Banksy’s Identity Mystery Solved By Scientists-Sleuths On Two Continents

Banksy’s identity might be within days of going on the books once and for all as a solved mystery, thanks to an intrepid investigator at Queen Mary College of the University of London. According to a report filed on March 3 by Adam Sherwin of The Independent, a biologist named Dr. Steven Le Comber employed combined elements of a technique known as geographic profiling and mathematic modeling used to track the outbreak of contagious pathogens to identify the elusive street artist.

The system is called Dirichlet process mixture modeling. Unlike geographic profiling, which operates on the investigation of events as discrete units and works on the presumption of a single perpetrator and geographic origin, Dirichlet tracks clusters of incidents, thus identifying patterns of activity. Those patterns could not only help identify perpetrators or the sources of outbreak, but help prevent further problems by pointing to where villains or virii might strike next. In this case, they focused on the works attributed to Banksy in London and Bristol.

Dr Le Comber’s collaborator in the hunt for Banksy was not, as one might might imagine, an eccentric genius inhabiting his mind palace in Marleybone. It could be argued that D. Kim Rossmo, who formulated the concept of geographic profiling, is a super-sleuth amalgam of Sherlock Holmes and Steve Jobs who almost always gets his man. The criminologist, who started out with the Vancouver police department, became the first officer in Canada to get his doctorate in criminology after using his method to hunt down a serial killer. He moved south of the 49th parallel to serve as director of research for the Police Foundation and eventually went from crime-fighting software mogul to academician at Texas State University.

By solving the mystery of Banksy’s identity, the transatlantic team hope to show how their numeric magic could be used to hunt down killers, whether they’re the two-legged variety with a taste for terrorism or the microscopic kind who power their way around on cilia and an uncovered cough.

So who is Banksy?

Jonathan Webb, a science reporter for BBC News spoke with Dr. Le Comber, who is certain his findings confirm those of an investigation conducted by The Daily Mail in 2008. Part of that conversation about Banksy was cited by Adam Boult of the Telegraph.

“We fed these locations into a mathematical model commonly used in law enforcement and Robin Gunningham came up as the only real viable candidate. The areas the model highlights are, in some cases, associated with Gunningham. What I thought I would do is pull out the 10 most likely suspects, evaluate all of them and not name any, but it rapidly became apparent that there is only one.”

Banksy’s legal team is already on the case, having contacted the team at Queen Mary College and the publishers of the study. Dr Le Comber responded to the question of his team’s motivation for the revelation with assurances that everyone involved with the project was a fan of Banksy. It wasn’t a matter of criminalizing the artist by using the technique to revealing his identity. Banksy was simply a test case to see if their model would work.

In his BBC interview with Webb, Le Comber went on to assert that the information they used to track down Banksy’s identity was all accessible on archived news sources and via internet searches.

“What I thought I would do is pull out the 10 most likely suspects, evaluate all of them and not name any… But it rapidly became apparent that there is only one serious suspect, and everyone knows who it is. If you Google Banksy and Gunningham you get something like 43,500 hits. 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. You sort of default to the terminology from criminology, where you’re talking about suspects and crime sites, but that doesn’t imply any moral judgment – that these are actually crimes, or to be deplored, or whatever.”

Banksy has enjoyed a reputation as the art world’s own Robin Hood. While this study into his or her identity might prove to be an inconvenience, the functional proof could also give Banksy some hero cred of a different sort as a lifesaver.

[photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images]