The Case Of The Anonymous Artist

The Case Of The Anonymous Artist

Anonymous Art

Anonymous art rose in popularity along with street art during the 1970s-1980s graffiti scene in New York City. As artists with secret identities and name tags covered the city, anonymity was essential to avoid legal charges. 

How a Train Tunner Became the Center of NYC’s Art Scene – VICE

Notorious street artists would generally reveal their names as their work became more famous and therefore, more desirable and expensive. However, the concept of elusiveness also remained strong, as the liberating qualities provided by anonymity led to a new artistic stance by where art was not linked to a face, but a statement.

One of the most famous anonymous artists is the elusive Banksy. Whether one agrees with his work or not, it is clear that his politically charged pieces have gained worldwide attention – from covering the streets of Bristol to reaching $1.4 million at Sotheby’s and then destroying the piece.

Banksy’s reasons for anonymity remain unknown. Whether he does it to focus viewers on the art’s message or if it is simply to attract attention, we will perhaps never know the true identity behind the pieces. However, it is clear that the message is now outweighing the person.

In a 2018 interview with HYPEBEAST, artist, Felipe Pantone, commented on how he valued anonymity as it forces people to focus on his art and not his face. It places the attention on the work itself and its individual meaning, with no relation to the person behind it. 

According to graffiti artist, Adam Lucas, there are obvious legal reasons attached to street artists’ anonymity, as most of the work is illegal and therefore, artists risk getting prosecuted. This is the case for Egyptian artist Keizer.

After the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 or the 25 January Revolution, street art experienced a rise in public spaces around Cairo. The revolution provoked an outburst of creativity, as artists aimed to reach the Egyptian people with their work. 

Using ants as a symbol for people, Keizer portrays through his stencil technique how people have been marginalised and forgotten by capitalism. He aims to empower the working class in Egypt. 

Keizer’s emphasis on anonymity lies in his need to protect himself:

I am very concerned over my safety and the repercussions of street art which I’ve already had a taste of, especially with this current regime. Including death threats, my Twitter account was hacked twice”.

Another artist who maintains his anonymity for safety is Maeztro Urbano. Being part of a self-acclaimed ‘cultural guerrilla’ known as Colectivo Garawa, his street art aims to disrupt the crime atmosphere in Honduras and to criticise the corruption and violence in his country, as well as to promote gender equality, sexual diversity and general respect to people. 

Having experienced police harassment and attacks from unknown shooters, Maeztro Urbano hides his identity by wearing a mask while he creates his works.

How is Anonymous Art Sold?

As a high-profile street artist, Banksy has managed to enter the auction house realm, and his works have even reached up to $20 million at a charity auction in aid of the NHS. However, without true identification, how is their work being sold?

In 2020, the Anon-Art platform was created, dedicated to selling artworks anonymously, ‘without the distraction of a name’, and the identity of the artist is revealed once the auction is finalised. The ethos of Anon-Art lies in the possibility of buying art through visual appeal and exploration, rather than being influenced by the person who created, their background, fame, or physique.

In the last year, two other platforms have developed with a similar aim in mind. Described as a ‘peer-to-peer anonymous trading platform’, LiveArt provides artists and buyers with a space where they can communicate without intermediaries, and where the sale is done anonymously.

Priding themselves as a platform that provides price-transparency, privacy and control of artwork visibility, with the use of high-end technology such as Blockchain or Conversational AI, LiveArt hopes to ‘provide buyers and sellers total control and discretion’, binding together trust and anonymity. 

The founder, Adam Chinn, has commented that LiveArt is directed to the middle market, aiming to incentivise a higher profit in this sector and to participate in the ‘emerging art market ecosystem’ with a dynamic marketplace that puts people in control.

Another anonymous trading platform, which is still in development, is Nameless, ‘the first anonymous CryptoArt marketplace’. In an article by The Loop News, Nameless is described as a platform that will provide no data about the artists or the artworks’ origins before purchase.

While CryptoArt selling platforms already exist – Nifty Gateway, Knowe4nOrigin, MakersPlace – Nameless will differentiate from these in its factor of anonymity, which will once again place importance in at artwork’s meaning and visuality.

If anonymous art began as political or revolutionary, isn’t it contradicting that it enters the marketplace? How can a lack of identity be transformed from a social commentary to a popularity contest and be celebrated?

The Value of Anonymous Art

Anonymous art provides a sense of excitement and mystery that attracts viewers. It challenges art history notions by hiding the artist’s identity and therefore provides a viewer with an undiluted view when analysing an artwork – it is not linked to a face and therefore cannot be linked to a specific story. 

We are often taught to consider biographical interpretations of art: to identify the artist’s relationships, their upbringing, their studies or where they lived, and how all their experienced added up to the creation of a certain work of art. 

Not being able to link a background to a piece means that we have the freedom to explore our imagination, providing a wider and often personal interpretation, with no empirical evidence. 

On the other hand, being able to connect an artwork to an artist’s life, can provide a more challenging and knowledgeable experience. We wouldn’t truly understand Salvador Dali’s work if we didn’t read André Breton’s Surrealist texts, understand his relationship with Luis Buñel or his fixation on Gala as her muse. 

Anonymity, as Konstantinos Vassiliou, argues, can conceal contextual information about a work of art, and denies art to be linked to the artistic institution as a whole, as it contradicts the foundations of art historical frameworks.

While anonymity can often be linked to a preservation of safety for an artist, it can also increase their notoriety. In the case of Banksy or the Australian singer Sia, the lack of facial attribution to an artwork can lead to higher success rates, due to public interest in the concept of hidden identity and the mysterious qualities that it transmits to their work. 

It can be argued that successful artists who don’t reveal their identity might do it to maintain their success. Would Banksy be as interesting if we knew his name? However, criticising this decision would mean attacking the entirety of their work, a sit is based on the power that anonymity provides.

I’m not really trying to reach any conclusions about anonymity in art – whether it provides a valid creative experience depends on every individual viewer.

For more content, check out Mouthing Off’s Art Section.

About The Author

Eugenia Pacheco Aisa

Eugenia Pacheco Aisa is an MA History of Art student at University College London (UCL), working on her dissertation about photographer Francesca Woodman. She graduated from UCL in 2020, from a degree in Classical Archaeology and Classical Civilisations. A recent addition to the Mouthing Off Magazine, Eugenia currently manages the visual arts team.

1 Comment

  1. Rodrigo

    Really good article!

    In the case of anonymous auctions, how do they deal with fake art?


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