The Wall Street Journal: Banksy vs. Robbo

With the launch of his own underground cinema and cover design of the latest issue of Time Out

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With the launch of his own underground cinema and cover design of the latest issue of Time Out London, UK graffiti artist Banksy has dominated the Brit headlines of late. This time making an appearance across the pond, Banksy’s public contretemps with fellow graffiti artist Robbo has been written about in the Wall Street Journal.

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.

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