The world's foremost street artist is a social justice warrior and a viral media master. She could be anyone.
Banksy Does New York, a new documentary airing on HBO on Nov. 17, opens on a bunch of scofflaws trying to jack an inflatable word balloon reading "Banksy!" from the side of a low-rise building in Queens. These hooligans weren't Banksy. Neither were the police officers who took possession of the piece after the failed heist and denied that it was art. Nor in all likelihood was the silver-haired man who sold $420 worth of Banksy prints for $60 a pop in Central Park, or the drivers who slowly trawled New York streets in trucks tricked out with Banksy's sculpture, or the accordionist accompanying one of Banksy's installations. While the film shares a lot of insights about street art, media sensationalism, viral phenomena, and the people who make Banksy possible, it doesn't cast a light on who Banksy is or what she looks like.
"Banksy hunters" who tracked the elusive artist over the course of her month-long residency last October never caught a glimpse of her—at least, so far as anyone can be sure. Reporters such as Beth Stebner (New York Daily News) and Keegan Hamilton (then with The Village Voice) didn't find her. That her identity is still secret is an achievement, given her notoriety and marketability.
But what Banksy Does New York makes plain is that the artist known as Banksy is someone with a background in the art world. That someone is working with a committee of people to execute works that range in scale from simple stencil graffiti to elaborate theatrical conceits. The documentary shows that Banksy has a different understanding of the street than the artists, street-writers, and art dealers who steal Banksy's shine by "spot-jocking" or straight-up pilfering her work—swagger-jackers who are invariably men in Banksy Does New York.
All of which serves as evidence against the flimsy theory that Banksy is a man.
This hypothesis is not completely unfounded. Eleven years ago, The Guardian's Simon Hattenstone met Banksy in a pub in Bristol. The reporter had his own concerns about identifying Banksy, even early into the artist's career. ("Nobody here seems to know what he looks like. But they all know him. That is, they know of him. That is, if he is a he.") Hesitations notwithstanding, Hattenstone was convinced: He wrote that the person he interviewed "looks like a cross between Jimmy Nail and Mike Skinner of the Streets." Your standard bloke.
In the 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop, another documentary about street art, Banksy appears as an anonymous figure whose voice is disguised, but who is plainly a man. So that would seem to put the question to rest. Further to the point, the street artist Shepard Fairey referred to Banksy as "he" and "him" throughout an interview with Brian Lehrer the same year. Fairey would be in a position to know, presumably: He's the closest thing Banksy has to a colleague. Fairey says that Banksy insists on anonymity, in part, to manage his image in the press. "He controls the way his message is put out very carefully," Fairey says in the interview.
Yet these pieces of evidence confuse rather than clarify the issue. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a classic piece of misdirection. Over the course of the movie, the film's would-be documentarian, Thierry Guetta, is exposed as a poor filmmaker. Partway through, Banksy takes over the production, turning it into a documentary about the documentarian instead. To complete the meta romp, Guetta, working under the nomme de rue Mr. Brainwash, proceeds to rips off Banksy's style. All of this means that Fairey, Banksy's co-conspirator in Banksy's film, is an unreliable narrator.
During the very first interview that Banksy gave to The Guardian, another figure was present ("Steve," Banksy's agent). Another figure is always present, says Canadian media artist Chris Healey, who has maintained since 2010 that Banksy is a team of seven artists led by a woman—potentially the same woman with long blonde hair who appears in scenes depicting Banksy's alleged studio in Exit Through the Gift Shop. Although Healey won't identify the direct source for his highly specific claim, it's at least as believable as the suggestion that Banksy is and always has been a single man.
"Since there is so much misdirection and jamming of societal norms with Banksy's work, as well as the oft-repeated claim no one notices Banksy, then it makes sense," Healey tells me. "No one can find Banksy because they are looking for, or rather assuming, a man is Banksy."
Part of what makes Banksy's work so popular is that it doesn't operate much like street art at all. Think about Invader or Fairey, artists who appear in Exit Through the Gift Shop: Invader's 8-bit career began with a single "Space Invaders" icon that the artist reiterated endlessly. Fairey's work started with a stencil of Andre the Giant prefaced by the word "Obey," again, repeated over and over. While they're both more like media moguls than graffiti writers today, Fairey and Invader started with the same strategy: to project themselves into public spaces by broadcasting themselves all over it.
That ambition to control a public space through this sort of redundant branding, to make the street your own, is a masculine one—and it's shared by the overwhelming majority of street artists. In the theater of the public square, graffiti is cousin to cat-calling—which Slate's Dee Locket smartly explains as the constant effort by men to "create the illusion of dominance in shared public spaces," specifically by claiming women's private spaces as their own. Naturally, street art is at best delightful and at worst a nuisance, whereas cat-calling is an intolerable social problem and a legitimate threat to women's safety. So any comparison between the two only goes so far.
Compared to the highly visible work of Invader or Fairey or dozens of other high-profile street artists, Banksy's work is different. Girls and women figure into Banksy's stenciled figures, for starters, something that isn't true of 99 percent of street art. Banksy's work has always done more than project "Banksy" ad nauseum. (In fact, a "handling service" called Pest Control exists to authenticate Banksy's protean projects.) Banksy's graffiti understands and predicates a relationship between the viewer and the street, something that graffiti that merely shouts the artist's name or icon over and over (and over and over) doesn't do.
Maybe it gives Banksy too much credit to say that her work shows a greater capacity for imagining being in someone else's shoes. (It's true of her themes of social justice, but it's also formally true in the way her work anticipates interaction with the viewer.) Andrew Russeth, at the time the editor for Gallerist, the New York Observer's art site, finds Banksy's work lacking in the Banksy Does New York documentary, calling it "art that hits you over the head with its message" and "worst-common-denominator art"—although he had kinder things to say about Sirens of the Lambs, a truck filled with squeaking plush animals. The fine-art world may not love Banksy, but Banksy plainly thinks of herself as part of that world: The New York residency drew on countless tropes from the art world, complete with a wry audio tour guide.
"The real show he is running is on the Internet," says one savvy observer in the documentary. "It’s like the Internet is almost his graffiti wall." Close: Her graffiti wall. The savvy manipulation of media to make viral art, to make art about virality, makes Banksy an innovator breaking out of a familiar form. In contemporary art today, that's a feminine trait: The best selfie artists are women, for example. So are the artists leading the Post-Internet art world.
Given how many men rip off Banksy in Banksy Does New York—watch the film to meet the utterly vampiric art dealer Stephan Keszler, if for no other reason—it's only fitting to presume that Banksy is a woman. Women experience the street in a different way than men do. Women experience the art world in a different way than men do. Love her or hate her, Banksy is putting herself at the intersection of the street and the art world. Why would anyone expect that position to be occupied by a man?