Banksy Identified by Scientists. Maybe.

It is a mystery that has beguiled observers of the art world: the identity of Banksy, the puckish street artist who has maintained anonymity through more than a decade of widespread fame.

Though his profile has continued to grow as his artwork has appeared in public view around the world — and regularly sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars — his true identity has never been officially confirmed.

But researchers appear to have advanced a theory first put forth in 2008 by The Daily Mail linking the artist to a man named Robin Gunningham. The scientists used a variation of a forensic technique called geographic profiling, originally developed to help law enforcement authorities track down criminals.
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Banksy and the Gunningham family in Bristol have denied the connection, though Mr. Gunningham himself has never been reached for comment. He has no listed telephone number, and his most recent London address on record is more than a decade old. A representative for Banksy who responded to a request sent through his website declined to comment.

The researchers behind the study, which was published online last week in The Journal of Spatial Science, compared Banksy and the information they said they could find out about Mr. Gunningham. Though their results did not prove that Banksy was Mr. Gunningham, as more than a couple of publications have reported, they did indicate some correlation.

“I would call him an excellent suspect,” said Dr. Kim Rossmo, one of the study’s four authors and a professor at Texas State University who pioneered geographic profiling as a police inspector in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the 1990s. “He’s got connections to two entirely different cities that are involved here.”

The method involves running a set of crime locations through an algorithm to establish an area in which an offender likely lives. It doesn’t solve crimes on its own, but helps investigators narrow down lists of suspects.

For Banksy’s case, the researchers only had one serious “suspect” — Mr. Gunningham, who was identified as Banksy by The Daily Mail in 2008 after what the tabloid called an “exhaustive year-long investigation.”

The researchers listed the locations of what they identified as 192 of Banksy’s street pieces in London and Bristol — where the artist is thought to have grown up — and graphed them against seven “suspect sites” they connected to Mr. Gunningham: three homes in London where he is believed to have lived and four sites in Bristol, including what they believe to be a house in which he lived, a school he attended, and a field where he used to play soccer.

They said they did not make contact with Mr. Gunningham themselves, and thus could not independently confirm details about him, but used information about him found in press clippings and electoral rolls.

But their analysis showed that the artwork’s sites appeared to correlate well with addresses associated with Mr. Gunningham, according to the technique’s ranking system. Four of the seven sites were in the right geographic spot to earn a score relatively close to those that data crunchers would expect, Dr. Rossmo said.

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Though the researchers said that geographic profiling has been used by law enforcement organizations like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the United States Marine Corps, it has been increasingly applied to biological and epidemiological data, helping to track a malaria outbreak in Cairo or to find the source of an invasive species.

The team behind the Banksy study said they turned their attention to the artist as a test case to see whether their model could be applicable in more scenarios involving political messages, propaganda and information, such as for tracking extremist groups.

“There has been a suggestion that terrorist groups frequently engage in low-level activities to build up to big events. And that often involves graffiti, banner posting and leafletting,” said Dr. Steven Le Comber, a co-author of the study and a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. “When you think graffiti, you think Banksy.”

Dr. Le Comber and Dr. Rossmo said they were pleasantly surprised by how much attention their study received, but less flattered by the accusations that they had “outed Banksy” or that their number-crunching had lent itself to privacy invasions. They said they were also unimpressed with headlines asserting that they had somehow proved Banksy’s identity. “It does show a trend that overall we need to be worried about,” said Dr. Rossmo. “It’s kind of hard to know what to believe.”

Depending on who you believe, the mystery of Banksy’s identity may continue. But The Daily Mail was already claiming vindication.

“Scientists say the Mail on Sunday got Banksy’s identity right,” a headline boasted. “Hi-tech tools confirm our discovery that graffiti artist is Robin Gunningham.”