Home Social Justice Featured Blog: Unmasking Banksy: The danger in uncovering the world’s silent protester

Featured Blog: Unmasking Banksy: The danger in uncovering the world’s silent protester

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The insanely talented artist-vandalist Banksy is known around the world for his subversive messages that attack current social and political issues. Banksy began his career in the 1990s as a freehand graffiti artist in Bristol, England. Some of the more notable events in his career, highlighted in his 2010 movie “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” include the 10-pound bank notes he forged, which he labeled “Banksy of England” instead of “Bank of England,” and a live, fully grown elephant he painted pink and gold for an art exhibit in Los Angeles. More recently Banksy created Dismaland, a dilapidated version of Disneyland.

Clearly, Banksy thrives on creating controversial pieces. This in part has made him loved by political activists and art collectors alike. Despite all of the excitement surrounding him, Banksy remains anonymous. Recently, however, the Journal of Spatial Science published an article titled “Tagging Banksy: using geographic profiling to investigate a modern art mystery.” According to an article from The Atlantic, these British researchers from Queen Mary University of London have attempted to unmask the true identity of Banksy by using statistical mapping to track 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.”

The findings of this study have already warranted a response from Banksy’s legal team, who were able to temporarily delay the publishing. Nevertheless, the findings were ultimately published unchanged, advancing the theory that Banksy is artist Robin Gunningham. One of the researchers involved in the project even commented to BBC saying, “I’d be surprised if it’s not (Gunningham), even without our analysis, but it’s interesting that the analysis offers additional support for it.”

Regardless of the results, the techniques of geoprofiling used in this research can help locate terrorist bases before more serious incidents occur, and provides a fascinating example of the application of the model to a complex, real-world problem,” as the researchers state in the abstract. In other words, the research employed Banksy in this study as an example of how to apply similar methods on individuals who represent a more serious national or international threat.

Although I understand these intentions, I am concerned of their initial application on Banksy, whose guerrilla graffiti can be seen as a threat to the state. The abstract even characterizes graffiti as an example of “minor terrorism-related acts.” I disagree that graffiti is terrorism. Graffiti may be an act of vandalism, but it can also be viewed as the most visceral expression of free speech, especially if it is exposing corruption.

Therefore, it concerns me that Queen Mary University of London, a public institution would do research on a private citizen without his consent just because he has achieved international notoriety from his politically controversial art. Geographic profiling can thus be dangerous because it allows the government (or private individuals with the funds) to invade the private lives of others. I understand the concerns with terrorism, but where do we draw the line between security and freedom?

Junior Alena Klimas and sophomore Annalycia Liston-Beck also contribute to this featured blog, “Critical International Media Perspectives.”

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