In 1985, a well-known graffiti artist known as Robbo colorfully tagged the underside of a bridge running over Regent’s Canal in Camden, North London. One of the first pieces to go up in London (and certainly the longest standing piece in London), Robbo’s piece has become known as something of a landmark piece for graffiti art enthusiasts and taggers alike. Many graffiti artists and taggers are considered lucky if their piece endures for more than a few months. However, for the past 24 years, aside from some toy graffiti and over-tagging, Robbo’s name has remained largely untouched.
Just this past December, change affected not only the scene along the Canal, but this towering testament to King Robbo’s legacy as Bristol-based street artist Banksy returned to London to continue his street art projects. Among them are his rats (a commentary of how the artist is the lowest form of being), a witty phrase evoking political commentary, a boy fishing, and a city worker.
It is the latter of these four project has generated the most amount of controversy lately. This is because Banksy has actually grayed-out a significant portion of Robbo’s locally familiar tag, leaving only strips of it to act as wall paper. The city worker, rather than removing the piece, is pasting it up using tools that traditionally refer to wheatpasters and in fact carrying additional wheatpaste rolls under his arm.
While some have said that this might be Banksy’s way of paying homage to the Robbo piece, from a territorial perspective, this modification comes as a rather biting slap in the face to Robbo- not only because Banksy has painted his own piece over the original, but because he has turned Robbo’s piece into a wheatpaste, a form of street art that is in general very much disliked by aerosol artists. Perhaps it’s in response to the actual slap in the face that Banksy received from Robbo, made public this past year in the book London Handstyles. In it, Robbo described a “tense encounter” between the two. Recalling how he was introduced to Banksy, Robbo claimed: “He asked what I wrote and I told him. He cockily replied ‘never heard of you’ so I slapped him and said, ‘you may not of heard of me but you will never forget me.’”
While internationally renowned street artist Banksy is busy premiering his new film at the Sundance Film Festival, graffiti legend Robbo came out of retirement on Christmas to again defend himself against the slight dealt to him by Banksy in London at the tail end of 2009. (Here it is important to remember that most street artists have teams, so what is going on may not directly deal with a single person.) Not only has Robbo eradicated the last traces of the original Robbo tag (including the rolled up paper under the worker’s arm), but he has written King Robbo (king being the term used to describe a graffiti legend, or one who has earned a considerable amount of street credit) so that it seems as if Banksy’s city worker is painting the tag rather than pasting it up.
A few days later, and the boy fishing along the Canal was altered as well. Rather than pulling out the slimy words “Banksy” from the Canal (originally meant to imply that Banksy was garbage in the way that his rat project implies that artists are vermin), a white sign now hangs from the fishing pole reading “Street Cred,” implying that this is what Banksy has lost by confronting Robbo.
Not since the days of Picasso and Matisse has the art world been so shaken by such a bitter rivalry. It was even said that Picasso hung “Portrait of Marguerite” in a room and threw (fake, thankfully) darts at it with his friends. Similarly, this most recent artistic exchange has caused many in Team Robbo and Team Banksy to take up arms against the other by taking to both online forums and the streets to battle it out. While many graffiti aficionados have lined up in either the Banksy camp or the Robbo camp (mostly arguing art and purpose vs. respect and territory), many are questioning whether the recent modifications are in fact the result of deep seated conflict or if they are simply the product of witty banter. (Some even suggest that this might be a publicity stunt, what with the recent publication of London Handstyles and Banksy’s venture to the Sundance Film Festival to release his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”)
Despite the story presented in London Handstyles, it’s rather hard to say. After all, despite Picasso and Matisse’s bitter rivalry, they spurred each other to new levels of creativity through their competition. Robbo didn’t respond by simply wiping out the Banksy piece and retagging the wall. Rather, Robbo (much like Banksy did for him), left a portion of the original piece by Banksy up while modifying the overall work to his liking (having the artistic “last word,” as you will). From the perspective of this street art academic/critic, Banksy did something that was not only natural in the world of street art and graffiti, but a big favor to Robbo by transforming the piece.
If you Google Robbo, Robbo tags, or Robbo graffiti, you will be hard pressed to find something either on the web or in images section that mention him solely, or provide an image of his tag other than the Regent’s Canal piece. Because Banksy is such an internationally-known name, it can be argued that he has brought Robbo to a more main-stream audience, and therefore inducted this piece (and, indeed, Robbo himself) into the international graffiti and street art scene.
If something becomes a permanent fixture in the landscape, it runs the risk of being taken for granted, and therefore leaves its viewers unaffected and unimpressed. While I recognize that the lifespan of this tag might be impressive to graffiti artists and taggers, once something becomes an accepted part of the landscape, it becomes fair game to street artists. This is because the true definition of street art is to challenge the way we think about our visual landscape through intrisically ephemeral and thought-provoking pieces. By revitalizing this relic, Banksy has forever immortalized it by giving it a new life and a new meaning. Because Banksy breeched the taboo of territory, he made it one of the current hot topics in the graffiti and street art world. Finally, by responding as he did to Banksy, Robbo crossed from the realm of graffiti artist and tagger into the world of street art. In this sense, Banksy has invigorated the environment of Regent’s Canal by changing the dynamic by initiating this creative dialogue and competitive exchange.
Many, including myself, will be tracking Banksy’s movements following the Film Festival and eagerly await to see what (if anything) happens when Banksy returns to London from Park City.