‘Tagging Banksy’, and why it matters

After years of speculation, the world’s most celebrated street artist may finally be unmasked. In 2008, the Mail on Sunday theorised that Banksy was the alias of Robin Gunningham, a former pupil at Bristol Cathedral School. A study in the Journal of Spatial Science due to appear last week, but postponed for legal reasons – corroborates this claim. ‘Tagging Banksy’, an article written by a group of scientists at Queen Mary University of London, uses a statistical methodology called geographic profiling. By analysing the locations of Banksy’s London and Bristol artworks, the authors were able to narrow down the artist’s probable area of residence. The results indicate that Gunningham is a likely candidate.

More concerning than this revelation, though, is the methodology that was used to pin Gunningham down, and the repercussions that this has for street art more generally. Geographic profiling has many applications, from epidemiology to zoology, but is primarily used to aid criminal investigations, particularly in cases of serial murder or rape offenders. By subjecting Banksy to the same process, the QMUL researchers not only latch onto a topic of popular interest to promote their research; they also perpetuate the narrative of street art as crime. The ‘Banksy effect’ may have given credibility to graffiti as a creative and financial asset, but it still faces a persistent, forceful counter-argument: that this is vandalism, not art.

That dispute no longer seems as fresh or relevant as it did over a decade ago. The boundaries between the street, the gallery space and the auction house have been blurred. Banksy’s Art Buff, removed from a wall in Folkestone to be sold in Miami, is one example that exposes the reductive nature of such oppositions. A more pertinent pair of questions is, “Which street artworks are worth preserving, and why?” This line of enquiry suggests a slippery aesthetic debate, built on subjective value judgements. Theoretical as it may seem, though, the issue is grappled with on a daily basis by shopkeepers and homeowners. Rarely are such complex, thorny questions about art afforded such tangible answers.

Last week, the French city of Reims was left red-faced after a street mural by C215, recently commissioned by the town hall, was scrubbed off by their own anti-graffiti squad. For the authorities, C215’s art was not only worth keeping, but worth paying for. For those who washed it away, it was not discernibly different from countless other works that they had removed before. This situation, however farcical, illuminates the shift in street art reception. Authority figures now count among those who seek to save (some) street artworks, even as they destroy others. Occasionally, as with Banksy’s Naked Man, local citizens may be involved in the decision-making process; more often, choices are made centrally, with little transparency.

Precisely because street art is considered vandalism by law, councils need not give reasons for determining a particular work’s fate. Artworks that subvert or undermine authority may be disposed of, while those that are considered harmless remain untouched. In such a scenario, works are primarily judged not by artistic value, but by political value — although the two may often be related, and it is difficult to draw a clear-cut distinction between them. The QMUL study offers a method that would make it easier both to locate repeat offenders of politically damaging art, and to take direct action against those who produce it.

But this research reaches beyond the idea that street art is an untidy eyesore. The authors refer to graffiti as an example of a “minor terrorism-related” act, one that could be used to “help locate terrorist bases before more serious incidents occur”. The words are chosen for maximum effect, to stress the study’s potential importance. If street art allows individuals to grasp power from a “bigger and better equipped enemy”, ‘Tagging Banksy’ seems to imply that authorities should respond in force, to reclaim that power before it grows out of control. As the UK government seeks to introduce increasingly stringent surveillance laws in the name of citizens’ safety, the authors seem to ask: Why not sweep the streets for anarchic artists at the same time?

Few mediums share street art’s intrinsic anti-establishment ties, but it is wrong to mistake acts of peaceful protest for danger-in-waiting. In this respect, the study reaches an unsettling conclusion. It frames street art not as a form of creativity, but as a natural bedfellow of violent crime. At best, the research perpetuates existing prejudices. At worst, it fuels fear-mongering narratives and advocates draconian measures. To label Banksy as Robin Gunningham may upset some fans, but would have few other ramifications. To label Banksy as a terrorist, though, is to set a far more troubling precedent.

John Wadsworth

Earlier versions of this article are available at The Draft Man’s Contract.

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