Is Damien Hirst Behind the Banksy Machine?

Conspiracy theories abound about who Banksy is—and how many powerful people may be protecting him in order to pull off his latest New York show.

In 2006, Damien Hirst and Banksy seemed to be on opposite ends of the art world spectrum. Hirst was a brand, an art phenomenon worth roughly £100m pounds (a year later he debuted his “For the Love of God” diamond-encrusted skull, which allegedly sold for £50 million or $80 million). Banksy was a faceless graffiti artist who was well known because his identity was unknown. “I have no interest in ever coming out,” he was quoted saying in a New Yorker article at the time. “I figure there are enough self-opinionated assholes trying to get their ugly little faces in front of you as it is.” Hirst was arguably one of the art world’s most “self-opinionated assholes,” and Banksy denounced the world in which Hirst reigned as ”a rest home for the overprivileged, the pretentious, and the weak.”

Despite this ostensible aversion to personal fame and publicity, Banksy agreed to be featured in Hirst’s 2006 show at the Serpentine Gallery in London, “In the darkest hour there may be light." Speaking to The Guardian about Banksy's work, Hirst praised the pseudonymous graffiti artist. “I’ve always thought he was great. The streets are boring...anyone like Banksy who makes it entertaining and treats people like people instead of consumers is brilliant.”

It was the beginning of a collaboration that has fueled rumors about Banksy’s identity and associations—particularly amongst those who speculate that "Banksy" is in fact a sort of performance art collective funded by art world mandarins. Bettina Prentice, founder and owner of Prentice Art Communications, thinks Hirst has an Oz-like role—the man behind the street art curtain—in Banksy’s work. The theory stems in part from their playful, if strange relationship. Two years after the exhibit, Banksy’s “Keep It Spotless” collaboration with Hirst sold for more than $1.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction, Banksy's highest reported sale. In his 2009 show at the Bristol Museum in England, Banksy showcased another original Hirst spot painting with a large rat stenciled over it.

“There are rumors that Hirst finances Banksy, who is in turn constantly highlighting the importance of Hirst by defacing or referencing his work, and he doesn’t reference a lot of other artists,” says Prentice. One such reference is Banksy’s painting of a graffitied stain glass window—a play on Hirst’s “Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

It’s hard to believe that Banksy’s public artworks, like his latest month-long, self-declared “residency” in New York City, “Better Out Than In,” are cheaply produced. Every stencil or mural is painted surreptitiously, with multiple hands on deck to construct his more elaborate stunts, like the slaughterhouse delivery truck packed with stuffed animals and puppeteers that toured the Meatpacking District and other parts of the city. This doesn’t include the rest of Team Banksy—mainly publicists—working to protect the artist’s anonymity. Is it so farfetched to suggest that Hirst, the wealthiest artist in the world, might be financially orchestrating Banksy’s projects?

Others think Hirst is one of many players in Banksy’s factory—a well-oiled PR machine perpetuating the artist’s ruse. “I think it’s the ultra-wealthy that have created him,” says James Top, one of New York City’s graffiti art pioneers. “[His work] couldn’t be pulled off by a couple of smart guys without that sort of clientele behind it. Top says the fact that Banksy has succeeded in remaining anonymous is proof of the people backing him. “Once you get to his status and no one is secretly taping you, and nobody has tried to exploit this yet—come on now?”

Like Hirst’s work—and Andy Warhol before him—Banksy’s art is no longer simply that; it has become a cultural (and financial) currency. His work in New York City has ranged from his signature cheeky stencils (a dog peeing on a fire hydrant, which responds with a thought bubble reading, “you complete me”) to more political statements (a black silhouette of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, an orange flower blooming from one of them). It’s no surprise that his residency sparked a media frenzy and the ire of Mayor Bloomberg—precisely the type of furor Banksy hopes to provoke. When confronted about the artist’s graffiti at a press conference, Bloomberg responded: “Running up to somebody’s property or public property is not my definition of art. Or it may be art, but it should not be permitted.”

Banksy was predictably elusive in an interview with The Village Voice about “Better Out Than In,” ignoring questions about his identity and whether or not the residency would turn out a profit. He was only forthcoming about its mission: "There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There's no gallery show or book or film. It's pointless. Which hopefully means something."

And it does mean something, but not what Banksy is suggesting. His art wouldn’t be so highly valued—both aesthetically and monetarily—were it not for the “marketing wing” that has perpetuated his fame. Yes, the artist sold original canvases to a few lucky tourists in Central Park for $60, but it’s how much the rest of the world is willing to pay for it that matters. Whether Banksy wants to admit it or not, that art does come with a rather hefty price tag attached.