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Banksy, the controversial and elusive street artist, left his mark here. Or did he?

A new piece of street art, believed by some to be the work of the notorious street artist known as Banksy, was found in Chinatown. A new piece of street art, believed by some to be the work of the notorious street artist known as Banksy, was found in Chinatown. (Essdras M. Suarez / Globe Staff)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / May 15, 2010

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On a crisp spring day, a small crowd gathered around the back of a Chinatown restaurant to confirm the rumors that had started swirling earlier this week: Banksy, one of the most famous street artists of our time, had hit Boston.

What seemed like proof stared out from a gray wall next to parking space number 32 in a neighboring lot. There, a 6-foot-tall stenciled figure with a brush and bucket stood next to the spray-painted cliché “FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS.’’ In typically Banksian fashion, the drip-dried message had been stamped over with the word “CANCELLED,’’ outlined in red.

“I have never seen something like this in Boston before,’’ said John Wilson, 23, who rode his bike over Thursday afternoon after finishing work in Cambridge. “It gives Boston a strange sense of worth.’’

Known for his public pranks and bitingly satirical art, Banksy has exploded in fame in recent years, even as he has kept his identity carefully shrouded in mystery. The British artist’s spray-painted works sell for upwards of $500,000. His critically acclaimed new documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop’’ has been the top-grossing film at Cambridge’s Kendall Square Cinema since opening April 23. And Time magazine recently named him one of the most influential artists in the world.

But Banksy’s drive-by dripwork has also created controversy, with some viewing his pieces, cherished by his fans as priceless urban masterworks, as mere graffiti. His street art has popped up on walls everywhere from New Orleans to Israel’s controversial West Bank security barrier.

Now two new pieces have appeared in the Boston area, bearing his hallmarks — one on the back of the Shabu Shabu restaurant on Essex Street in Chinatown, the other on Essex Street in Central Square in Cambridge.

Did he create them? Banksy does not do press conferences or even phone interviews. His followers and collaborators assume the Boston-area paintings are part of his promotional campaign for his movie. It may not be a coincidence that other Banksy-style street pieces have been showing up in select cities, from San Francisco to Toronto, where the documentary is playing. “Exit Through the Gift Shop’’ tells the story of an obsessive videographer and Banksy fan who has the camera turned on him by the artist himself.

Globe critic Ty Burr called the film “one of the best, most karmically satisfying comedies of the year, much to the chagrin of the people who are in it.’’

John Sloss, the indie-film mogul who is helping distribute “Exit,’’ said of Banksy: “Rather than doing a press tour with the director where he talks about the film, this is how Banksy speaks.’’

With stencils and spray paint, Banksy has traveled the world, offering sharp, humorous guerrilla critiques of politics and culture. He has placed a replica of a Guantanamo prisoner in Disneyland and snuck spoof artworks into various museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, hanging them on the walls.

Of course, Banksy’s work has had detractors. In London, his painting of “ONE NATION UNDER CCTV’’ on a building — meant to protest the use of closed-circuit cameras to electronically monitor the public — was itself painted over, with the Westminster City Council denouncing it as graffiti.

For local Banksy fans, part of the attraction to the work is the intrigue that surrounds the artist: Who is he? When did he come to town? How did he possibly avoid being caught in the act yet again? The creations here most likely went up Tuesday night. The artist wasn’t seen, if he was even here at all.

“Banksy doesn’t actually execute a lot of the street pieces anymore,’’ said Shepard Fairey, the street artist known for his “Hope Obama’’ poster, his arrest in Boston last year for tagging properties with graffiti, and his wildly popular solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Fairey, who knows Banksy, says the mystery man’s assistants may have been here. “To me, it doesn’t matter whether he was there,’’ said Fairey. “He orchestrated it. If you’re still into believing that Batman cleans up the city by himself, fine.’’

Geoff Hargadon, an artist and fan of street art, learned about the new works on Facebook Wednesday morning and headed out to take pictures.

Was it Banksy?

Hargadon says without a doubt. He had heard rumblings that the artist was coming after similar stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles. When the works appeared, Hargadon said he called people who know Banksy. They confirmed that he had been there. In Banksian fashion, Hargadon said those intermediaries did not want to be contacted.

“The work is really skilled and it’s funny,’’ said Hargadon. “The spray paint is really, really good. And it’s also the mystery of Banksy. However you want to define that brand, it’s a pretty good brand.’’

That brand has been nurtured for years. The British media have tried unmasking the artist, pegging him, at different times, as a native of Bristol in his mid-30s whose name is Robert Banks, Robin Banks, or Robin Gunningham. There have also been photos published of different men purporting to be Banksy. None of those identities have been confirmed.

Fairey notes that as late as 2004, Banksy would go to his art openings as long as people promised not to photograph him. But in recent years, he has tended to avoid places where people from his past may recognize him.

Sloss said he has never met or spoken with him. “I have been working for him for six months,’’ he said. “He is among the most clever fellows I’ve ever encountered, however I’ve never encountered him.’’

Pedro Alonzo, who curated Fairey’s show at the ICA and once organized an exhibition featuring Banksy’s work in England, said the artist’s anonymity allows him to be more daring. “Like what he did in the zoo in Barcelona, putting up signs like ‘Free me’ or ‘The food’s good here. This guy may not want us to know who he is, but he definitely wants us to know he’s there.’’

Alonzo, who viewed the images in Central Square and Chinatown over the Internet, said he had doubts about whether Banksy created the Cambridge piece, which shows a child in the window of a house holding an acrylic marker in front of a sign that reads “NO LOITRIN.’’

“It very well could be him, but it doesn’t seem like a Banksy,’’ said Alonzo.

Fairey, viewing the images over the Internet from his studio in Los Angeles, also had doubts. But Hargadon, who examined both street creations in person, stands by his belief that they’re both by Banksy — unless, of course, neither is by Banksy.

“The painted part is really good and really skilled,’’ he said. “And the acrylic stick, in white, is the same kind of thing he used on the one in Chinatown, though he used black. It is possible neither is a Banksy. An artist named DOLK has been in New York City recently, and his work is similar. If it is someone else, I look forward to the public reaction.’’

On Thursday after work, Hargadon grabbed his Nikon and headed to Chinatown. A steady stream of people stopped by, snapping photos and posing with the image. It’s unclear how long the piece will remain up. But a manager at Shabu Shabu said the owner had no plans to take it down.

“I think it’ll be gone soon,’’ said Hargadon. “That’s why people are coming here. It’s one of the attractions of street art.’’