“I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”

— Text from a Banksy painting

The string of recent reports on Banksy’s real identity, pinning him down as that singer from Massive Attack, had me wondering whether, if the reports were indeed true, this would end up having an adverse impact on the street artist’s public image — that carefully cultivated void of a public image.

Surely, the appeal of Banksy’s work is predicated as much on its edgy and satirical content as on the fog of anonymity built around it. We don’t know where Banksy comes from or where Banksy goes. The murals just keep popping up, mysteriously, overnight, in Bristol, in London, in San Francisco, and who knows where next. And the slippery wraith somehow always manages to get away unseen. All this is part of the Banksy package. But what if there were no such vanishing acts at the end of every Banksy piece? Would we still be interested in the moralising, the shock value, the simplistic Manichean contrasts that characterise so much of Banksy’s art?

Let us for a moment leave the artist out of it and look directly at the work. A young girl lovingly embraces a missile; Jesus crucified with shopping bags in both his hands; old people in hats playing croquet with bombs; an infant drinking radioactive milk from a bottle labelled with skull and bones. These are typical Banksys. In each, we sense the same time-worn pattern: of a shocking detail weighing down the familiar. We see Banksy — time and again — launching the proverbial brick through the window of the establishment.

I saw some of these paintings and stencil graffiti at a much-advertised international show, titled The Art of Banksy , in Berlin recently. The organisers claim that it is the most comprehensive, though ‘unauthorised’, Banksy show till date, curated by a gallerist named Steve Lazarides, who used to be Banksy’s associate until he had a very public falling-out with the artist a few years ago.

Around 80 Banksy originals are on view, including classics like ‘Girl With a Balloon’ and ‘The Flower Thrower’, both compelling pieces of art that have attained canonical status by now. Also displayed is a provocative Banksy sculpture, a reworking of Michelangelo’s ‘David’, only here David is wearing a suicide vest. Not to forget the series of embarrassingly crude oil paintings, with their thematic mishmash of serious politics (Guantanamo Bay) and pop-culture lite (UFO invasion).

You pay around €20 at the gate, quite unreasonable by any standards for an art show. (There were no cover charges for journalists, which was the only incentive to subject myself to a whole afternoon of Banksy.)

At the entrance, there is a stall selling coffee mugs, T-shirts, key chains, tote bags, pens and baseball hats, all branded in Banksy’s name. Not far from the merchandise, on one wall hangs the Banksy picture that shows a group of lamenting Marys, genuflecting in tragic supplication before a sign that says, ‘Sale Ends Today’. The comic overtones of Banksy’s art can’t be missed, for it hardly, as we’ve established before, traffics in subtlety. And I see this vulgar commercialisation of an underground figure (if you buy the Banksy myth) as part of a practical joke.

The joke is mainly on us, the viewers, but also on the artist, whose work is undermined the moment we place it in the unholy context of profiteering through art. (I am reminded of another Banksy painting depicting an art auction, with the framed centrepiece announcing in boldface letters, ‘I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit’.)

The street-art equivalent of this kind of gallows humour is when somebody ‘vandalises’ an existing mural or graffiti. This has actually happened a few times with Banksy’s own pieces. In 2014, one of his murals, ‘Art Buff’, in the English port town of Folkestone, was defaced in this way. The original depicted a woman staring at an empty plinth, a symbol perhaps for how vacuous our understanding of art has become. Then, along comes some disgruntled soul and spray-paints a penis on that plinth, so that the ‘art buff’ now looks engaged in fellatio.

Such is the volatile language of street art, more suited to bathetic turns than to moral prescriptions. And it draws much of its power from that reserve of primitive abstractions, signs and symbols that can make us react — with shock, horror or laughter — before making us think.

“Art is what you can get away with.”

— Attributed to Andy Warhol

The early days of the street-art movement, unfolding back in the 1970s in urban centres across the Western world, signalled the arrival of something completely new in terms of artistic form. And yet, paradoxically, the whole idea seemed to point backwards in time, towards our ancient origins: a cultural atavism that derived from figures scrawled on the ceiling of some Paleolithic cave. Much of modern painting and poetry benefited from this ambiguous relationship with the present as well as the past. And street art — combining elements of both painting and poetry — spoke the loudest in expressing this ambiguity.

This quality could be observed in the street art inspired by gang symbols in the ’70s Los Angeles. Or in the exuberance of colours, fonts and fluid patterns painted on the western face of the Berlin Wall.

This was street art that was as engaged, political and impactful as ever; and, at the same time, it was as multilayered and ambiguous as something by, say, Robert Rauschenberg or Jackson Pollock. It caught the eye without having to scream for attention. Most important, it made us think without necessarily dealing in the imagery of shock.

Another good example of this approach is the French street artist Blek le Rat, or Xavier Prou, a suit-wearing, respectable looking middle-aged man who could pass for a member of the Académie Française. Prou is considered the father of the stencil technique in street art, and he was perhaps the first to attempt the two-tone minimalist style of mural-making — both later appropriated by Banksy.

The rat figures that we see in several of Banksy’s murals, too, are borrowed wholesale from Prou (the rat, of course, being the signature of Blek le Rat). Banksy has acknowledged this link, and has generally endorsed Blek le Rat as a ‘creative mentor’. But isn’t some element of originality still required in an artist’s vision? Hasn’t street art historically been about developing your own method? And is it not possible to appoint creative mentors without mimicking their style?

These strong stylistic parallels between Banksy and Blek le Rat discredit, in my view, the only thing I find intriguing in Banksy’s murals, namely the style. Here’s a theory: Banksy minus the hype equals Blek le Rat; and Blek le Rat minus the substance equals Banksy. Just place some of the pieces by these two next to each other and you’ll see what I mean.

At the Berlin show, I was struck by another allusive strain running through Banksy’s work. In several of the prints displayed here — like the one that shows Lenin on rollerblades, or Churchill with a green mohawk — the attempt is to recreate the Warhol effect. The celebrity portrait as a mirror held up to society was one of Warhol’s main subjects. And his portraits of Marilyn Monroe — ‘Marilyn Diptych’ — is perhaps the best-known example of this genre. Banksy’s answer to that, exhibited in the present show, is a series of similar polychrome portraits of the contemporary British actress Kate Moss. Again, this is mere posturing. But it gives us another glimpse into Banksy’s tiresome method: new symbols thrust into old contexts, or old symbols into new. Unfortunately, the only thing this kind of juvenile interchange can achieve is some degree of disrespect for both the symbol and the context. Banksy’s mock-up of the famous ‘napalm girl’ photograph — the naked, screaming child flanked by Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald — is perhaps the most extreme and flippant example of that. Warhol, of course, is miles away from Banksy both as an artist and a thinker. But in one sense at least, I see a connection between the two. I like to think of Banksy as the anti-Warhol of our age. Warhol’s art and persona were all about a celebration, as well as a critique, of visibility — what it feels to submit to the limelight, if only for the ‘15 minutes’ granted to you. Banksy, on the contrary, aspires towards the same condition, of international fame, but through invisibility.

“Art is what you can get away with,” Warhol is supposed to have said. With Banksy, this ‘getting away’ acquires a more urgent meaning. And so the invisibility cloak, the great-escape routine, becomes integral to the Banksy corpus. But intended or not, this works as a distraction, making us talk less about what we see (the murals) and more about what we don’t (the artist). The question is, when we do find out who Banksy really is, would there be anything left to talk about?

Vineet Gillis a journalist at The Sunday Guardian