The crisp December morning of 2009 where a graffiti legend came out of retirement, donned a wetsuit, scooted across Regents Canal on a blow-up lilo and calmly reclaimed his territory from Banksy has become legend in itself. It was the day Robbo became ‘King Robbo’.
The UK’s notoriously heavy-handed approach to graffiti has seen hefty prison terms and obscene amounts of funding poured into re-painting walls and cleaning trains, rather than say, making sure they run on time and don’t smell of crotch. That in mind, Robbo’s enduring presence as one of the pioneers of old school graffiti in London has long established him as one of the greats of both the UK and international scene. Having initially got into it he admits purely “for selfish reasons and the buzz of seeing your name everywhere” he immersed himself in it just as graffiti was filtering from New York into major cities, unknowingly becoming one of the defining sub-cultures of the 1980s.
“For me it was escapism, I’m creative but I come from a family where you either worked or went into crime so I had no-one pushing me in that direction. They couldn’t understand why I’d work then go out and illegally paint when there’s no money in it. To me graff’s always been rock’n’roll, a way to rebel and be creative”. His prolific and relentless love-affair with graffiti, which he prefers to call “a passion rather than obsession” has earned him a coveted spot in graffiti’s hall of fame. But having settled into relative retirement it was a spat between him and street-art darling Banksy painting over one of his oldest pieces, a 25 year old Robbo legacy on the Camden stretch of Regents Canal, that was to propel him back into the spotlight.
Earlier this year I’d been sent to a press screening of Banksy’s film ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’ with the expected outcome that I write a sparkling review. However it was after that hour and a half that I went from being ambivalent to hating Banksy. Not for his lack of technical skill, depthless political jibes or righteous rants against consumerism- it was because of the cinema full of idiots that were completely romanced by him. People who answered their phones mid-way to exclaim they were watching the Banksy film, people who clapped and snort-laughed at his thicko, shock-jock stunts and stencils. So naturally, when the opportunity to get hold of Robbo came up I was keen to meet him.
Come that day and I’m running forty minutes late from shuffling there in the snow. Reaching the pub and planning on getting five lagers to myself convinced he’s left already, I’m greeted by a man-mountain in jogging bottoms. Straight out of a Cockney vaudeville it’s clear if Robbo had not gone into painting walls he would’ve become a showman in another arena. So begins an evening of insulting each other, him gently taking the piss out of my arts degree, watching drunk Russian men wrestle, discussing the merits of shaved balls, occasionally, graffiti and significantly that Banksy rift.
“Banksy decided to get cocky and say “I’ve never heard of you”, so I gave him a swift backhand”
The much told story goes, that having met at a party through mutual friends in the late 90s, a then unknown, bespectacled and apparently Ben Elton lookalike Banksy had been on the receiving end of a backhander. “I was courteous, I even lied and said I’d heard of him but when he saw his mates saying it was a pleasure to meet me he decided to get cocky and say “I’ve never heard of you”, so I gave him a swift backhand and said “you may never have heard of me but you’ll never forget me” and that was that. Years later and my friend is doing a book on graffiti, London Handstyles, it was just as people were getting fired up about street art and so I was asked about that fall out. I’d been out the loop so unknown to me that story had become graff folklore. It wasn’t long after that book came out, that he went over the piece on Regents Canal.” The alteration was a distinctively Banksy-esque workman wallpapering out the now ancient original, Robbo’s riposte was simply to have the workman painting ‘King Robbo’, “it was actually pretty sloppy, I’d gone out Christmas morning, done it quickly and just thought ‘fuck it’. I didn’t even know how to post it on the Internet afterwards let alone think it would cause the fuss it did”.
Broaching the subject of the infamous ‘King Robbo’ comeback I’m relieved to see that he’s fairly amused by it all. “He broke a graff code of conduct and for a lawless community we have a lot of laws, so I had to come back. What people don’t realise is that he’d already gone over loads of my stuff before and I hadn’t bothered retaliating but this time it was just so deliberate, so cowardly. If you’ve got the hump about something you send a message and discuss it like gentlemen, you don’t wipe out a piece of graffiti history. But that’s what he does, never expresses his own opinion, he puts something out and lets people fool themselves, he’s smart in that respect”.
But Banksy keeping noticeably quiet in the feud yet targeting what had been the oldest piece in London seemed like a rookie mistake, a publicity stunt gone wrong as it was greeted with scorn from the graffiti world and a bevvy of new fans in the media for Robbo. “If anything it backfired and showed just how little respect he has within our community. It also gave me the opportunity to shine a light on graffiti, to show that writers aren’t just spotty teenagers that draw on bus-stops, we can be witty and funny in a way Banksy can’t, because he’s not radical he’s just a toy with a PR team.”
While his attitude to the turf war itself seems fairly amiable it’s the bigger conflict of graffiti, regarded as an eyesore on the urban landscape, versus street art, the acceptable face of vandalism, which he’s thrown himself into. “Over the years negative connotations associated with graff have been exaggerated, it’s unreal that people can end up in prison for a long time, yet someone puts up a stencil and that’s OK, because it brings tourism to Shoreditch” he jokes.
As we walked past the Charles Manson hitchhiker Banksy in north London you can see Robbo’s short-lived re-working, of which has been neatly buffed out while the original is left intact. The effort taken in removing Robbo’s handiwork all the while ensuring the original was preserved, is at first bizarre to look at and then glaringly unfair. Thus came the coining of ‘Team Robbo’ versus ‘Team Banksy’, drawing a clear line in the dirt between graffiti and street-art, with street-art more often than not managing to escape being classified as vandalism when tackling dreaded ‘envirocrimes’. It’s interesting to imagine that if someone stencilled David Cameron bending over Maggie Thatcher while dressed as Ronald MacDonald, would it’s burning social message ensure it wasn’t cleaned away?
Through the eyes of the art world the enduring popularity of street-art implies that the dawn of stencilled rats was the only time graffiti has provided social commentary. The mainstream media wet themselves when Hackney Council voted to paint over an alleged Banksy, lamenting an un-appreciation of art, yet they stumbled when choosing to describe it as either street-art or graffiti, the council’s response was simply ‘vandalism is vandalism, whoever it’s by’. Robbo muses “labelling something as street-art straightaway puts financial value on it…it’s great to get paid for doing something you love but should never be the main aim. Social commentary or not, Banksy is the Tesco of the art-world, what he promotes is tacky, mass-produced shit that provokes a reaction to make himself money. Art should be one-off canvasses, stuff that can’t be copied by anyone. There is no skill in producing something that anyone could do, it’s a clever business module maybe, but it’s not art. But nowadays nobody seems to care about talent anymore they’re just happy to be spoonfed shit, it’s like being stuck in X Factor.”
“Banksy’s not radical he’s just a toy with a PR team”
With his own name a heavyweight in graff circles it wouldn’t be conceited to say that Robbo could cash in and build an empire of his own. It makes me wonder about the unusual status that he has, international acclaim and yet total anonymity. Having stepped back from it all, gallery shows are a new venture to him. “I’m at a crossroads; last year was good gallery and promo-wise but I’ve got a family to support and a mortgage to pay. Truly if you want to be an artist you have to drop everything, you shouldn’t be half-stepping, and while I’ve now realised I’ve got the profile to do that, there’s that in-between stage of uncertainty. I have no qualms with people earning money from something they love but I’m not willing to produce commercial bollocks to pay bills. People forget that some of the greatest artists died broke, money isn’t an indicator of skill”.
Having admittedly been out of the loop Robbo would be venturing into a scene that’s in a very strange place indeed, a new school graffiti of the Web 2.0 generation that has a media savvy sheen. “This is why I have doubts about doing it full time. It has been watered down, there’s a certain glamour around it which makes it sexy to be involved in graff. There’s blogs and magazines that have done very well to publicise it but I feel like a lot of them have their own agenda, they’ve seen a business aspect and that there’s money to be made from graffiti. Young writers can edit and upload their photos onto the internet and get an immediate response but they’re not out there living it 24/7. Obviously there’s still great people like TOX who do it because they just love being vandals and I love the rooftop artists like Burning Candy and Panik who still have that rebellion, they’ve gone up higher to avoid getting buffed. To me they risk getting arrested to brighten up my eye line and get their art seen, that mentality is real graffiti”.
Though diluted, graffiti’s growing popularity has meant respected agencies are able to hook writers up with paid work and a gallery environment, but yet again the issue of the ever increasing grey area between what is street-art and what is graffiti comes up. Fellow graffiti artist and owner of London agency RareKind, David Samuel, argues that from the public sphere to the gallery graffiti gets lost in translation. “Graffiti in a gallery is not a real thing, what people need to know is that the work is by graffiti artists, people with a history, people who painted at first not for money, but for appreciation within their culture. When they hit the gallery scene they put themselves out there as artists, not as graffiti writers and have the same struggles as any other artist. Banksy did a great deed for the scene, as the public put all paintings/writing on walls in one basket termed graffiti, which though annoying, he opened doors for artists like myself and gave us a good platform to work from. But, Robbo brought to light the difference between the two, a lot of people don’t truly understand his motives. While a rat holding a placard with a statement is a lot easier to understand than a wildstyle piece of graffiti full of colour and contrast, it’s us who have a unique skill which should be appreciated but we have to use graffiti as a stepping stone to the art world not bring it with us”.
So whilst the initial lustre of street art wears off and the stencils and wheat pasted images become as commonplace as the graff that came before them I wonder if Robbo ever gets sick of being asked about Banksy. “Of course, but I look at it like, I’ve already tainted any write ups there are of him in the history books, but I haven’t even started on mine”. On that note I let him stroll off into the night, spray can nozzles dropping out his pockets before he leaves me with, “I’d love to do a 30ft silver dub on the Great Wall of China, imagine that? They’d have me assassinated, but it’d be beautiful”.