Yesterday morning I read a rather unexciting blog post by my friend RJ on Vandalog saying he doesn’t need or want to know who Banksy is, I’m with RJ on that one and its how most of us feel, its just a bit unexciting really. RJ was drawing attention to something I hadn’t read, a blog post last week by artist David Choe ridiculing an academic’s efforts to unmask the secretive political stencilist and group show organiser Banksy. I read Choe’s post, thought “Blimey, he’s suffered for his art”, agreed with his sentiments and thought nothing more.
Then in the evening, puzzled by the tag on a piece of street art I particularly like I was googling to see if I could find out who the artist was, in fact here it is, perhaps you can help decipher what the tag says:
The work somewhat resembles that of French street artist Jérôme Mesnager but I’m not convinced, no search revealed any indication of Mesnager visiting London recently. The work also reminds me strongly of a similar piece painted last year just yards from the same spot which bore the stencilled tag “JUST”.
Dancing figures painted in negative space on the same wall, on the same street yards apart, one last year, one a few weeks ago, although the later piece is much rougher and has a freehand rather than stencilled tag, would you say the work looks to be by the same creative hand and mind? I'm not convinced.
I’m a stickler for accurate attribution, so among many other relevant searches I googled “Street Artist Just”. The results included a link to an article published in the Smithsonian 3 days ago about BLU taking out all his own work in Bologna rather than have it sequestered and exhibited in a so called “Museum of Street Art”.
The first sentence of that article had a link intriguingly captioned “the scientific campaign to confirm the identity of Banksy”. That link brought up a news story from Queen Mary University of London about an academic paper correlating the occurrence of Banksy’s street art with addresses supposedly connected to a specific individual identified as Banksy in a 2008 Daily Mail article (Daily Mail -leading street art authority? Not really). Those 2008 claims were never verified.
Banksy at Moorfield eye Hospital,; Banksy also believed to support Sightsavers; So Banksy is perhaps an optician?
So then I did something I never usually waste time doing, I read a piece of academic research.
Banksy: believed to have been inside shops (this is speculation)
Backing up for a moment, the authors are using what they sinisterly call Geographic Profiling to analyse locations and then draw conclusions about …an epicentre. The list of citations in the research shows it is used for some pretty interesting stuff like mapping the spread of disease and therefore locating its source, pretty much a hi tech update on what John Snow did in the 1850s to finger a particular public water pump as the source of London’s Cholera epidemic. It is also used to model bumble bee foraging, who knew bumble bees foraged?
So, these “Evil scientists” as David Choe calls them got hold of a copy of Graffoto co-blogger and good friend Shellshock’s classic books Banksy Location and Tours Vols 1 and 2 and noted the locations of Banksy’s work which Shellshock had diligently documented, stuffed the coordinates into a computer, compared them to locations where the supposed alleged Bansky character is supposed to have lived and shagged and went “Aha – it COULD be that guy”. It’s a bit like mapping incidents of football violence and plugging in Stamford Bridge’s post code and voila, “football violence happens around football stadiums”.
Banksy - Toxic Rat
The Evil Scientists then scooped national press attention and international blog posts because Banksy is media chocolate. The game for academics is quite simple, published research secures funding and tenured positions and you want to be published in the most prestigious publication you can and to be referenced as much as possible (fill ya boots Ms Hauge, citation below). I have no idea how esteemed the Journal Of Spatial Science is but I have little doubt that the work that went into this paper was pretty straight forward as the academics had the analytical tools already and the data conveniently to hand. The trickier bit is getting published, all that peer review and shit. So, if you find a journal that will publish it, then the Banksy tag will bring the world gawping, it’s a bit like academics prostituting themselves for “likes”.
The Journal of Spatial Science (source: Taylor and Francis Online)
It seems to me that the “science” in this case is flawed, not the theory whatever that might be but the rejection of the possibility that the data that might point to alternative conclusions.
I am aware of many many artists who came from Bristol to London, who did street art and graffiti, and who have returned to Bristol. Then there's the huge number of London artists who visit Bristol, the "reverse bumpkin" syndrome. There are a load of talented Bristol/London based artists, potential candidates who the evil scientists have ignored as potential Banksys, they chose to investigate only the one who was named in the press years ago.
The supposition that there could only be one person common to all those relevant addresses they believe that Banksy candidate frequented requires us to ignore how street artists behave in modern urban society. Hell, don’t the authors know about transport…you don’t need to live at the “epicentre” to be the source, there are pretty sound reasons why a lot of Banksy’s work appeared in Shoreditch and around West London, that would be because its where all the other graffiti writers and taggers were doing their thang and they kind of hang out in the same places for the same reasons. They live, drink and fuck in the same locales. There are patterns underpinning the ebbs and flows of a graffiti writer's or street artist's social and working life which would see them frequenting the same locations and it isn’t exactly a trip to outer Mongolia, yes we do have cars and bikes and mass transport systems in London and Bristol.
Shephards Bush Roundabout: accessible by only one known individual
As the authors by their own admission are “assessing the evidence supporting one prominent candidate”, it seems odd that the Bristol home address for that person is 8 times less significant (HS percentage 5.5% vs 40.1%) than the location of that person’s school according to the quantitative scores they tabulate. Do you really think that the known Bristol works highlighted in Shellshock’s books were mainly painted by Banksy on his way home from school? My guess, just a guess, is that the work of that era (as covered in Shellshock’s book) post dates Banksy’s school years. I take the results of their work as heartening evidence that the 2008 speculation is even less likely to be correct than we might have feared.
In my day job as a street art tour guide, guests are often inclined to pin me against a wall and demand to know who Banksy is. My stock answer is we don’t know who “he” is, nothing has ever been confirmed, nor denied, just left in limbo as a guess with no credible corroboration from someone we would trust to know and anyway, I don’t want my belief in the myth shattered, his anonymity is as important to me as it is to him, I need his identity to remain a secret. Let me echo David Choe’s castigation of the academics: exercise restraint, don’t crush the fragile flowering of talent, you really don’t need to know who Banksy is in fact you are better off not knowing, exactly what David Choe says.
Banksy: leave him alone
The authors certainly got their moment in the sun, the story ran in many newspapers worldwide and even the BBC, though on the BBC the research was ridiculed by a boffin credited as running the only geographic profiling course outside the US.
Here’s a final thought, perhaps the academics could try putting other people’s post codes into the software and see who many more millions could be Banksy. In fact, I lived for a couple of years in Bristol in the early 1990s and I lived (still live) a mere bicycle ride away from all the East London and West London work in the 2000s, so there you have scientific proof that despite my lack of wit or creative talent, I am indeed Banksy.
Becoming Banksy (scary thing: 4 watchers)
Michelle V. Hauge, Mark D. Stevenson, D. Kim Rossmo & Steven C. Le
Comber (2016): Tagging Banksy: using geographic profiling to investigate a modern art
mystery, Journal of Spatial Science, DOI: 10.1080/14498596.2016.1138246
PS – if you know for sure what the tag in the photo says – drop a comment below