Call off the hunt for Banksy: Why we need to stop trying to unmask the graffiti artist

What if we just enjoyed this modern mystery without feeling the need to solve it?

There have been several attempts to unmask the artist behind the pseudonym Banksy ever since his work first started appearing in the UK in the 1990s. AFP
Powered by automated translation

What does the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes, the smash hit success of Only Murders in the Building and the timeless debate over the Loch Ness Monster tell us?

That we really love a good mystery.

Whether it’s settling down with an Agatha Christie novel, puzzling over the Netflix whodunit Knives Out, or loudly declaring that it was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick during a game of Clue, humans enjoy (and are really good at) solving things.

But what if we’re too good? What if sometimes we’re too inquisitive?

I say this because Banksy is back in the news.

The street artist, whose politically motivated works inspire dinner table debate and make global headlines, has apparently been unmasked in an unearthed BBC interview, in which he appears to confirm his name.

I’m not going to say it here because a quick Google search will find it easily enough. But before you start typing “Banksy real name” into the search engine, what if you didn’t? What if we let this one mystery endure?

Banksy’s identity has long been the subject of speculation ever since his street art first started to appear in the UK in the 1990s. Emerging from the Bristol graffiti scene, his work stood out for its humour, satire and political commentary and has been found in London, Los Angeles, the West Bank, Ukraine and New York.

He has opened a “Bemusement Park” (Dismaland in UK seaside town Weston-super-Mare), dumped a shopping trolley in Monet’s The Japanese Footbridge and shredded his own art at auction.

He has snuck into Tate Britain disguised as a pensioner, hung his own version of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris, and installed Woman with Gas Mask at the Metropolitan Museum in New York among other acts of guerilla art-fare.

And he has done all of this without being detected.

His subterfuge takes time and dedication in our CCTV-saturated world. In an age when everyone is a potential detective with a camera phone, he has for decades remained a fuzzy blur on a CCTV monitor, face hidden, hoodie up.

It’s a cat and mouse game in which, importantly, no one gets hurt.

All of which is why I implore: Call off the hunt for Banksy.

His unmasking has become a media obsession, particularly among the UK tabloids, who have long had the crosshairs on their metaphorical hunting rifles set to discovering his true identity.

But why can’t we just enjoy the mystery?

This is not to say that I don’t understand the sense of purpose a good riddle can ignite. I also appreciate the feeling of achievement that comes from solving a tricky puzzle. Mystery titles are the second most profitable book titles on Amazon; we can’t get enough of them and I get it.

By our very nature, humans are driven to find answers. It’s what propelled us out of the caves and onto the sofa with Netflix on the television, iPhone in hand and Deliveroo on the way.

But let us consider some of the greatest mysteries of all time – Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, El Dorado, Stonehenge, Jack the Ripper and the Mary Celeste.

Why do they capture the imagination of generation after generation? Why do they endure when other mysteries, such as those monoliths that popped up around the world during the pandemic, do not?

Because they’ve never been solved. Not definitively at least. And what’s more, I hope they never are.

I hope some high-tech future generation doesn’t drain Loch Ness simply to find out what’s in it, and I hope they don’t build a time machine to travel back and find out what the druids were really up to on Wiltshire’s Salisbury Plain five thousand-odd years ago.

Four years ago, my middle son took the small Christmas tree from a festive ornament we have and hid it somewhere in the house. To date, we’ve never found it, and every Christmas we talk about where it might be, and where he might have put it.

The stakes aren’t high in this mini mystery of mine, but they’re enduring, fun to puzzle over and truthfully, I don’t really want to solve it.

Because a world without mystery is a very dull place indeed.

Updated: November 27, 2023, 9:02 AM