The Secret Life of the Real Banksy, Robin Gunningham
Friends, teammates, and people who helped create some of his artworks give The Daily Beast a rare look at the man behind the mask.
BRISTOL, England — On the first of the intercontinental painting tours that would eventually turn Banksy into a global graffiti star, the young artist had plenty of help.
His first intervention in international politics came in the semi-autonomous region of Chiapas in southern Mexico in January 2001.
Banksy didn’t choose the location himself—he was tagging along with around 20 other Brits who had organized transport into the mountains where the Zapatista Army of National Liberation held sway.
The 27-year-old didn’t even paint the Zapatista solidarity murals all on his own; his traveling companions picked up paintbrushes and unwittingly became part of street-art history.
“Yes, my hand has painted part of a Banksy,” Will Simpson told The Daily Beast. “It was the start, I guess... We had no idea how much his star would ascend in the next few years.”
Tracing back the chain of events that took this young man into the Mexican jungle—where he developed a taste for the kind of trips that would transform the art world over the next 15 years—offers a unique insight into not only the identity of this extraordinary artist but the community and influences that helped to inspire him.
The expedition into the remote mountains of Latin America had been organized by the Easton Cowboys, a pub football team, based in Bristol, in southwest England.
Their training ground and Banksy’s small house nearby were at the very center of a geographic profiling investigation which appears to have confirmed that Robin Gunningham, 42, is the real identity of the secretive artist.
Tracking techniques favored by police hunting for serial killers and scientists monitoring the spread of infectious diseases were used to compare the locations of Banksy’s work with addresses linked to Gunningham.
A year-long investigation by the Mail on Sunday in 2008 had also concluded that Gunningham, a private-school boy from a comfortable home, was Britain’s most notorious graffiti artist.
An article published in the Journal of Spatial Science now lends scientific weight to the Mail’s claim. “The spatial locations of Banksy artworks in both London and Bristol are associated with sites linked to one prominent candidate. The case hinges on a number of striking coincidences between Banksy and Robin Gunningham,” wrote the authors.
Those coincidences did not begin with the beautiful, quiet street where Gunningham grew up with his big sister and professional parents.
Today the houses are painted in alternating pastel shades; pale blue, chalky pink, aquamarine, and a brighter pink, but there is no sign of graffiti on that suburban road or the streets around it.
It was when he moved to a truly horrible-looking pebbledash rowhouse on the shabbier side of town with another young artist, Luke Egan, that Banksy paintings began to spring up all around him. Within a 10-minute walk of the house you can still find some of Banksy’s earliest surviving work.
By the late ’90s, he was developing a name for himself in the area. At the same time, he was going to soccer training with the Cowboys who were based in an extraordinary pub called The Plough Inn, which is a few minutes walk from his house in Easton. Banksy has been a regular there since his mid-twenties if not earlier.
Bristol has a reputation as an “alternative” city—a pared-down version of Portland, Oregon—and Easton is probably its edgiest, most creative neighborhood.
The Plough is right at the heart of the community—a pub where the front doors are locked at the mandated closing time but the party rages on late into the night; often through until daylight on the weekends.
The regulars are multicultural—Sikh, Jamaican, Indian, and white working class—and the bar is decked out with political flags, left-wing pamphlets, and solidarity pledges.
After raising cash in the bar, the co-owner took a van to France this week to help move migrants stuck at the refugee camps near Calais to better accommodation—a subject that Banksy has also tackled.
This is a pub that embraces politics, and inspires its customers to follow suit.
When a football team from Sao Paulo was in town to play—the Cowboys had arranged for them to be able to stay in a squat nearby—they walked into the pub and shouted: “It’s like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels!”
Though it is part traditional English boozer, walking out into the backyard the pub’s unique allure becomes clear; you are met by a buzz of conversation, and a cloud of marijuana smoke that obscures the graffiti on every wall.
It’s no surprise Banksy comes back here when he’s in town.
Mention his name to the punters, though, and suddenly eyes are diverted toward the ground. One regular even mimed turning a key to lock his mouth shut.
Eventually one drinker points to a space near the front door where a Banksy oil painting used to hang. “It went up on the wall right here for a while,” he said. “We were the first ones bigging him up.”
But Banksy’s fame began to grow—still slowly at this point—and the Cowboys started thinking the painting might eventually be worth quite a lot of money.
Banksy had produced the picture of masked men playing football for a fundraising event in honor of the Zapatistas in Mexico.
The Cowboys had set up a solidarity group—Kiptik—and were raising money to help bring fresh drinking water to the Chiapas villages, after their first tour there in 1999.
Banksy suggested they raffle off his work, somewhat underselling the value his pieces were soon to acquire. The Cowboys went along with his request but hatched a controversial plan to save it by buying up loads of the raffle tickets with club funds, which would come back to them anyway.
In the end the Cowgirls—members of the ladies soccer team—were dispatched to secretly do the deed, but backed out and didn’t buy the tickets, allowing the picture to be won by a stranger and just a few hundred pounds to be raised.
However, Banksy did allow Kiptik to print and sell T-shirts with the same image, which eventually raised some $15,000.
“It became capitalism. That’s not what we’re about; not an individual, it’s the community,” said one of the Cowboys, remembering the arguments over what to do with their Banksy.
Minor disputes aside, it’s clear that the young artist was swept up by the mission to help the Zapatistas, who were waging a radical left-wing revolution against the Mexican authorities. Indeed, Banksy decided to join the Cowboys on their second trip to Mexico.
“He fitted in with us in terms of getting on with us as individuals but also the political side of it as well,” said Simpson, 46, a veteran Cowboy.
The club’s other tours have included regular trips to the Palestinian territories (where Banksy later painted images of peace and hope on the Israeli wall), a regular anti-fascist tournament in Germany, and a cricket tour of Compton in Los Angeles.
Simpson spent many hours crammed into buses with Banksy as they made their way up to altitude where they would take on the locals at soccer, once they had shooed the cows off the pitches.
One night inside a hut where they were hanging their hammocks, Banksy stepped on a scorpion. Managing to stomp on it before it stung him, he scooped it into a small plastic film case.
Back on the bus the following day, he took out the film case to show the others, but as he dropped the scorpion into his lap it suddenly became clear that the creature was still very much alive.
“The bus driver just looked at him in horror; saying ‘What are you doing!’ Like some gringo thought he was going to take it home as a pet,” said Simpson. “I don’t think any of us were that well-informed about the dangers.”
Banksy had planned to sit out the football matches and concentrate on the murals. To start with, he would paint while the games were going on and the others would come and help out afterward. Then injuries struck and the Cowboys got desperate.
“Originally he wasn’t going to play—‘Look, I’ll sit on the sidelines, I’m not very good.’ But we managed to twist his arm into playing, so he played and our photographer ended up playing as well. He was actually pretty good in goal, a decent standard. I don’t think he embarrassed himself.”
He was more concerned about the murals though. “There’s a serious intent there,” said Simpson, who has written a history of the Cowboys. “We didn’t want the village to look like a piece of shit so it had to be good, and luckily it was.
“He’s got a very sharp mind and obviously he’s a very good artist,” he said. “We had an amazing experience and it’s changed all of our lives really.”
Jasper Beese was another of the Cowboys on that tour of Mexico. “He’d done a bit of homework—there’s a great tradition of murals of resistance in Mexico. It fitted into that. He had some books about the history and he replicated a really famous photograph from the struggle where this Zapatista woman has her hands around this soldier’s throat,” he told The Daily Beast.
Banksy’s trademark political approach to public art was taking shape before his teammates’ eyes.
Experiences on that tour undoubtedly helped to shape his beliefs. One thing that upset all of the British lads, said Beese, was the presence of Coca-Cola for sale in every village but no access to clean drinking water.
Later that year, The Herald in Scotland quoted Banksy saying he wanted to tear down the whole capitalist system (an aim of the Zapatistas, incidentally).
‘‘There is a side of my work that wants to crush the whole system, leaving a trail of the blue and lifeless corpses of judges and coppers in my wake, dragging the city to its knees as it screams my name. Then there is the other darker side.’’
Beese, a handsome man with a nose ring, established a trade link from Bristol to Chiapas.
He convinced his ethical grocery company, Essential Trading Cooperative, which supplies Whole Foods in London, to sell Zapatista coffee bought direct from the communities they had visited. An additional 60 cents per two pounds of coffee sold goes to Kiptik to build more water access. Beese says Kiptik has raised around $150,000 since that first trip to Mexico.
All of this because of a football tour. Foreigners are technically banned from entering the Zapatista-controlled areas but the Cowboys had letters from the local football association, backed by FIFA, which allowed them safe passage because they were a football team.
“It’s amazing you can turn up somewhere with a football. You can’t speak the same language, but you play football and then you come off best mates,” he said. “It’s a real counteraction with what happens in professional football—which is quite nationalistic and very tribal.”
The trip may have changed all of their lives, but Beese, Simpson, and Banksy are still the same when they are down at the Plough.
“If he turns up in the pub we have a drink with him, but you wouldn’t be phoning up your mates going ‘Banksy’s in the pub,’” said Beese. “You’d just say, ‘How’s it going?’ He’s just a guy that does graffiti and has done quite well out of it.”
He said Banksy had never asked people not to speak to the media about his true identity. They had just all played along.
“We all knew him as Banksy from the pub,” said Beese. “Although, I thought his name was Robin Banks.”
It is believed that Robin Banks was Gunningham’s first street nickname—a pun based on his real first name that later transformed into Banksy.
Fifteen years after his little-known first foreign painting tour, Banksy is now Bristol’s most famous son. The man inspired by the characters he found in Easton—has in turn inspired the whole city.
Graffiti, which was always part of the city’s culture, has been allowed to grow unchecked up to the point that street after street in some neighborhoods are filled with multi-colored artworks by hundreds of local and visiting artists.
The council have taken to promoting Banksy walking tours rather than cracking down on vandalism. The formerly run-down Stokes Croft district has been transformed into a haven for street art.
That’s not the case in all parts of the city. Gunningham’s mother lives in a modest cottage on a lovely quiet street in the hills above the Bristol Channel—there’s no sign of urban artistry there. Or in the leafy, residential streets surrounding the red-brick assisted-living facility where his father resides.
The imposing Bristol Cathedral School, where Banksy studied until he was 16, also stands in the center of the old town with no graffiti in sight.
Back in Easton, you can still find some of the original small-scale Banksys.
One of them, a gorilla in a pink mask, was painted over by an Islamic center in 2011. “They have no idea Banksy, no idea who is. Very sorry. Accident! Accident!” the cheerful imam of the Jalabad Islamic Center, Syed M. Islam, told The Daily Beast.
After the furious reaction to their renovations, the Islamic center has partially succeeded in restoring the work, which is now visible as a faded ghostly presence in between the mosque and the church next door.
“Now we know—everybody in the community loves having it here,” the imam said.
A few minutes’ walk away, another early Banksy has been given far more reverence on the sidewall of an anarchists’ social center.
The building was a squat when Banksy was invited to get to work. His picture depicts a cat using a spray can while two mean-looking dogs approach on patrol.
But Bob Smith, 58, who has been a volunteer at the social center since it was a squat, says it’s not always so easy to tell what you should be respecting and what you can just paint over.
“I re-painted the side door red and black and went over some little stick men—I could have done them myself. Then I bumped into ‘Stik’ at the Anarchists’ Bookfair in London and he said; ‘How are you enjoying my painting on your door?’ And I was like ‘Uh oh!’”