Anonymous street art was never more prominent than in New York City’s 1970s graffiti scene. A barrage of unique tags, throw-ups, slaps, paste-ups, stencils and more covered the entire city, each conveying the artist’s secret alias. The anonymity was key to avoid receiving fines or ending up in jail. As street artists gain notoriety, the lure of cashing in for their work heightens the pressure for a big reveal, but why do certain artists who create highly-valued artwork want to remain elusive?
Banksy, for instance, has garnered worldwide fame for his politically-charged pieces. Despite rumors, Banksy’s true identity has yet to be revealed. Is it possible the artist doesn’t want to reveal his or her identity because it would distract viewers from fully absorbing the messages and beliefs behind the work? All of this depends on a particular, anonymous artist’s standpoint and we may never know his or her motivations. However, one thing’s for certain: anonymous art urges viewers to come up with their own opinions surrounding a piece without obsessing over whether or not a big name artist created it or not. Indeed, viewing anonymous art on the street is perhaps more mentally liberating than observing iconic works at a prestigious museum.
To shine some light on the nuances of anonymous art, we sat down with celebrated anonymous artists Felipe Pantone and Lushsux alongside POW! WOW! founder Jasper Wong, renowned street art photographer Daniel Weintraub, and anonymous artist turned established artist, Adam Lucas.
Why do artists choose to remain anonymous?
Felipe Pantone, @felipepantone In my case I just want when people Google my name they see my artwork, not my face. I design carefully every piece visual content that I make and that talks way more about me than my face, which I didn’t choose.
Lushsux, @lushsux I’d rather have people who follow the work to be more interested in it than what pair of $800 sunglasses I wear or how twirled my mustache is.
Adam Lucas, @adamlucasNYC As far as graffiti and street art is concerned, there are obvious legal reasons. The majority of their work is done without permission and most larger cities have specialized units whose sole purpose is to track these artists down. My choice was always far less elusive. In the beginning, I was simply taking the piss out of the somber weighted street art scene, so I made it all part of my street art schtick. Pixelated face, heavily modded voice. As time went on and I started to take things a bit more serious, I just kept it up. Mostly for the LOLs.
Jasper Wong, @mrjasperwong In my experience, the artists that choose to remain anonymous are those that are actively painting illegally in the streets.
Daniel Weintraub, @halopigg I think a lot of it has to do with the culture coming from graffiti and coming from a place where you didn’t show everybody what you were doing. You just kept it to a very close circle of friends and then once that culture met the Internet, you have everybody reacting in different ways. You have certain people who remain anonymous, but still choose to show everything they are doing on the Internet as they are anonymous. Then you have people who are scared of anything too public for the same reason they wouldn’t show who they were before the Internet. They think the police are behind it. They think they’re being watched.
What would happen to one’s artwork if their secret identity is revealed?
Felipe Pantone, @felipepantone I don’t think anything would change on my side, but I guess it would interfere with people’s perception of my work. Adding a face to the equation might change their perception if the viewer has prejudices related to the way I look, my race, fashion, etc.
Lushsux, @lushsux Most likely that artist would not be able to take as many chances to do anything that may get them locked up or beaten up. In my case, I would just get a lot more nudes and marriage proposals in the DM.
Adam Lucas, @adamlucasNYC It really depends on the body of work. If you’re able to attribute a face/name to a previously standalone anonymous piece of art, it adds another layer. It adds a bit more context. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
Jasper Wong, @mrjasperwong In the case of artists that work illegally, they are concerned about the ramifications from the work they are doing on the streets, such as jail time and fines.
Daniel Weintraub, @halopigg For Banksy, there is no bullet point on his memo that says “Reveal One’s Self.” That’s become a part of his character and he’s very good at playing it, so I would never expect someone like him to do it. I don’t know what would make someone really even change their mind.
Will revealing an artist’s identity increase or impede the sale of artwork?
Felipe Pantone, @felipepantone In the case of Banksy the fact of being anonymous might help his popularity, in the case of Damien Hirst I think his persona contributed to his success. In my case [I'm] not sure how it would work in terms of sales, but as I said it would change the way my work or my message reached the viewer.
Lushsux, @lushsux It would help sales wise, collectors like to buy not only the work but the right to brag they know you personally.
Adam Lucas, @adamlucasNYC People and buyers like a backstory. There’s something very interesting about an artist who’s been able to create an art career while remaining completely anonymous. It keeps the people intrigued. Especially if one is able to come up in today’s world where everything/everyone is on display and connected more than ever. And I’m not talking about the artists who cover half their face with a hand and pose for Instagram. That’s not anonymity. That’s just a different kind of thirst trap.
Jasper Wong, @mrjasperwong It really depends on the work and its own merits. Some artists work exclusively under the guise of anonymity and have become massively successful. However, it can also hinder them, because their work can’t be displayed in certain institutions, such as museums, without their identity being revealed. They also can’t take legal action when their work is stolen and then sold for profit because they’d have to reveal their identity in doing so. Banksy’s work comes to mind in regards to these issues.
Daniel Weintraub, @halopigg I think it could be both. I think sometimes people are going to identify with a person’s artwork and maybe, they meet the artist or read an interview with the artist and they don’t vibe with it. As a collector, it’s easier for someone to collect works from someone who is anonymous because you can almost make up your own story about them. You can fabricate it yourself.
Will the artist’s cult following disappear after their identity has been revealed?
Felipe Pantone, @felipepantone I don’t think so, I actually think there are some artists that use their identity to create a following.
Lushsux, @lushsux Unlikely, maybe if they are shit in the first place.
Adam Lucas, @adamlucasNYC If it does then they were following the artist for the wrong reasons. For everything taken away, one better make damn sure there’s an addition. Subtract the anonymity? Then fill that hole with change and progress. Everything becomes stale sooner or later.
Jasper Wong, @mrjasperwongI don’t believe so. I feel the following is in love with the art more than the personality behind it. At least, I hope so.
Daniel Weintraub, @halopigg Last year the artist known as ABOVE or Tavar Zawacki, I think he had a breaking point where he was just tired of being known as a fake name that someone didn’t show his face at all. He had a breakthrough bubble where he said “screw this,” I’ve been this person but it’s only a part of their personal alias. This is my real name and this is my face. I think the reverse of it when someone actually does have that breaking point, I think it might get lonely. I think anonymity can be lonely for people.
Should all artists be elusive and put their work first before their name?
Felipe Pantone, @felipepantone That’s my choice but I also understand that some artists want to contribute with their identity.
Lushsux, @lushsuxWhatever suits their ego I guess. For myself I don’t want to have to talk to people on the street as “@lushsux” because I’m an autist before an artist.
Adam Lucas, @adamlucasNYC Depends on their come up. Sometimes work sells because of the name, sometimes because of the art. Every artist is different and that’s the best thing about creating. There are no rules.
Jasper Wong, @mrjasperwong The work should always be first.
Daniel Weintraub, @halopigg There are definitely people doing strictly illegal work under one name and then, doing completely public muralism and fine art under a completely different name. Only a very select few people know one person from the other because there’s no style crossover or reference points. It’s how they can keep playing in the game, but maybe progressing their other careers as well.