the lexicon

a writing portfolio by Alexandra Savvides

Behind The Mask: The Art of Anonymous Identities (Banksy vs Burial)

with 3 comments

There is always something slightly devious about the act of dressing up. Assuming another identity altogether makes it that much easier to act differently, to feel unrestricted by convention. There is an innate human desire that involves wanting to be someone else, to live in another’s shoes, to express oneself without expectation and judgement.

But the urge to hide one’s identity is nothing new. For centuries, writers, poets, artists, musicians and general creative-types have performed or produced work under a nom-de-plume as a way to separate themselves from their art. To some it is a deliberate scheme to detach their personal lives from their work. To others it’s a form of shyness; their true identity is completely different from the one they present to the outside world. A new-wave of anonymous artists is sweeping through the contemporary scene, especially in the fields of art and music. Are these characters seeking to question the very conception of artistic practice, or just clever marketing ploys thought up by a sly PR agent?

Banksy, the infamous street artist, has become the poster boy (pardon the pun) for this growing trend of anonymous identities. Using spray cans, stencils, and a subversive sense of humour, Banksy has decorated buildings across the UK and the globe with his art. Ranging from the intensely political (the Mona Lisa with a rocket launcher), to the beautiful (a large yellow flower accompanied by a crouching painter on the side of a housing estate), he is certainly prolific. Like his Portuguese anonymous counterpart Phelgo, Banksy’s aim is to provoke and question the public through his range of satirical and politically-charged stencilling. In an interview with The Independent newspaper, Banksy has said: “I originally set out to try and save the world…but now I’m not sure I like it enough”.

Far from sounding socially and culturally apathetic, it seems that anonymity has become both a blessing and a curse for Banksy. While it provides a degree of freedom, allowing him to paint what he likes without having to answer to a wealthy patron or gallery owner, the public nature of his work makes everyone a critic. Is he a vandal or sophisticated street artist? As of late last year, Islington council in London ruled that all Banksy works in the area would be preserved rather than painted over. Local workmen responsible for removing other graffiti have even been known to touch up Banksy originals if they have been vandalised. Certainly the media has jumped on this proverbial bandwagon. From celebrities cashing in on his stencilled-creations to the press going into overdrive anytime his name is mentioned, it is his anonymity more than anything else which is the subject of debate time and time again. Banksy has become more than just his art – the personality (or lack thereof) is now a multi-million pound empire.

Another leading light in the anonymous scene is UK dubstep artist Burial. Notoriously secretive, there are only a few (albeit obscured) photographs of the producer in circulation. Refusing to perform live, it is inevitable that he has been termed a recluse. Yet this seems to only add to his mystique. His music is often described as ‘downcast euphoria’, merging the sounds of melancholy with glimmers of hope delivered through distorted vocals. In one of his rare interviews, Burial describes his desire for anonymity:

“It’s just the way I am. I can’t step up, I want to be in the dark at the back of a club. I don’t read press, I don’t go on the internet much, I’m just not into it. It’s like the lost art of keeping a secret, but it keeps my tunes closer to me and other people.” – The Guardian.

Emerging out of South London’s garage and grime scene, dubstep has become one of the most talked about genres amongst music fans and critics. Thriving on a culture of innovation and a concentrated focus on collaboration, it has been championed as one of the most significant elements of the British sound over the past few years. Support from influential DJs such as BBC’s Mary Anne Hobbs is slowly allowing dubstep to take its first few tentative steps towards a more mainstream audience.

Looking at the history of UK club culture gives some indication of the precedent for musical anonymity. Underground raves held all across Britain (and even in Australia) in the late 80s and early 90s placed importance on the music first, and the producer or artist second. Looking back even further, the proliferation of pirate radio throughout the 70s and 80s became yet another model for promoting anonymity. The phenomenon of listening in for hours at a time, being amazed by the songs played, and having no idea who had penned them has been referenced as an inspiration for so many producers in countless interviews about the genre. No back-announcing or set playlists in sight meant excitement, rebellion, and above all, no accountability. The very essence of something being underground meant that it had to disappear as soon as it had appeared.

There is something rather satisfying about picking up a record and being unable to identify anything about the producer beyond their nom-de-plume and the record label. It makes the act of listening an experience, rather than a chore, a discovery of something so secret that your relationship with the music becomes intensely personal. Detaching feelings from what you hear starts to be impossible. Burial’s music in particular works around the themes of desire and longing. Many of his tracks evoke the feeling of walking along a dark, empty street at 4am in the morning after a long night of clubbing amongst sweaty bodies, relishing the cool air yet at the same time wishing for companionship. Expressed by anyone else this might seem tacky, but Burial’s anonymity makes it seem precious, universal; a hand reaching through the music to comfort your loneliness.

Both Banksy and Burial share something in common beyond their deliberately anonymous identities. They have crossed over, somehow transcended their origins of graffiti artist and producer, and become, even unintentionally, champions of their genre. Ask someone even with a rudimentary knowledge of dubstep who its leading purveyor is, and most likely the answer will be Burial.

In a society obsessed with the cult of celebrity, removing the personality from the artwork appears to be a logical step in a long tradition of anti-establishment sentiment. Ideally what Banksy is trying to achieve is to make his viewers question their assumptions about art. Just because it isn’t in a gallery doesn’t make it any less valid. Being painted in 30 to 40 seconds with a spray can and a bit of acetate cut out into recognisable shapes shouldn’t make it vandalism. Ironically though, by choosing to put so much effort into remaining anonymous, speculation about both Banksy and Burial’s true identity has arguably overtaken their art itself.

There seems to be some great desire to unmask these artists, some glory to be gained in claiming the first scalp. The manic attempts with which some have tried to identify Banksy have reached near-stalkerish heights; rabid identity-hunters post pictures of the man they assume is behind the name, in turn sending internet discussion boards into meltdown. Slanging matches ensue as the debate boils down to the innate sense that, by taking a photo of some man painting and stencilling on the side of the road, it somehow ruins the ‘illusion’ of the artist. The mainstream press even jumped on the case, with The Times printing a picture that supposedly revealed the identity of the man otherwise known as Banksy.

Burial also appears unable to escape the spotlight of the curious bystander trying to be the modern-day Woodward and Bernstein. Almost every article written about him is preoccupied with finding out why he chooses to remain anonymous. Little do they realise is that underneath it all, he seems like a humble, if not shy producer who just wants to let his music speak for itself. Several articles have popped up recently which purportedly reveal his real name, place of schooling, and other incriminating pieces of information. Yet it seems likely that Burial himself is having the last laugh – use some astute internet sleuthing to come across his alleged real name, place a .co.uk onto the end of it and enter it into any browser. The resulting page is, hopefully, a very amusing comeback to anyone trying to shatter the mystique.

Arguably the most thrilling part of being anonymous is the fact that these artists could be anyone. The man that sits next to you on the bus reading the paper, the woman who makes your morning coffee, even the merchant banker who crosses the street to avoid an oncoming rabble of youth. The person that asks you the time on the street corner could very well be Banksy or Burial. The beauty of their art is that it makes you feel like anyone has the opportunity to create, that regardless of training, education or connections, there is an audience of millions waiting with bated breath to see what happens next.

Alexandra Savvides

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Written by lexstatic

June 3, 2008 at 4:11 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I’m not sure how, but I just found this article of yours on a Google search. As a fellow fan of both Banksy and Burial, I wanna say thanks for giving me something masterfully written to read 🙂

    (Also, we seem to be using the same WordPress theme. Nice. :))

    Edd

    October 26, 2008 at 7:55 am

  2. I’m a fan of both artists and I must admit that this is an interesting article to be read! It is worth mentioning another DJ working behind the mask who is Zomby. If you like Burial’s music u will certainly enjoy Zomby’s too.

    me

    September 8, 2009 at 10:19 pm

  3. Nice piece on the two artists. Considering Burial’s penchant for anonymity he is indeed a true Audio Assassin. He drops from the shadows and delivers his seductive ethereal beat poetry that intoxicates one’s soul and then vanishes. I’m an addict.

    Sammy

    May 7, 2010 at 8:25 am


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