Date of Birth: 23 October 1969
Birth Name: John Robetson
Nicknames: King Robbo
King Robbo, who has died aged 44, was one of the founding fathers of London’s graffiti scene but came to wider attention in 2010 when he was involved in a feud with the street artist Banksy.
Creating images on private or public property is for the most part illegal, whether they are the work of graffiti writers who use spray-paint, “tagging” or “bombing” their names, or of “street artists” such as Banksy, who commonly uses stencils to produce representational images on walls. Graffiti writers like Robbo paint only for their peers, while Banksy paints for a much wider audience. The two camps are more rivals than allies.
Robbo, who stood 6ft 8in tall, had begun his career as a graffiti writer in his teens. In 1985, at the age of 15, he had sprayed ROBBO INC on to a wall under a canal bridge in Camden, north London. Twenty-five years later Banksy used the same site to create a series of four stencilled works, in the process obliterating part of Robbo’s original. Banksy’s image showed a workman applying what looked like wallpaper, but was essentially what remained of Robbo’s piece.
A Banksy (left), and the image as transformed by Team Robbo
London’s graffiti writers interpreted this is an act of disrespect towards one of their own. Robbo was by now long “retired”, and working as a cobbler in King’s Cross. But he was sufficiently offended, and on Christmas morning 2009 he decided to act. The wall in question was accessible only from the canal, so he dressed in a wet suit, approached the wall by means of an inflated air mattress, and got to work. Banksy’s workman, instead of applying wallpaper, was now painting the words: KING ROBBO. Robbo went on to alter all four Banksys along the canal, signing them “Team Robbo” (a reference to those who thought of Robbo as the King of London graffiti and were firmly on his side in the war against Banksy).
Other, similar, incidents followed. One of Banksy’s best-known works an image of three children hoisting a Tesco bag “flag” on the side of an Islington chemist’s shop was altered so the plastic bag bore the
tag “HRH King Robbo”.
For his part, Banksy denied painting over Robbo’s work: “I painted over a piece that said 'mrphfgdfrhdgf’. I find it surreal when graffiti writers get possessive over certain locations. I thought that having a casual attitude towards property ownership was an essential part of being a vandal.”
Robbo and Banksy had met one another in the late 1990s in an East London bar, and according to Robbo it was not a happy encounter. He told Will Ellsworth-Jones, author of Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall: “He was nothing at the time. And I said 'Hello, I’ve seen your name about although I hadn’t and he went... 'I don’t know who you are’... So I went bang and give him a backhander. I said 'You might not have heard of me, but you’ll never ******* forget me, will you?’... He was being disrespectful.” Banksy denied that this incident ever took place.
In the tradition of graffiti writers, Robbo opted for anonymity. He was born John Robertson on October 23 1969 into a working-class family in London. As a teenager he was a skinhead and football hooligan: “I used to hang out with the big boys and they used to write their names on walls,” he later said. “They’d always put an 'o’ on the end to let people know they were skinheads. That’s why I became Robbo.”
After he was expelled from school he went to work at his uncle’s building firm; by night, he painted graffiti: “My parents couldn’t understand why I did it. Why do it if there’s no money in it? I couldn’t explain to them that it was my passion for creating art. It was like a dopamine fix, all that adrenaline... I ended up [in 1984] doing a big piece just near [what is now] the Emirates Stadium, just under the bridge on Hornsey Road. I was as bold as brass. It said 'The Master Robbo’ with a Ghostbuster character and a big splat! It was really big.”
During a brief spell at a school in Northamptonshire (his fellow pupils “were all skinheads and mods on Lambrettas”), he started a graffiti crew called The Artmasters, and on his return to London he pursued his developing passion for “train writing”, which had the added attraction of making his work mobile and thus widely seen as tube trains travelled around the city: “I used to go maybe four-five nights a week to the train yard, as much as I could. I went back to using straight letters, New York style, so when the train went past at 40mph you could still read the Robbo... When it’s pitch dark and there are people trying to chase you, you hone your skills really fast. It’s the best art college I could have gone to.” Despite the efforts of the transport police, he claimed never to have been arrested, and he was soon a celebrity in the graffiti community.
Will Ellsworth-Jones recounts how Robbo and some of his fellow writers painted the tube trains at Aldgate East Underground station on Christmas Day 1988 (Christmas Day was a prime time for graffiti, since the rest of the world’s attention was elsewhere): “Robbo... did a recce of the station... locked up a ladder near the spot ready for when they needed it [and] packed a little boom box in his rucksack to provide the music while they painted... One by one they climbed over a high wall from the street, down the ladder, now extended, that Robbo had retrieved and on to the train roof. From the roof they were swiftly down beside the tracks. The CCTV cameras were put out of action, and then the train was all theirs. They chose a carriage each and went to work.” Robbo had even thought to bring along a bottle of Moët & Chandon champagne.
By the early Nineties, however, the police were increasingly cracking down, and Robbo decided to get out: “I had achieved what could be achieved. I was quite happy to take the back seat and live another life.”
Over the past five years, the graffiti writers have started to enjoy a measure of commercial appeal, and Robbo too was tempted by this development. His work has been shown at four exhibitions, including at the Pure Evil and Signal galleries in London. One of his pieces was offered at £12,000.
In 2011 he was returning to his London flat when he apparently fell, suffering a serious head injury; he went into a coma from which he never emerged. The graffiti writing community rallied round to raise funds for his care. An auction raised £30,000 from donated works, and a sale of his own pieces later raised another £28,000.