Crime Research

Criminal Geographic Profiling Used To Identify Banksy

The criminal profiling technique of geographic profiling has been used in an academic research study to determine the real identity of the elusive street artist Banksy. Researchers based at the Queen Mary University of London have used the locations of his street artworks to narrow down the area Banksy most likely lives and compare this against the news reports of his identity.  Banksy was named as Robin Gunningham in 2008 however, these reports were never confirmed leaving questions still remaining over his true identity.

The research project was called Tagging Banksy and it does not appear the street artist was keen on the idea, getting his lawyers to question the approach and just what would be done with the results. The aim of the research was not to out Banksy’s identity to the world but to highlight the potential of the geoprofiling technique and what better way to do it that apply its statistical power to a well-known and highly publicized artist that is going to get everyone talking.

In order to carry out the analysis “the academics selected 140 suspected works by the artist in London and Bristol.  The locations suggested clusters of ‘hot spots’ which could be narrowed down, with further investigation, to pinpoint an individual.” The hot spots they identified using this technique correlate with places Robin Cunningham is known to have lived or regularly attended.

Banksy’s style, wit and humour and ability to convey powerful messages in simplistic pieces of art is a skill few can match. One man who has never publicly revealed his face or his true identity, has taken street art and urban messages to a new level. This is a man credited with bringing street art indoors and into the modern galleries.  What was considered mindless vandalism is now exhibiting in Tate Modern where they are selling his works, his books and his t-shirts.

Street artists due to the nature of their work and the fact it is predominately illegal, do tend to conceal their identities, preferring instead to watch the hype their work creates from afar. Some are entirely anonymous whereas others ‘tag’ their work with their stage name, their known name, their art name. For Banksy, this is simply Banksy – however his style is that well-known he rarely tags his work as it is now distinguished pretty quickly from others.

“Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.” — Banksy (Wall and Piece)

Street artists have long had elusive identities with many who have extreme talent choosing to remain under-cover.  The nature of their work does lead to this type of lifestyle.  There have in fact been a number of cases where street artists or graffiti vandals whichever description you prefer, have been killed while running from police after being caught in the act.  Tragic events highlighting the hazards of street art and the lengths some will go to in order to finish their piece and remain outside the arms of the law.  Climbing on rooftops, scaling walls and running alongside train tracks are all regular occurrences for these individuals.

The use of a criminal profiling technique towards Banksy and his street art is interesting and it is a unique way to showcase the potential of a mathematical technique increasingly being used within criminal investigations for serial offences.

“Our analysis highlights areas associated with one prominent candidate (e.g., his home), supporting his identification as Banksy. More broadly, these results 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, and provides a fascinating example of the application of the model to a complex, real-world problem.”

What Is Geographical Profiling?

Geographical profiling is an investigate method using the locations of connected serial crimes to try and determine where the offender most likely lives or spends most of his time.  Part of the research team involved in Tagging Bansky was Dr Kim Rossmo of Texas State University, who is a criminologist and former detective, responsible for the development of the geoprofiling technique in catching serial criminals.

His theory is based on the idea that we all go about our daily lives in familiar territory and the locations of our work and our social activities are all interconnected. This when analyzed provides a pattern of movement which will be unique to us.

This theory applies to criminal activity in the same way.  A criminal is most likely to commit crimes within this familiar territory pattern and the locations he chooses for his crimes are most likely to be related to his work, his living and his social areas.  Therefore, tracked backwards, his most likely area of residence can be pinpointed.

It was the Vancouver Police Department who first established a Geographic Profiling Section in 1995 with many large police forces and agencies following suit including the FBI and Scotland Yard.

Geographical profiling works on the ideas that criminals like to work in an area they are familiar with and they tend not to venture too far from either their own homes or their place of work when selecting their victims and carrying out their crimes.  When serial crime is being investigated and the crimes are thought to be carried out by the same individual, it is a technique which can prove very useful for narrowing down a suspect list.  Where psychological profiling focuses on identifying the characteristics of the offender themselves, geographical profiling homes in one where the crime was committed.

Each site of crime in a serial criminal case is identified and marked along with a possible location for the offenders residence or ‘anchor point’ where the crime sites will revolve around.  The distance between the anchor point and each crime scene is examined along with consideration of how far an offender is willing to travel.  The method is based on assumptions and trying to establish an offenders thought processes which led to the patterns of criminal acts they are believed to have carried out.

The Dirichlet process mixture (DPM) model used in the Tagging Banksy study is one of the more complex models of geographic profiling relying heavily on mathematical and statistical analysis to come up with its results.  While more complex it is also more flexible allowing variables to be included within the model such as the geographic features of the crime sites, the differences in travel distances for different offenders (i.e. a younger offender is more likely to be willing to travel further away to commit their crime than an older offender), and the potential demographic characteristics of the offender such as their age, gender, occupation and so forth.

For a detailed overview of the equations and factors used within the DPM model and similar models of geographic profiling, the paper ‘Bayesian Approach to Predict Offender’s Probable Anchor Point Using Geographic Profiling System in Akure, Nigeria’ published in the British Journal of Mathematics and Computer Science by B. O. Afeni, O. Olabode and N. O. Oluwaniyi is an excellent reference.

The final output from such an analysis is the geoprofile itself or a probability map.  This map highlights where the areas are geographically that criminal activity is more likely to occur (shown in white) with the colour coding representing a hit percentage score, the more intense the colour, the less likely this area will be targeted for criminal activity.

This research is an excellent way to showcase the potential of these geographical profiling methods and just how they can be used.  While of course not an exact science, they are methods which can provide assistance in tracking down and identifying a serial offender with the hope that their crimes can be stopped sooner and the individual responsible can be brought to justice.

Tagging Banksy: using geographic profiling to investigate a modern art mystery

Journal of Spatial Science,
Michelle V. Haugea, Mark D. Stevensona, D. Kim Rossmo & Steven C. Le Combera

The pseudonymous artist Banksy is one of the UK’s most successful contemporary artists, but his identity remains a mystery. Here, we use a Dirichlet process mixture (DPM) model of geographic profiling, a mathematical technique developed in criminology and finding increasing application within ecology and epidemiology, to analyse the spatial patterns of Banksy artworks in Bristol and London. The model takes as input the locations of these artworks, and calculates the probability of ‘offender’ residence across the study area. Our analysis highlights areas associated with one prominent candidate (e.g., his home), supporting his identification as Banksy. More broadly, these results 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, and provides a fascinating example of the application of the model to a complex, real-world problem.

Access the full paper

To cite this article:Guy, F. (2016, Jul 25). Criminal Geographic Profiling Used To Identify Banksy. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from

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