the canvas for his commentary on a conflict he paints as David vs. Goliath.

A local resident walks past a graffiti on a wall of destroyed building, in the town of Borodyanka on Nov. 12, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

Banksy often champions the underdog, be it migrants, or Palestinians in the West Bank, where, in the shadow of Israel’s separation barrier, he created “The Walled-Off Hotel.”

A Palestinian labourer works under a large wall painting by elusive British graffiti artist Banksy December 5, 2007 on a building wall in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank. 

David Silverman/Getty Images

His art is coveted, but of course graffiti is not exactly legal. Videos posted to his Instagram reveal his guerrilla-style tactics to avoid detection.

The artist’s anonymity was, according to Steve Lazarides, all about avoiding problems with the police, and nothing to do with it being a promotional tool. “Quite quickly, it became the best promotional tool anyone could ever invent,” he said.

Lazarides was an early associate of Banksy’s in the working-class English town of Bristol. When asked what kind of guy Banksy is, Lazarides replied, “Difficult.”

In what way? “Just in that way that sometimes people that are a genius at what they’re doing [are]. There’s no taking away from the fact that the guy is a legend. He was making images and messages that everyone could understand. And I think that was what was the game-changer, like, suddenly someone was making art that you didn’t feel stupid looking at.”

Doane said, “He’s sometimes criticized for that, too, that it’s too simplistic?”

“Yeah, but he’s only criticized, by, and I’m going to swear, by a**holes in the art world,” Lazarides said. “They never liked him. They never liked the movement. It’s been at the fore now for almost 30 years. And all of that without any help from the art world.”

But now? “Oh now, but now the art world want it!”

Lazarides said he has thousands of photos of Banksy working; some he’s published. Though they’ve parted ways, he has not publicly revealed the artist’s identity.

But listen to this story from Lazarides about Banksy searching for inspiration: “He was on my computer, and I looked and I went, ‘Rob – Robin, you’re looking up, like, child sex dolls on my computer.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I just want to get something I can fill with helium and put up in the air.'”

Doane said, “Now, you know you’re saying a name, yeah, when you say, told me that story?”

“Yeah,” said Lazarides. “That name’s out there. Who says it’s true?”

“But you said Robin? Robert?”

“Robin, Robert, Robbie,” he mused.

People have been speculating about Banksy’s identity for decades. Among the names tossed around are Bristol artist Robin Gunningham and Robert Del Naja, from the band Massive Attack, also from Bristol.

Lazarides said, “Mr. Del Naja is a graffiti artist. And I would say arguably way better than Banksy.”

“And there’s a lot of talk that that’s the same person?” asked Doane.

“Yeah. I mean, I’ve heard the stories, and it ain’t ‘D’.”

“These Banksy artworks pop up pretty much along the lines of a Massive Attack tour in this city, in that city?”

“So, maybe the artist had been at the gig and then done a piece of art?” Lazarides laughed. “Stop it. Yes. It’s Robert Del Naja. And me, and a few other people!”

“You have to dance this very fine line. You know this information people want to know, and I don’t know if you’re being serious or not.”

“Maybe I’m being serious and maybe I’m not. That’s as much as you’re getting from me.”

“It’s a tough world to get into, Banksy’s World,” said Doane.

“It’s not tough, it’s impossible!

Acoris Andipa is one of the biggest collectors and dealers of Banksy’s work out of his London gallery. “I deal in very important artworks by major museum artists, from Picasso to Damien Hirst,” he said. “And there is nowhere near this level of secrecy or gamesmanship almost. It’s a bit Wild West, dealing in Banksy artwork.

“Rather exclusively, Banksy has managed to create a new set of rules within the art world, which is, if it doesn’t have a certificate of authenticity, you should not sell it, you should not buy it. And that’s astonishing. It also opens a quagmire of problems. What happens if the artist doesn’t like an early work?”

Doane asked, “What happens if the artist doesn’t like the person seeking the authenticity?”

“Yeah. Problem, right?” 

“Phew. The art world is interesting.”   

“Wild West!”

And it seems Banksy’s people can play sheriff.  The auction house Christie’s stopped responding to emails regarding our interview request. Sotheby’s pulled out of a scheduled interview at the last minute, after telling us they were going to “check” with Banksy’s team. Andipa said, “It’s a closed shop. I mean, I’ve been dealing in his work for almost 20 years now, and it’s a closed shop to me.”

It was Banksy’s 2004 work “Napalm” which first piqued his interest: “I was so taken by it, the perfect balance of frivolity with serious elements, and a message. And then you discover, as you get to know his work more and more, that, you know, you have a little snigger first, a little laugh, because it’s light-hearted, but then you kind of suck your teeth a little. Actually, there’s some weight to it.”

Doane asked, “How much is it Banksy’s message, how much is it his pure skill as an artist?”

“He is actually quite painterly. But he’s chosen to execute his work through stencils, much like Andy Warhol did through screen prints.”

But there was no precedent in the art world for this: shredding a piece seconds after it was sold at auction for $1.4 million.

An irreverent middle-finger to the establishment is a theme of his work. But the stunt actually added value – the shredded piece re-sold a few years later for $25 million. In the Glasgow exhibition, Banksy explains how he pulled it off.

For all that’s on display here, there’s one essential implement Banksy uses which is not: the non-disclosure agreement. James said, “I still struggle to say the artist’s name. I spent years absolutely not saying the artist’s name for fear that I would give something away.”

And those who do know the artist’s identity are bound, or choose, not to expose him. Steve Lazarides said, “Am I going to reveal it? Probably not.”

Acoris Andipa said, “There are institutions, including U.K. papers, that would pay a lot of money for him to be unmasked. Not one person has stepped up to take the bounty.”

Doane asked, “How can that be?”

“At the risk of overly romanticizing, one has to assume that he’s a good person,” Andipa replied. “He knows how to look after the people around him.”

When asked if something would change if Banksy’s true identity were known, Gareth James said, “I’m not sure, and I really hope we never find out.”

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Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Brian Robbins.