On the streets and in commentaries, putting one’s name on walls and other items is regarded as graffiti; more complex works, commentary works and so on are regarded as street art. That makes King Robbo a graffiti tagger and Banksy a street artist. The war that took place between them, however, went deeper than just the opinions each (and their followers) had of the other. That feud is fascinating, not only because, as the cover of the DVD for Graffiti Wars describes it, it is “the biggest art rivalry since Picasso and Matisse”, but also because of the insights into the subculture of street art and graffiti.
King Robbo began his activities in 1985 in London, at least 5 years before Banksy started in Bristol.
Where Banksy’s works are innovative, albeit in the style of Le Blek and using a lot of Blek's images, King Robbo for the most part simply put his name on things, commonly known these days as “tagging”. Where Banksy comments on society, its issues and problems, again modeled on Blek, Robbo’s works are shallow and egocentric.
It is made clear in the documentary Graffiti Wars that Robbo does not like Banksy or his work. He regards Banksy’s mainstream popularity and commercial success as a sellout and that the use of stencils is inferior to the true nature of freestyle street art. Robbo’s freestyle forms were elaborate and his signature tag included a crown and two quotation marks:
It’s an interesting phenomenon that sometimes artists who rage against society or do the anti-establishment thing, such as Banksy, become popular and are adopted by the mainstream, the very people they were railing against, “bad boy chic”. This happened to Eminem as well, who was moved to ask "When everyone loves you, who's left to hate you?"
In that commencing year, 1985, as Robbo expanded from painting the sides of trains and began experimenting with form and colour, he painted one of London’s earliest graffiti works, his tag on a canal underpass beneath the London Transport Police HQ:
Hard to get to except by boat and unseen by the general public, it was left untouched by the city’s cleanup crews. More and more it became defaced and tagged, the original being barely visible:
By 2009 Banksy was high profile and the darling of the mainstream. His shows were a great success, his art works in exhibitions sold out immediately at high prices and celebrities paid big $$ for his works, always with a press release so that the purchases were known to the public.
The older Robbo had long since retired from the passion of leaving his name painted on things, having decided that this wasn’t a suitable pastime for a man in his 40’s. He has acknowledged that one reason for his retirement was to spend time with his young children. Despite his retirement he was quoted in newspapers as being critical of Banksy and Banksy's works.
In December 2009, Banksy altered King Robbo’s Camden work, a no-no in street art circles. It is apparently worse than sleeping with the artist’s wife, you don’t mess with another’s piece. Banksy did, he changed the barely recognisable Robbo tag into a wallpaper hanger pasting brightly coloured wall paper that had a pattern of the defaced work:
The alteration was witty but Robbo was incensed that his work had been touched, even more so that his piece had been utilised as a prop for a Banksy work. Robbo and his supporters saw the work and its message as a diss of Robbo. Banksy responded in terms that were neither apologetic nor placatory: “If you want things to last you shouldn’t paint them under a bridge on the canal.”
According to Robbo:
“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”.
The alteration brought Robbo out of retirement. On Christmas Day 2009 he altered the Banksy work by painting over the wall paper and making it seem that the worker was a painter who had painted the “King Robbo”:
It made it seem that Banksy’s painter was acknowledging and paying homage to King Robbo, even bowing to the name.
The war had begun.
An interesting item emerged. According to Robbo, when he and Banksy met long before Robbo’s retirement, Banksy had said he hadn’t heard of him. According to Robbo he had slapped Banksy and said “Well, you won’t forget me now.” Banksy denied that the exchange and the slap ever took place.
A few months later Banksy responded to the alteration to the Camden work:
The response took the war to another level by being personally abusive of King Robbo.
Robbo responded by restoring the work to King Robbo by painting out the FUC that had been painted by Banksy.
The war, however, escalated.
According to one writer it was a “...graffiti war being fought on the streets of London between one of the founding fathers of the British graffiti scene and the most famous street artist in the world.”
Whether it was a contrived publicity stunt or a genuine dispute, it brought street art to mainstream awareness and was based on a philosophical divergence on the nature of street art and artists.
Each began altering works of the other, more so on the part of King Robbo and Team Robbo:
Banksy’s work of a hitchhiking Charles Manson:
was altered to:
Other alterations and comments:
Whilst this was happening, the Camden wall was altered by a person or persons unknown:
In July 2010 Robbo added work to the black wall:
Not long afterwards a third party, identity unknown, again blacked out the wall, this time neatly:
In January 2011 Banksy adorned the black wall with a piece that left people scratching heads:
On 2 April 2011, as Robbo was planning a rebuttal, he was severely injured. His exhibition “Team Robbo – The Sellout Tour” was to have opened 5 days later. Found in the street in a coma with a severe head injury, it is unknown whether he was set upon and assaulted or whether he sustained a fall. It is believed that the incident was accidental. Whatever the cause, it left him in hospital in intensive care in a coma and later an induced coma for 5 months.
Robbo’s condition, prognosis and whereabouts today remain unknown. It is known that his recovery has been slow. Whether he will ever paint again is unknown.
In November 2011, Banksy placed a mark of respect for Robbo on the Camden wall, a line drawing of the original work with a spray can depicted with a candle flame:
Some saw it as both a vigil for Robbo and an attempt to end the war.
The mural was restored to its original form with slight changes by the other members of "Team Robbo" on December 24, 2011, Christmas Eve:
By September 2012 the restoration had peeled away to leave the black and white tribute to Robbo.
Although Robbo's future is unknown, for members of Team Robbo the war goes on:
“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.”- King Robbo