But now, Banksy is being embraced by the very sort of forces he's made a career of mocking: On Tuesday, he received an Academy Award nomination.
Banksy is up for best documentary for his directorial debut, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," alongside producer Jaimie D'Cruz. He also appears in the film, only in shadow with a hoodie over his head and with his voice altered to make him unrecognizable.
"This is a big surprise," he said in a statement. "I don't agree with the concept of award ceremonies, but I'm prepared to make an exception for the ones I'm nominated for. The last time there was a naked man covered in gold paint in my house, it was me."
Still, the question remains: Will the notoriously elusive British artist show up for the Feb. 27 ceremony at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood? And if he wins, will he actually take the stage, say a few words and let the world see his face?
"I highly doubt it," said John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival, where "Exit Through the Gift Shop" premiered a year ago. "Would this be THAT moment? I still doubt it. I've still never even met the person."
An international figure in graffiti art, Banksy is known for traveling the world and anonymously leaving his signature pieces in public areas while refusing to reveal his real name.
His film follows the evolution of the Los Angeles street art scene as it builds to a crescendo of bandwagon worship for the latest hot, new thing, an artist Banksy himself "discovers" who goes by the name Mr. Brainwash. The film is up against "Gasland," "Inside Job," "Restrepo" and "Waste Land."
But even before Tuesday's Oscar nominations, Banksy has been steadily inserting himself into the mainstream, albeit on his terms. Last fall, he designed an opening sequence for "The Simpsons" that was inspired and unusually dark: It depicted the show's animation process as a sweat shop that exploited Asian laborers. And earlier this month, "Gift Shop" earned him a nomination for a British Academy Film Award for outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer.
Both of these nominations support the notion that "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is indeed a documentary as Banksy himself has always asserted and not an elaborately staged piece of fiction meant to expose the hypocrisy of the art world, as many critics and fans alike have surmised.
Cinetic Media founder John Sloss, who distributed the film through Producers Distribution Agency, did not respond to requests for comment.
"I always thought it was real," said Cooper, who worked with Sloss to coordinate the movie's festival premiere. "I live in L.A. Mr. Brainwash I knew that was real."
But he added that "Exit Through the Gift Shop" played at Sundance outside the documentary competition because it was a last-minute addition: "I just said, 'Here's a film,' ... I never had to put that big stick in the ground and say, 'This is this.'
"Banksy is amazing in it," he added. "He's the one who has the right voice for it, he's the most irreverent one in the film, he's the most funny, and I would love to meet him someday."
By CHRISTY LEMIRE