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Is Graffiti ‘Minor Terrorism’? —Using Geographic Profiling to Identify a Banksy

Every one of us has a boundary, or at least a jot of a personal idea, of how far technology should push our current limits. Despite Luddites long disappearing underneath the train of 19th century machinery, even modern sci-fi films such as 2014’s Transcendence attempt to play on our paradoxical relationship with ‘tech’ : the desire to progress to additional levels of comfort, whilst flip-flopping on the heights to where technology could take us, but in all reality might-not (in this case, director Wally Pfister’s attempt was objectively awful).

What about mathematical techniques which help to uncover talented people who eschew fame for a life of anonymity? A proof-of-principle idea was recently published in the Journal of Spatial Science extending the idea of geographical profiling (‘Tagging Banksy: using geographic profiling to investigate a modern art mystery’); the crux of which involves statistical analysis of patterns in certain types of criminal activity to pin-down likely offenders. Whilst this new paper in JSS did not establish a new-type of theory, it did however  apply it to a unique conditional probability problem: identifying Banksy from the distribution of his artwork given that some prior suggestions as to his identity have already been floated.

One could suppose that a vast tranche of people ranging from local mayors to law-enforcement would be sharpening their well-polished Victorian silver cutlery for Banksy’s head. Academics though, really?  This is an odd paper to publish from the realm of impartial academia, noticeably foisting an identity on somebody who deliberately eschews fame; a piece of method acting which is part of the artwork itself. Is it really the role of academia to reveal someone’s identity when they clearly do not want that to happen? If the police were to use these methods to investigate any legal infringements then there is little argument as to the validity of such a technique, but I argue that this paper is a little too far for something exploiting a quirky personality in an otherwise nebulous celebrity-ridden culture.

An appealing social experiment is undertaken by Banksy, which is a first attempt at comprehending the capricious world of art. The real story is this:  an unknown person’s artworks sell for millions yet someone equally as gifted and walking the exact same supplicatory walk to the temple of excesses won’t sell at all. Why? This non-incisive, socially blunted sword is directly expressed by Banksy in pieces like I Can’t Believe You  Morons Actually Buy This Shit. How many other artists have deliberately preserved their anonymity, at the risk of making no money at all, in order to expose the pretentious con of l’industrie d’art établie?

To justify the use of their study to potentially ‘out’ Banksy, the authors allude to a very bizarre comment in the abstract of their paper quoted verbatim here:

More broadly, these results [in the paper] support previous suggestions that analysis of minor terrorism-related acts (e.g., graffiti) could be used to help locate terrorist bases before more serious incidents occur.

Minor terrorism-related acts. Graffiti? You mean like the time Banksy created a satirical street-artistic vision of paradise on the Palestine wall to illustrate the absurdity of the Israeli-Palestine conflict? Or the time Homeless Jeff spray-painted his name onto a wall in Brixton which subsequently allowed chaos to spread in the Middle-East?

Or perhaps the author refers to John Milton’s capital of Hell, Pandaemonium which is replicated at Bristol’s annual Upfest street art festival wherein street artists from all over the world gather in a typically neglected part of the city in a show of creative solidarity? Of course, the authors are lucky they used the Latin e.g. and not i.e.,  —id est, I need not go further.

The very idea of using mathematics to oust the only anti-famous celebrity in modern society is, I believe, a foolish one. As movements against technology often argue: just because the authors could, did it mean they should?





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