Monday, 8 March 2010
Banksy v Robbo Article
LONDON—In the predawn hours of Christmas morning, a 40-year-old shoe repairman who goes by the name Robbo squeezed his 6-foot-8-inch frame into a wet suit, tossed some spray cans into a plastic bag, and crossed Regent's Canal on a red-and-blue air mattress.
Robbo, one of the lost pioneers of London's 1980s graffiti scene, was emerging from a long retirement. He had a mission: to settle a score with the world-famous street artist Banksy, who, Robbo believes, had attacked his legacy.
The battle centers on a wall under a bridge on the canal in London's Camden district. In the fall of 1985—just 15 years old but already a major player in London's graffiti scene—Robbo announced his presence on that wall with eight tall block letters: ROBBO INC.
The work, written in orange, red and black on a yellow background, had been in good shape for nearly 25 years and was considered a local icon, surviving long after Robbo himself vanished from the scene 16 years ago.
But recently, Robbo's work was dramatically altered by an unlikely rival: Banksy, the stealthy Bristol-born artist who has made a lucrative art of graffiti. The work of Banksy—who, like Robbo, doesn't disclose his name—sells for big money and is widely merchandised. His first film, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is due out in U.K. theaters this month.
In early December, Banksy did a series of four pieces along the Regent's Canal's walls. Inexplicably, one of them incorporated Robbo's piece into Banksy's own work, painting over half the Robbo original in the process. The resulting work, in Banksy's typical stencil technique, shows a black-and-white workman applying colorful wallpaper that is, in essence, the remnants of Robbo's piece.
Some saw Banksy's act as self-promotion, some as a tribute, but most interpreted it as plain disrespect for a local hero. Offers of retribution reached Robbo, who has remained friendly with many graffiti writers even as he slipped into a life of obscurity as a North London father of two children, with a third on the way.
"They was all offering to do it for me," says Robbo in an interview. But he decided: "I've got to do it myself."
So on Christmas morning—praying he wouldn't wind up in jail even as his children were opening their presents—Robbo slipped back onto the canal and reclaimed his turf. Instead of applying wallpaper, Banksy's workman now is seen painting two words: KING ROBBO.
The game didn't end there. Robbo in recent weeks has modified all four Banksys along Regent's Canal, signing them "Team Robbo." Other graffiti writers have shown their support by adopting the "Team Robbo" tag for their own works.
"Graffiti writers are Team Robbo, street artists are Team Banksy," says Robbo, his heavy cockney accent and shaved head reminders of graffiti's past when skinheads and punks battled to mark their territory with names and slogans.
Banksy declined to be interviewed but provided a statement through a spokeswoman.
"I didn't paint over a 'Robbo' piece. I painted over a piece that said 'mrphfgdfrhdgf'," he said. "I find it surreal when graffiti writers get possessive over certain locations. I thought that having a casual attitude towards property ownership was an essential part of being a vandal."
The battle between lost legend and acclaimed artist highlights a larger rift in the art world. On one side are old-school graffiti writers who "tag" or "bomb" their names in as many places as possible and seldom, if ever, seek compensation for their work.
On the other are street artists, who aim for a political or cultural resonance and also create portable pieces they can exhibit and sell. Their prototype is Banksy, who exists in the art world as both renegade and establishment darling.
The tension between the camps is about more than money and fame. With the exception of a few designated places, painting graffiti on private or public property is illegal. Graffiti writers, whose freehand, spray-painted work can take hours to produce, are more likely to be caught than street artists who often use stencils and posters to get in and out more quickly.
"It's so easy for them to do some of their stuff," says David Samuel, a London graffiti artist who, through his agency, RareKind, promotes fellow writers by putting on shows and linking them up with paid work.
Robbo emerged from London's working-class districts, a teenage skinhead and football hooligan who had more than a few run-ins with the law.
"It started out with spray paint, a black marker and no style," he says. "It was just statements: Skinheads! Arsenal! Robbo!"
It took until the early '80s and films like "Beat Street" and "Style Wars" for Robbo and his crew to find out about the nascent graffiti movement in places like New York. Soon the American style began to influence their own works and they started hitting trains and buildings across London.
"He was the first real all-city writer," Mr. Samuel says of Robbo.
In the early '90s, however, painting in London's underground system became more dangerous as police were on high alert for terrorist activity. Robbo, by then a young father, was ready to get out.
"I had achieved what could be achieved," he says. "I was quite happy to take the back seat and live another life."
A few years later, Robbo says he encountered Banksy, who was just surfacing, in an East London bar. After a fellow graffiti writer introduced them, Robbo says that Banksy replied, "I've never heard of you." Robbo says he cuffed Banksy in the face, sending his glasses flying.
"You may not have heard of me, but you will never forget me," Robbo says he told Banksy. The two haven't spoken since. Banksy declined to comment on the incident.
In the years since, Banksy has become a sensation. He has published five books, painted all over the world, and in February 2008, his 2007 work "Keep it Spotless" sold for $1.87 million at a Sotheby's charity event in New York.
Robbo has never sold a single piece of art. But as he's drawn back into the limelight, he's getting curious. On a recent Friday evening, he and a friend attended a contemporary-art auction at London's sleek Phillips de Pury & Co., where a Banksy was on the block alongside two Basquiats and a Warhol.
Banksy's "Vandalised oil #001," which was exhibited in London's Cargo nightclub in 2001, sold for £121,250.
Arriving late—his shoe-repair store doesn't close until 7 p.m.—Robbo made his way through the gallery, wearing a gray hoodie and sweat pants, black shoe polish still staining his hands. A security guard was quickly on his tail.
"It's all right, mate, we're artists," he said, towering over the guard.
As he watched the auction, he mused about his own past and future. "I'd love to have seen my own stuff in something like this," he said.
Mr. Samuel has asked Robbo to do his own show later this year, and, with a family to support and the thrill of his recent outings still fresh, Robbo is tempted.
"I've done everything, everything for nothing," says Robbo. "I don't think anyone would knock me for making money out of it. But it's never been my goal to make money out of something I love."
Article by Gabriele Stienhauser (Wall Street Journal)