Unveiling the World's Most Famous Anonymous Artist

A U.K. tabloid claims to have uncovered the identity of graffiti artist Banksy.

LONDON, July 14, 2008 — -- He may have been the world's most famous anonymous artist.

But, now, one U.K. newspaper claims to have unveiled the identity of British graffiti artist Banksy, tracing his roots back to the English town of Bristol.

Described variously as the British Andy Warhol or the Scarlet Pimpernel of the art world, Banksy's work has sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The reclusive street artist has collected several celebrity fans, including Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Christina Aguilera.

Earlier this year, one of his painted walls fetched more than $400,000, and his screen print of British supermodel Kate Moss sold for nearly $200,000.

But his passion for creating essentially illegal, "guerrilla" art in public spaces around the world has made it necessary for him to guard his identity. And, as time has passed, the artist/scofflaw has concocted increasingly elaborate ruses to keep the world's media on its toes.

All that may be coming to an end now, however.

The British tabloid, Mail on Sunday, is claiming to have discovered Banksy's true identity, naming him as 34-year-old Robin Gunningham.

According to the Mail, the risk-taking graffiti artist grew up in Bristol, England, in a middle-class family. The man who is the world's most famous street artist went to an exclusive private school, which now charges annual fees of $18,400.

There were few signs that the blazer- and tie-wearing Gunningham might grow up to become a renegade artist, breaking into the world's best-known art galleries, such as London's Tate and New York's Museum of Modern Art, to hang up his work.

But even back then, Gunningham's fellow pupils recognized a gifted artist in their midst.

In an interview with the Mail, Scott Nurse, an insurance broker from Gunningham's class, said, "He did lots of illustrations. I am not at all surprised if he is Banksy."

But is he?

The Man With Two Faces

The buzz around the Banksy-Gunningham identity began with a 2004 photograph taken in Jamaica showing a man, dressed in a blue shirt and jeans, with a spray can at his feet — a portrait of the artist known as Banksy, according to the Mail.

The picture first appeared on the Internet, and then in the London afternoon paper, The Evening Standard.

Speculation about the image even made it across the Atlantic, when a New Yorker article investigated the story behind the photograph.

Unsurprisingly, Banksy denied that the picture was of him.

If it wasn't Banksy, was it Gunningham? A former neighbor of the Gunninghams, Anthony Hallett, told the Mail that the man in the photograph was Robin Gunningham.

And, according to the BBC, Colin Saysell, an anti-graffiti officer in Bristol who has pursued Banksy for years, said that the picture showed Banksy at work.

So are Gunningham and Banksy the same person?

It's difficult to tell, and even the artist's parents are unaware of his identity, according to an interview given by Banksy's agent to the Mail earlier this year. "They think he's a painter and decorator who's done very well for himself," the agent said.

Indeed, when the Mail pursued the Gunningham trail to its conclusion, both of Robin Gunningham's parents, Peter and Pamela Gunningham (now separated), firmly denied knowing the man in the photograph.

But what was especially baffling was the mother's refusal to even acknowledge that she had a son.

"I don't have a son at all," she told the Mail, before going on to deny that she was Pamela Gunningham.

The reason behind all the secrecy? A possible rift in the family, according to former neighbor Hallett.

"I would not go as far as to say he went off the rails, but there was some sort of rift in the family, probably because he didn't turn out quite as they hoped," he told the Mail. "He just disappeared after he left home."

Robin Gunningham quit school at 16 after finishing 10th grade. In 1998, he was reportedly living in Easton, Bristol, with fellow artist Luke Egan.

In an interview with the Mail, Egan acknowledged living with Gunningham but added, "I lived with him ages ago. I don't think Banksy was around then anyway."

The house where the two men lived was bought in 2000 by a curator named Camilla Stacey, who worked at Bristol's Here Gallery.

Stacey told the Mail that when she moved in, "the place had been covered in graffiti," adding that the artwork suggested that Gunningham and Banksy were the same person.

But, at the time, she said, Banksy "was just another artist who had graffitied around Bristol."

With that in mind, Stacey said, she threw his "things in the bin," not realizing that the artwork would one day presumably be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

"It keeps me awake at night sometimes thinking about it," she acknowledged.

When ABC News contacted Bristol's Here Gallery to speak with Stacey, one of her colleagues said that she was "regretting speaking to the press," adding that the gallery had been besieged by media since the Mail's revelations, hardly surprising given the buzz surrounding Banksy.

The artist's British public relations rep, Jo Brooks, told ABC News that "we get a lot of these calls every week," before adding that she could "neither confirm nor deny these stories," thus keeping the speculation (and the buzz) alive.

After staging exhibitions including live pigs, and engaging in headline-grabbing stunts everywhere from the West Bank barrier to Disneyland in California, Banksy may well find himself running out of ways to stay in the news.

Keeping his face and identity under wraps is one way to keep the intrigue going.

And, as he once told Swindle magazine in a 2006 interview, "It's a pretty safe bet that the reality of me would be a crushing disappointment to a couple of 15-year-old kids out there."

A few kids, and perhaps a few journalists as well, who may find themselves at a loose end, in case this most elusive of artists decides to reveal himself to the public.

But they can breathe easy for the time being. In 2006, Banksy told Swindle magazine that he had "no interest in ever coming out."

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