Tribute graffiti that popped up in Shoreditch shortly after the announcement of Robbo’s death. Photo by Jamie Clifton
Long before London street art tours full of foreign exchange students became a thing, I met King Robbo – Banksy’s nemesis. They had a turf war that’d been reignited after Banksy wiped out a tiny wall along Regent’s Canal. One that had once proudly displayed Robbo’s handiwork and survived well over two decades, despite being purposely painted just beneath the London Transport Police headquarters in Camden. What followed was a series of re-workings from both camps, which had the graffiti community creaming their pants, furiously discussing the war in forums.
Admittedly, I’m no expert on either the history or reasons behind why guys like to risk death and limb-loss running on train tracks and climbing buildings to draw on shit, but I became pretty obsessed with Robbo. Somehow I got hold of his number and we agreed to meet for an interview. Expecting a nice pub sit down, I was instead greeted by a giant who within about ten minutes of shaking hands was taking me on an impromptu graff tour of North London.
He didn’t seem that concerned that I was for some reason dressed for an evening of cocktails, rather than an evening of screaming down alleyways because an almost seven foot man I’d just met was trying to get me to scale a wall in a mini skirt and boots. In fact, most of the night was spent trying to navigate both black ice and Robbo irritably fireman-lifting me whenever I wasn’t walking fast enough.
The only rest stop was a moment of silent revulsion as he pointed out a Banksy rat that had been carefully preserved with Perspex by the council – meanwhile, his additions to the rat had been neatly scrubbed out. After smashing my knee up and trying to match Robbo for drinks, the night ended with him locking me in his key cutting shop, remonstrating that I was pissing my education away writing shitty blog posts for a site that never paid me (he had a point). By about four in the morning I admitted defeat, and went home with an empty dictaphone.
I did eventually get my comfy interview in a Wetherspoons pub, where he’d come prepared with some choice quotes about slapping Banksy. But after that, he spoke at length about his background, describing himself as creative but shit at school, and “from a family where you either worked or went into crime”. He asked a lot about me flunking art college, before immediately denouncing it as "all for ponces anyway", teasing me about how spoilt I was for having my tuition fees more or less handed to me on a plate. He didn’t really take into account that actually he was a Jack of all the trades you consider training to do, once you realise an arts degree is about as conducive to getting a job as face tattoos.
A Banksy graffiti in Camden that's been painted over by Robbo. via
The (very) romanticised interview went up and I received my first article-related death threat from a butt-hurt Banksy fan. Things were going well. Until I received a series of ominous texts from Robbo demanding I call him. It turned out he was shitting me and loved the article. So we had another long chat that ended with me promising to come to his show at Signal Gallery and agreeing that I’d wear a pair of trainers this time, but that was the last I heard from him.
Months later, I was added to a private Facebook group announcing that Robbo had been put in a medical coma following a severe head injury – a few days before his big gallery opening. My notifications were flooded with personal messages rallying the big man to hang in there, but the prognosis was bad. There was never a great time to wade in and ask his family exactly what happened, but whispers among graff fans ranged from theories that he’d simply taken a bad tumble to that he was the victim of a mysterious attack.
Robbo’s artwork and exhibitions were met with a lukewarm reception. Obviously lots of graff writers have managed to navigate the art world without becoming painfully corny, but Robbo’s stuff was from a world of wildstyle that worked when it was pulling up on the side of a Thameslink carriage, and kind of got lost sitting in a Shoreditch gallery surrounded by punters holding plastic cups. It also felt like lots of the criticism had condescending pangs that art wasn’t, and never will be, the preserve of big working-class guys that liked spray-paint, and whose work wasn’t accompanied by a pithy thesis on why it was art. Apparently he couldn’t compete with, like, a stencil of a soldier armed with a dildo instead of an AK-47 or a child hanging themselves with a Tesco bag ‘cos war and capitalism is bad, yeah?
I doubt Robbo was thinking about the democratisation of art when he was serenely sailing an air-bed across a canal on Christmas day morning, but I like to think he sparked a debate. Clocking out from the mundanities of work to indulge in drawing on stuff seems like a pretty weird form of escapism, until I remember my own escapism of drinking myself into cirrhosis every weekend is probably way more anti-social.
One unusually poetic sentiment Robbo said that stuck with me after I referred to graffiti as “vandalism”, was that you can see it that way or you can see it as someone creating their own landmarks in a city where it’s all too easy to lose your voice. And while I’m not a fan of whoever’s crudely sprayed “TOP CUNT” on my local bus stop, the Team Robbo tags dotted along Regent’s Canal and the huge blocks of colour on the skyline that break up grey train journeys are something I’d never want to see London without.
So for that, thank you, Robbo.