Banksy Unmasked?

How statistical spatial analysis is bolstering a theory about who the British artist really is.

Andrew Winning / Reuters

For years, the true identity of Banksy— the British artist, guerrilla graffitist, and/or provocateur-rapscallion—has more or less eluded an increasingly indifferent public.

In 2006, he was supposedly first unmasked as Robert Banks from the graffiti-rich town of Bristol. A few years later, the “Scarlet Pimpernel of Modern Art” was said to be Robin Gunningham, a former Catholic school student—the most widely accepted theory yet.

Whomever (s)he may be, Banksy has left another kind of trail that no disguise can cover up: a geographic profile. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have used a statistical mapping the artist’s works around Bristol and London, as well as other public data, to help narrow down possible candidates for who the artist really is, much in the way that technology is used in criminology or to pinpoint potential sites of disease outbreaks.

Here’s a brief explanation from the study’s authors:

The model takes as input the locations of these artworks, and calculates the probability of ‘offender’ residence across the study area. Our analysis highlights areas associated with one prominent candidate (e.g., his home), supporting his identification as Banksy.

As it turns out, the technique may have actually worked too well. The release of the study was delayed by a week after its results seemed to buttress the Gunningham theory. That’s when Banksy’s lawyers got involved.

“Banksy's legal team contacted QMUL staff with concerns about how the study was to be promoted,” the BBC reported. “Those concerns apparently centered on the wording of a press release, which has now been withdrawn.”

Among the practical potential uses of this technology would be to curtail serious crime or even terrorism. But the methods behind the Banksy study did not come without its criticisms.

“The method itself is incredibly imprecise, and uses only suspected cases of Banksy’s artwork (Banksy performs his art anonymously, so it’s not obvious which pieces belong to him, or if the work is performed by multiple people),” wrote George Dvorsky at Gizmodo. “What’s more, outliers in the location data were not excluded, and the researchers did not use a timeline to consider when the art appeared.”

Nevertheless, Banksy’s lawyers still cared enough to worry that their tagger had been tagged.