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Who is King Robbo?
To the general public, there’s a thin line between professional street artists and graffiti punks. King Robbo might describe himself as both.
We know from BBC interviews that Robbo has children. He stands at an impressive 6’8″. He’s had an undeniably enormous impact on graffiti artists in London, where he apparently lives with his family. He’s a proud man, a legend, and a wanted criminal.
Like many notable street artists, King Robbo cannot show his face or give his name interviews. He doesn’t have the luxury of massive celebrity outside of the street world, and if he appears on a CCTV camera while creating one of his pieces, he’ll end up in a jail cell, potentially facing years of imprisonment. He doesn’t have an enormous fortune.
What Robbo does have is credibility, integrity and a legion of fans and imitators. He has his own art team, Team Robbo, and he’s accurate in referring to himself as street art royalty.
Through a vicious war with the controversial Banksy, Robbo rose to prominence in the late 2000s before a terrible injury took him off of the streets, potentially forever. He inspired thousands of conversations about the apparent double standards of the U.K.’s anti-graffiti laws and gained mainstream recognition for his elaborate freestyle.
Early Years and Commissions
As is often the case in the world of anonymous artists, finding a reliable set of facts is almost impossible, but Robbo was certainly an amateur for most of his career. He spent his nights tagging the sides of trains in 1985 and quickly graduated to walls and canals.
Team Robbo’s website notes that Robbo enjoys putting art “where it isn’t supposed to be,” and he did exactly that. Robbo was widely known for his signature tag, which featured a crown and two quotation marks.
Robbo’s tags gradually became more elaborate, and he experimented with shading and other effects as time went by.
It was during this early period that Robbo first met future rival, the graffiti artist named Banksy. According to Robbo, Banksy was somewhat rude and claimed that he wasn’t familiar with Robbo’s ubiquitous works.
“You haven’t heard of me?” Robbo said, “Well, you won’t forget me now, will you?” According to his own account, Robbo then slapped Banksy in the head.
However, Banksy denies that the exchange ever took place.
“Is this a joke?” Banksy said in a statement. “I’ve never been hit by Robbo in my life.”
“I don’t know who he slapped, but I hope they deserved it.”
The Graffiti Wars: King Robbo vs Banksy
For a time in 2009, it seemed as though Robbo’s crown was perilously close to falling from his head. He effectively retired, later citing his concern for his family for his inactivity, and most Robbo tags were covered by imitators and competitors.
However, one important piece seemed to stand the test of time. Robbo’s enormous tag on the canal wall in Camden had graffiti over it, but it was most intact when Banksy used it for his own piece in a calculated diss that broke one of the unspoken rules of street art.
At the time, artwork by Banksy was much more mainstream thanks to his stenciled style. When he painted half of Robbo’s tag with a stenciled image of a painter apparently whitewashing the wall, many street art fans felt that he was insulting Robbo directly.
“If you want things to last, you shouldn’t paint them under a bridge on the canal,” said Banksy later in an interview.
The work enraged Robbo, driving him out of retirement. He reclaimed the wall by painting a stylized “King Robbo” tag next to the painter, making the piece appear as if Banksy’s painter was endorsing Team Robbo.
The war was on. Both artists’ pieces in London were now fair game, and they engaged in an ongoing battle of one-upsmanship. “He’s Not The Messiah, He’s A Very Naughty Boy,” Robbo wrote over one of Banksy’s pieces, referencing the religious dedication of the stencil artist’s fans.
Another piece showed the Hanna-Barbera character Top Cat leaning on a gravestone that bore the title “Banksy’s Career,” an image which the team still promotes on its website today.
“Don’t Believe in War”
Over time, the artists’ back-and-forth became more heated, but if Banksy ever intended to diminish King Robbo’s standing in the world of street art, he failed. The Graffiti War was one of King Robbo’s finest moments and delivered thousands of new followers to both artists while elevating their reputations substantially.
Depending on who you ask, the battle–frequently called the Graffiti Wars after a BBC show documenting the artistic rivalry–was either the height of street art or an elaborate ploy by both artists to gain publicity. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Both artists clearly enjoyed the attention and publicity, but at the heart of the Graffiti War was a valid artistic disagreement.
Banksy thought that using tags in his own work was fair game, especially if the tags had fallen into disrepair. Robbo saw Banksy as an active instigator, a pompous figure and maybe even a bit of a sellout. After all, Banksy’s works were protected by the London police and sold to millionaires at auction houses while King Robbo’s works were seen as a public menace.
Robbo’s first major press coverage came after the feud, and in the ensuing months, he improved his already considerable credibility on the streets of London. Most importantly, he gained notoriety outside of the street art subculture, which helped to establish his legacy as an important figure in English art.
Tragedy and Recovery: Is King Robbo still in a Coma?
Unfortunately, Robbo would never make a full transition from graffiti vandal to established professional artist. Days before his first gallery showing, he reportedly fell, seriously damaging his head. He was put an induced coma while doctors treated swelling in his brain.
While the artist is out of intensive care, his recovery schedule is as much of a mystery as the man himself.
Fans realize that Robbo might never return to street art. After he recovers, his priorities might change. He might never be well enough to quickly dart his spray can across the walls and canals of London in the same brilliant way. He might even be tired of looking over his shoulder for police and CCTV cameras.
Team Robbo, however, is still active, preserving their King’s works and making sure that a new generation of street artists understand his legacy. Even Banksy paid tribute to Robbo after the accident, covering Robbo’s Camden mural with a black-and-white version of the original, effectively reversing his first sacrilege and offering an olive branch to Robbo and his family.
Team Robbo later replaced Banksy’s contribution and restored the original version of the piece to its full-color condition, restoring the artist to his rightful place as the king of London street art.