An ordinary night, an ordinary pub, an ordinary scenario. Simply some grown men, sipping on pints and watching football. Just snatching a few leisurely moments away from the nest, undoing the strains of work. If you were to walk through the door, you wouldn’t suspect a thing. Only those ‘in the know’ could possibly perceive that these normal grown men, these labourers, shop-keepers, students and chefs are some of London’s most prolific, most wanted, most coveted graffiti writers. Some of the biggest graffiti writers in the country, if not the world. Beyond the gore-tex jackets, Ralph Lauren t-shirts and sullied trainers are some of the most skilled spray-can users of our time. Only the trained eye could tell you this. The small give away; the flicker of silver chrome ricocheted from tin, to wall, to jacket like magic dust. The rattling of the half empty tins inside plastic bags. Accidental, most-certainly-not-for-fashion rips in jeans caused by yet another catch on a three spike fence on a ‘mission’.
And their reason for gathering, here tonight? The reason for this low-key, average, Wednesday night in the pub? Robbo. No more than 30 men congregated together for a Christmas drink in the honour of their good friend who was tragically stopped in his tracks whilst on a very different mission. Just in case you missed the hype, Robbo is one of London’s first graffiti writers who was engaged in a media-spinning war of art with notorious street artist Banksy. A conflict that started with a book entry by Robbo claiming to have hit Banksy for disrespecting him, Banksy retaliating by ‘taking Robbo out’ (painting over) on Camden canal. Not only did he take him out, but the piece in question was one of the oldest in London. The coolest feud to happen in the UK since the Mods vs Rockers was coming to a wall near you. The combat escalated, the feud between the ‘Art-Fag’ and the purist graffiti vandal came to the streets. The writer Ten Foot waged a war against the ‘art fag’ only to be stopped prematurely by a stint in jail for committing vandalism an ‘art fag’ couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Team Robbo tags were thrown about the town. They made a battle that, instead of bloodshed and pain, left behind theatrical, beautiful, awe-inspiring, works of colour, slogans and outrageous hand-styles and the question ‘how the hell did he get up there?’
The age old debate as to whether graffiti was art or vandalism now had a new a spin. This had made the graffiti argument become a whole lot more interesting. It wasn’t about Neas and his crew DPM going to prison for conspiracy to vandalise anymore and whether that was socially correct. The conundrum had evolved. Forget about different types of vandalism fighting each other for the title of the main contender against the feds. What could be called Graffiti? What could be called street art? Was graffiti art? Was Art a crime? Is graffiti REALLY vandalism? Who is king of the writers? Should the so-called ‘vandals’ be revered because they are willing to go to prison for a crime that gains them no money, that maybe no one will ever see and could potentially kill them? On the other hand, should the stencil prevail? The clever, witty, well-thought Freudian sayings and provocative cartoons that seem to wink at you as you walk by, that you may even decide to go into a gallery and actually buy? What about the artists who seem to be allowed to straddle both worlds? Stik? What about EINE?? Previously a train vandal himself and now David Cameron uses his name as an affirmation of his street credibility. To throw another spanner into the works, Robbo himself, THE graffiti writer himself, capitalising on the feud between him and Banksy, unashamedly using his new-found notoriety to earn. The questions and the deliberation hit headlines, Robbo was in the news the day after Christmas 2009, Channel 4 made a documentary, books were published.
Then, out of nowhere it came to a crashing halt.
Just before Christmas, in an un-assuming traditional pub his closest graffiti-writing friends came to celebrate for him, a man who certainly knew how to have a good celebration himself (one of his crews was called We Rock Hard). There, they watched Robbo’s Channel 4 documentary, not for the story or the action shots, but to recreate his presence, to have the big man in the room with them again. After the circus, after the art auction (that will now go down in history and that made a reported £30,000 for Robbo’s fund), after the airing of the documentary, after Robbo’s worldwide ‘Sell-out’ tour Banksy is still a millionaire and young males with their whole lives ahead of them are still getting sent to prison for up to two years for spraying a train or two. What is it with Graffiti? What is it that Robbo was trying to achieve, if anything? One thing you come to learn about writers, ‘real-ones-that-do-the-illegal-stuff’ is that there is no big idea behind it all. There is no hidden message, there are no tortured artists who can only express themselves with a spray-can, there is no plight that must be taken on Braveheart –style. The only achievement they look for is the thrill, a good-night out, one-up-manship on the BTP, a laugh amongst the friends they consider family and a good old fashion bit of hierarchy and earning your stripes. It’s a secretive game who can get to here and paint there? Though commendable amounts of work and perseverance go into a ‘mission’ (a pre-planned graffiti attack) it’s boy’s play. It’s fun. It’s an army with all the fun shit you’re not allowed in the army, but with the same wars both amongst themselves and against an authority. It seems so pointless, yet so poignant.
Ventsmag hooked up with the infamous Drax WD and asked him about Robbo before Team Robbo.
Drax and Robbos first Meeting.
“I was just getting into doing graffiti along the canals and stuff up in Islington like Regents Canal and I used to see Robbo’s tag around, he was already a famous and accomplished graffiti writer I’d see this tag everywhere and I suppose after 6 months of putting my tags near his tags and stuff like that, having a bit of ‘wall acquaintance’ as we call it I eventually met him. He was like ‘oh you’re that guy with the tag nobody can read, initially we didn’t hit it off straight away, I was more of a west end club guy and Robbo was always more of a north London pub guy, he was on a different buzz, it took a while for the friendship to grow initially. Just after we met, a little group of people started coming down to the canal, Choci, me, Robbo Dose and all these people from different groups, Robbo didn’t even know Dose at the time. We started this crew called TDK which meant Tone Def Krew, def as in the D E F hip hop def which is basically a Cambridge sound system that Choci was connected to, they played hip hop and stuff like that, we took the name and used it for graff. We had the name for maybe 3 or 4 months, then Choci took the name on and used it to re-invent himself as a writer called Peanuts and started going over everyone, starting a fake war. When they found out about it, Robbo and Dose and that were really unhappy. In about November 86 TDK had fallen apart and Robbo and Dose had started WRH which is the legendary crew We Rock Hard, it was formed in late 86 and if anyone tells you any different then they been smoking something, I mean I remember them trying to celebrate their 25th birthday a year too early last year, I had to correct them. It’s their crew, they can celebrate when they want, but they’re wrong.”
On Robbo’s Style
“Robbo’s stuff varies a lot these days, I think it’s because when he was writing back in the 80’s his style was very distinctive, over time he’d change his style a little bit, he was a North London wall writer who did pieces down by the canal he then adapted that style when he became a very active train writer. You can’t be doing wall pieces on trains, it looks rubbish and Robbo was talented enough and clued up enough to know that. Wall pieces on trains look shit! After growing up a little bit he moved back onto the wall and his style changed again, then he gave up after 15 years, he was very inactive cos of his kids and family. So when he came back his style changed a little bit. With me I have never been inactive so my style has slowly progressed, or digressed, depending on your opinion of it.”
Were Drax and Robbo the First London Writers?
“In relation to me that’s completely untrue I wasn’t even in the second wave of writers. I mean in 86 I was still an irrelevance, I was only catching a few tags here and there, Robbo had been a king since about 83 maybe 82 and was well known on the walls of Islington. He then painted trains in 85, he wasn’t the first writer in London but he was one of the first famous writers in London. He was initially famous for walls, on what we call the canal scene in north London. Strangely enough where Banksy and stuff like to paint, well not paint, can’t call it that. Well Robbo was one of the first practitioners writing in a crew called the North London artists.”
“He wrote from 83 then became heavily involved in the trains from 86 and then from 86 to the beginning of the PFB era kinda 92, he was very active in all those years doing trains. Then after me and him went to New York in 92 and did trains I think for him it was a bit of a job done, what else has got to fukin achieve? He was king of most lines in London, from then to the late noughties he was very inactive”
What Brought Robbo Back?
“What happened was a year or two before the Banksy incident before a lot of the writers started coming back, people like Blaze suddenly started writing fully, he started finishing what he started, came back like a piece machine out doing about 5 a week. People like Shaze from north London, he stopped in like 86 and he reappeared. I don’t know if it was the internet or people meeting people. I think it was that people had kids back then, then their kids grew up so they got a second wind. So Robbo was out on the scene again hanging out with graff writers and loving the attention he got from people knowing who he was and stuff, he wasn’t actually painting much, he was just out on the scene and interested when the incident with Banksy happened which really fuelled his fire.”
“Robbo coming back was big, because what it did was inspired more older writers to come back out, if anyone else did it it would have been, so what? But because Robbo came back people were like WHAT?? If a guy like Robbo is having stuff then I’m doing some as well. That made people come back out. I’m not sure how much it would have inspired current writers but they were all intrigued to meet him and maybe hang out and graff with him cos he’s a legend, but they were already writing.”
The Robbo Slapping Banksy Incident
“ That was really a bit of an irrelevance. Banksy wasn’t even a famous writer at the time and Robbo was a king and there was a bit of a spat. We had vaguely heard of Banksy at the time, it really was a non-event. It was only a few years later when Banksy got famous that we were like ‘oh that’s the guy Robbo had the altercation with’ so a bit of notoriety came out of it because of who Banksy was and who Robbo was. Then Robbo did an interview for London Handstyles and mentioned the incident which then, because of both their fame’s, entered the street art lexicon or whatever you wanna call it.”
On Street Art
“Street art in the 80’s didn’t exist. We were the street artists in the 80’s. I think street art’s a pile of garbage, I can’t stand it basically. I think it’s art put on a wall, photographed, put in a newspaper and people buy it cos they think it’s something it isn’t. I’m not saying it ain’t good and it doesn’t have a place and I don’t deny those people who wanna go round doing that on walls. Some of it is more talented than some graff I’ve seen, but it’s just a means of advertising something. if you put something on a wall, then the internet say it’s everywhere on the street and then sell a version of it that’s cool, but if that place was legal with permission, then actually how much on the street were you? Really? I mean paint inside a gallery, it’s still a wall. But I’ll paint the outside of the gallery on the wall. If you wanna get the media to sell your name and promote your stuff I don’t really gripe with it, I ain’t impressed by it. As far as getting up, it’s garbage, but obviously they ain’t into getting up, they’re into proliferation, they’re into making money out of what they do. Which, I say, good luck to them. But I also say they’re taking up valuable space, in my opinion to be bombed and have throw ups all over it.”
On the War Between Writers and Street Artists
“What happened was graffiti writers and street artists ( for want of a better term because I believe graffiti writers to be the real street artists) commercial street artists I’ll call them, they clashed obviously. They were clashing for wall space because graff writers are writing their name for no apparent reason other than selfish self-promotion and street artists are putting their name up, sometimes in the name of art, but usually for trying to sell a watered down version of what they got on the wall i.e. a screen print. So there’s a clash for space. You’re a writer, you’re doing sum throw ups, the next day you come along there’s a couple of babies with flowers in their hair all over your work. You’re not happy cos to us its garbage. So this causes a clash when you got two sets of people who don’t respect each other, you know we don’t respect what they do and they don’t respect what we do, it’s a pretty obvious fact and was highlighted in the incident with Banksy. He basically showed complete and utter disregard for the rules of our subculture, which, if he claims to be part of it, is totally wrong. But then, if he don’t claim to be part of it then he’s the leading name in that Genre and I’m a nobody. But if he considers himself a graffer then he’s wrong.”
“Robbo wasn’t looking for commercial gain, the thing is there was already a team Banksy, people who buy that stuff, people who look at that stuff who promote and sell it and have a vested interest in selling it, they’re not supporters, they just have an investment in it. Whilst Robbo was being portrayed as some oik who writes his name on a wall for no reason and can’t do anything else. Graff writers were representing him, so to give them a name, Robbo kind of coined the phrase Team Robbo. It was just a name for his followers, then people started putting up team Robbo as a means of saying they’re not just doing this for self promotion but they’re doing it for the team. Yeah he was trying to go on a certain support, instead of going over Banksy and saying ‘fuck off to Bristol you mug’, which would have been pointless, he went down the road of going over him on behalf of all Graff writers and used the title Team Robbo and others latched onto it. Let’s be honest Team Banksy existed a long time before Team Robbo. Team Robbo was a bit tongue n cheek, like yeah we gotta team too.”
Where is the War Going? Who Won?
“Banksy clearly lost by way of the channel four documentary and again I’m not being personal, I’m viewing through the eyes of the media, because inside that world Banksy exists, outside that world he’s a nobody, he’s not a famous graffiti writer, he’s a famous street artist through the media. Which I’m not criticising and I accept he’s very successful, but if that exists within the media, then the C4 doc completely humiliated him, slaughtered him, called him a plagiarist which basically ripped his career apart at that particular point massively. He lost a bit of credibility through that, he tried to sue them, why else would he try to sue them?”
“So many mad missions with Robbo. Late 86 me him and Dose decided to do Farringdon and no one else had done it so we went to the yard and tried to basically suss it out. Couldn’t figure out any other means of entry, I mean since then we found out loads (laughs). On this particular night we just went into this courtyard, looking back, we couldn’t have possibly chosen a worse entrance to the yard, we went into the courtyard and climbed this fence and started to climb down. Me and Dose got down to the bottom, Robbo had the bag of Paint on his back. So me and Dose got down and a load of track workers started coming along the tracks and a there was a thin layer of snow on the ground, me and Dose laid face down on the ground next to a foot high curb as track workers were banging down with sledge hammers above our heads, we whistled to Robbo, who in the meantime was still hanging off the fence. So these guys pass, we look around thinking Robbo had scaled back up and he’s still there hanging of the fence, hanging 10 feet above where the track bangers where, with this paint on his back cos he wasn’t able to climb back because of the noise it would have made, so he’d hung for ten minutes like a 6 foot 8 spider man with a massive bag of paint on his back. Typical Robbo. I would have fell after about 30 seconds, no clue how he hung there for 10 minutes. So we ran back up off the fence and ran away shitting ourselves. Prime succeeded in being the first to do Farringdon about 2 weeks later.”
“I’ve done graff in about ten countries with Robbo, trains in England, NY, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Germany, France and a tiny bit in Thailand and Cambodia. We’ve been to lots of countries together, but some of them we got too hung up on partying and didn’t do any Graff!”
On Doing Graffiti Now
“The thing with graffiti, everything is relevant to the time, when we did it, we didn’t know it was that easy, we were bricking it, thought we were going to get raided, this is so hot this is the hottest yard on the system, we didn’t think it was easy and think in 20 years time that we would be laughing at these young guys having to deal with helicopters and tracking technology, we thought it was hard. So looking back it was easy, but at the time we were scared, we were kids, but Robbo, he never got nicked in a yard, he always got away, they never successfully brought a prosecution against Robbo.”
We wish Robbo and his family the best of luck in his recovery. If you can, please Donate to the Robbo fund.
Words By Sarah-Jane Bacchus
Photographs Courtesy of Drax WD