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William Gannon hunting for Banksy
Via YouTube/William Billy Gannon

‘I am not Banksy’: the town councillor hunting Banksy to clear his own name

William Gannon just wanted to retire in peace, until a conspiracy theory that he’s the anonymous street artist reared its head in his small Welsh town

William Gannon began working as a community artist around the end of the 1970s, travelling up and down the country with a group of other artists in a transit van, to create art with disadvantaged kids and vulnerable communities. “From that I learnt my one guiding principle,” he tells Dazed. “Which is that to create relevant art we have to use what we have got.” Often, this meant relying on spray paint as a cheap and accessible tool for making art. “Tags and throw-ups were a powerful way to cover a lot of ugly urban space, and stencils were a way for everyone to take part because they made image making easy.”

Decades later, however, in 2022, Gannon’s preference for spray painting stencils has had an unanticipated effect, drawing accusations that he’s actually the super secret street artist Banksy. Of course, these kinds of claims are nothing new. One week Banksy is Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja of Massive Attack, the next he’s that presenter from Art Attack. (Everyone denies it, but Banksy would deny it, wouldn’t he?) The difference is, Gannon has been forced to resign from his post on the town council of Pembroke Dock, Wales – where he moved “to begin easing into retirement” – under the weight of the allegations.

According to Gannon, the Banksy accusations are part of a broader campaign of targeted harassment. In a timeline of the controversy, he says that the harassment started in January 2022, when someone entered his studio space and took unauthorised pictures of his work.

“They later contacted me by phone to tell me that they ‘knew what I was up to’ in the studio,” he says, adding that he went on to become the target of coordinated social media attacks and IRL stalking. Emails were also sent to the Pembroke Dock town council, alleging that he’d changed his name several times, to distance himself from his former life as “a notorious vandal in Bristol and London” – AKA Banksy. Gannon finally announced he was stepping down late last month, explaining in a resignation letter that he feared for the reputation of the council.

So far this sounds like the sad, simple tale of a man whose retirement has been ruined by the Banksy conspiracy machine. However, Gannon isn’t giving up so easily. “I joined the council to fight injustices and give something back to the people who had welcomed me into this community,” he says. “Not being on the council means that I am going to have to fight back using art instead.”  

So far, this has involved producing 999 badges that bluntly address the rumours – in white text on a black background, they read: “I Am Not Banksy” – which Gannon distributed among the people of Pembroke Dock. The idea? If everyone in the world who isn’t Banksy wears an “I Am Not Banksy” badge, then the identity of the real Banksy will be exposed. Admittedly, this places a lot of faith in Banksy’s honesty, and Gannon’s ability to mass-produce almost 8 billion badges. Really, it’s more about the broader concept, he says: “Finding Banksy is about keeping it real. I hope to illustrate the absurdity of trying to find a mythical figure.”

You might be wondering at this point, what does Gannon think of Banksy himself? Is he flattered by the idea that he’s secretly the nation’s favourite artist? To answer the latter: not really, but it’s not Banksy’s fault. “In a country where the rich are becoming obscenely richer, while the poor are increasingly having to choose between heating their homes, paying the rent, or feeding their kids, the commodification of art left most of us with little or no access to it,” he says. “Banksy challenged that by putting the art where the people were, for them to enjoy, and making it about their lives.”

What the allegations against him have exposed, Gannon goes on, is the lingering idea that art is only made by a select group of celebrity artists: “If you are a street artist you MUST be Banksy, because Banksy is the ONLY street artist that there has ever been.” This plays into the myth of the “white male individual genius” that is used to commodify a once-egalitarian art form, he adds – a myth that has seen Banksy’s artworks rake in millions at auction in the last few years.

“For that reason, I am not flattered by the mis-identification, because it reveals the increasing cultural poverty of a society that diminishes the non-celebrity artists in order to promote the ‘elite’ and the commodification of our culture,” says Gannon. “In the UK, money is the only thing that matters, so the only artists that matter are the ones making money. That is culturally poisonous, and I refuse to play that game.”

The campaign that claims the real Banksy is hiding in plain sight in Pembroke Dock isn’t the only Welsh controversy connected to the artist in recent years. An actual Banksy stencil titled Season’s Greetings popped up in Port Talbot back in 2019, leading the unsuspecting owner of the shed it was painted on to deal with huge crowds and vandals. The owner eventually managed to get if off his hands for a six-figure sum, but even then a local tried to break in and destroy the artwork, to protest it moving out of Wales.

Again, Gannon notes, this controversy wasn’t caused by Banksy himself (although you’d think the artist could predict the reaction to his public artworks by now), but by its commodification. “It was only when money became involved that things got nasty,” he says. “Suddenly it was bought, and then moved out of the town. Where is it now? Sitting in a freeport shipping container or bank vault as a commodity, accumulating monetary value as far away as possible from the people for whom it was intended?”

Now that Gannon has left the town council, he also intends to get back to making art for the people of his hometown and others like it. Beyond the “I Am Not Banksy” project, he has plans for sculptures that explore the link between consumerism and animal welfare.

“I have been jolted out of my early easing into retirement,” he says. “The universe has grabbed me by the scruff of my neck as I tried to make my way peacefully down the centre of the road, and shaken me until the bones I relied upon to hold me up snapped. With my old form broken I am already feeling for my new shape to get back on track.”