You might be able to put art to artist name, but you certainly cannot put artist name to artist face for the likes of Lousy, Mr. Tripleton and Bijutsu Taro, who’d all much prefer to create in incognito mode.
Many have their suspicions and many, still, might be correct in their speculations. Yet on the record, the person behind the persona Banksy remains, to this day, a modern-day mystery. Then there’s the perpetually masked Daft Punk, whose identities, though never explicitly concealed, just never added to their electro performances. Sia, who, for a brief moment, hid under an especially strong fringe. And Martin Margiela … well, he was just reclusive.
The artist hasn’t always been encumbered, if he so succeeds, by the siren call of celebrity. Eras before the Renaissance, before Michaelangelo “Il Divino” and his contemporary Leonardo Da Vinci, before the who was as, if not more, important as the what, artists were mere toiling artisans who inherited their craft, no different from a blacksmith whose father, grandfather were once, too, blacksmiths.
The celebrity came later.
The celebrity artist, much later.
It seems counterintuitive now, when celebrity is a single internet-viral moment away, to want the attention intentionally diverted, when said attention can very likely bring with it the most covetous currency of our zeitgeist: fame, fortune and fandom. “If we want the rewards of being loved,” once wrote essayist Tim Kreider, “we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” Yet, what if love came anyway? What if. What if love – or whatever the para-social equivalence of “love” is in relation to artist-viewer relationships – can materialise without undoing the shackles of vulnerability, without the need to lay bare all these prickly parts of personhood?
What if we can love something we don’t know and, possibly, will never know?
“I think it’s just a different type of operation,” says graffiti artist Lousy on his pseudonymous existence, despite being, perhaps, one of the most easily recognisable artists singlehandedly moulding the fabric of Hong Kong street art in recent years. “It was kind of borne out of the legal stuff and I just ended up liking it,” he says. “I liked the fact that the work isn’t associated to an appearance. Appearances are deceitful, right? In a good way or a bad way. Sometimes there are artists who they themselves are a part of the artwork as well. There’s an automatic affiliation if you’re exceptionally charming or good-looking. Or if you’re exceptionally ugly. It might be like, ‘Oh, he’s kinda cute, but his work kinda sucks.’ You know? I just try to eliminate that.”
The street artist, who paints on bare- naked walls as well as bare-naked women, doesn’t consider the explicitness of some of his oeuvre to be worthy of perpetuating anonymity. “That’s never been my concern,” he says. In fact, he’d really “wouldn’t mind” being personally affiliated with his harem of body-painted girls. “It’s more like the whole … I don’t want to use the word ‘persona’,” he trails off, picking his words with extreme precision. “Maybe it’s more like I don’t see the need for putting my face out there.”
To be perceived, after all, is to be judged. And while judgement is all but a natural consequence to matters of art and aesthetic, Lousy, who, quite frankly, identifies as a “control freak”, would just rather his work be judged on its own merit, in a vacuum of his own creation. In conditions, also, of his own creation. “If you like my stuff, you like my stuff. If you don’t like my stuff, you don’t like it,” he insists, quite matter-of-factly. “There’s no other factor. I like that. It’s less BS.”
Without explicit authorship, the onus is now thrust into the laps of the spectator to draw their own conclusion. Art has always held a mirror up to society; what one sees in that mirror, well, that’s none of anyone else’s business. The artist included.
“I truly believe in communication,” the KissFace muralist continues. “Maybe part of the anonymity is part of the communication as well. My stuff on the street is more of an instant, a really quick form of communication that happens in a split-second. It’s like the Nike logo … well, I hope it’s on that level of communication, or at least getting there. It’s a very distilled version of my world.
“I mean, it is still me at the end of the day,” he professes, plainly. “It gives me more freedom as well.”
When the same question, of whether the wanton lack of authorship prompts a feeling of creative liberation, is posed to Japanese painter Bijutsu Taro, freedom is, by far, the last thing on his mind. “Anonymity creates a situation in which only my work is evaluated, creating a pressure that is the opposite of liberation,” he counters. “It’s a tension that forces me to constantly update myself.
“I want people to appreciate the art for what it is, and not for it to be bound by the artist’s name, their gender, race,” Taro continues, now in stride with Lousy’s work-first thesis. “A quiet dialogue purely with the artwork alone is a valuable experience that brings us face to face with the ‘inner world of the mind’ within our own subconscious.”
“Instead of art becoming a luxury purchase for the rich,” Taro continues, “I’m hoping my work nourishes the poor, too. I’d rather draw 100 paintings for 10,000 yen than one for one million.”
Anonymity, for the Japanese artist whose motifs of rabbits and clouds elicit such immediate joy, appears to be an honest means to an end. It’s also a way to ensure Taro, the persona, endures beyond whoever Taro is when he isn’t Taro – beyond, even, mortality. “I hope that anyone can create art under the name ‘Bijutso Taro’ or ‘BT’,” he says, “and that the art will continue to grow beyond the limits of time or ability or the constraints of material.”
And similarly to Taro’s insistence using a pseudonymous practice to deter from an art-industry preference for over- commoditisation, Lousy feels the same, albeit towards praise and overtures of adoration.
“I don’t need that, ‘Oh my God, I fucking love you’,” Lousy scoffs. “I mean, I always appreciate it, but I don’t need that. Might as well talk about other stuff. I’m not playing hard to get, but this is what makes me comfortable. And that’s the most important thing. I’m doing the stuff I love and I’m super grateful for it, but I want to do it my way as well.
“I mean, I try to be faceless but sometimes, it’s like, if you know you know,” says Lousy. The artist, who wears yellow trainers and black socks embroidered with Studio Ghibli’s No-Face, purely by coincidence, cares little about the fanfare that might come from his persona’s celebrity. And counting 12.1k followers on Instagram with collaboration projects with the likes of Casetify and Adidas and an incoming LOUSY PEEP SHOW at Eaton Hotel under and soon-under his belt? The celebrity exists, whether he acknowledges it or otherwise. “I’m not fucking Banksy, you know? It’s just not a public thing. I don’t go out of my way. But I do go out of my way to present my work – that’s the priority for me.”
This hyper-focus on the work is what, too, drives newcomer-artist Mr. Tripleton, whose thesis of a persona as a “Super Art Hero” lends itself quite easily to working in the shadows of anonymity. And despite what’s, essentially, fertile ground for experimentation wholly separate from the harsh reality of personhood, Tripleton’s raison d’être is, surprisingly, entirely affixed to the very person he wishes to shield from being perceived; a far cry from the relative distance Taro keeps from his work and even Lousy, who simply believes his motifs to be quite matter-of-fact.
“When people ask Batman why he does what he does, he’ll probably say it’s about the crime. It’s not about himself, not about Bruce Wayne,” Tripleton says, speaking behind the mask of his persona in a muffled cadence not unlike that of Wayne. “So, it’s always been there, this thinking. I don’t want people to look at me because I’m not good-looking enough. I don’t want my ugly face to ruin my art. I want people to focus on my work.
“The whole story is … it’s a long story,” he says, delving into the intensely personal rationale behind the inception of this persona, this “act”, as he’d describe it. “I started drawing when I was going through withdrawal, depression, insomnia … all those things. I think I’ve always been the same. People don’t change that much. You either become better or worse version of yourself. You know, I’ve been very bad versions of myself but, for now, I’m trying to be the good version.”
For Tripleton, who diverges from the intentions of both Lousy and Taro, anonymity, like the square footage of a wooden confessional, provides space for clemency. He’s an antihero bequeathed with a desire to “be better”, whatever that means to him and his art, his secret weapon, which, at least for The Questionables exhibition, took currency – specifically, one-dollar bills – as canvas.
“It’s not really about achieving,” Tripleton insists. “It’s about trying.”
“The mask is so hot,” he says, laughing, yet, refusing to budge on his own, enforced mask-wearing policy. The persona remains. “It’s so hot. I can never get used to it because I like talking, I feel the air going back into my face. But I deal with crazy, weird motherfuckers, old motherfuckers with this mask on. They like it. But they’ve seen things like this. We have Chinese opera. We have all these acts … they know it’s an act. People used to wear masks to rob a bank or kill someone. Society’s very boring right now. There’s not a lot of exciting things happening, but I’m trying.”
“All this that I’m doing is just a part of a movie,” the masked super-art-hero continues, revealing his prior vocation as a film director. Or current vocation. We can’t be sure.
Because behind a mask, the artist can be anyone. It can be you, can be me. Can be Batman or the bank robber he’s in pursuit of. Can exist in perpetuity, ageless and untainted against the unrelenting ravages of time, in the fingertips of anyone who dares.
But uncovered, when the reality of flesh, of bone, of skin, sinew and self-stuff that makes us so utterly, so devastatingly, so tediously human is revealed? The illusion shatters.
“That I’m a girl,” Lousy reveals conspiratorially about the swirling rumours that have always haunted his true identity. “I don’t care. It’s like, great if you think I’m a girl. Sick. That’s very cute. Or that I’m a misogynist.” He shrugs. “People are entitled to think whatever they want, right? So, I guess I don’t really mind. I guess the more guessing the better, right?”