King Robbo was the graffiti artist who became known for the very public battles with his rival Banksy that took place on London’s walls. Despite official opposition to graffiti as an artistic form, King Robbo was one of those who pushed the boundaries of art activism, helping to develop its acceptance in popular culture.
He was born John Robertson in London in 1969. Expelled from school, he worked for his uncle’s building firm. He took to graffiti, he said, as a means of escape. “I’d go out every night and do my 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.”
One of his earliest works, dating from 1985 and titled “Robbo Incorporated”, adorned a wall next to Regent’s Canal, beneath the London Transport Police headquarters. In a location accessible only by water, the piece was as notable for the ingenuity of its creation as for its aesthetics, and it became one of the oldest and best known graffiti pieces in London. It was this work that kicked off the “graffiti wars”, as they became known.
Earlier artworks by King Robbo, including painting on train carriages, especially the “Merry Christmas” train designs of 1988, have since been lost, painted over or scrubbed off, as is the usual fate of these ephemeral creations.
King Robbo and Banksy had met in London during the 1990s. “I was at a place called the Dragon Bar on Old Street,” King Robbo recalled. “When I was introduced to Banksy, I went, ‘Oh yeah I’ve heard of you mate, how you doing?’ And he went ‘Well I’ve never heard of you’ – he dismissed me as a nobody, as nothing. So with that I slapped him and went, ‘Oh what you ain’t heard of me? You won’t forget me now will you?’ And with that he picked up his glasses and ran off.”
The spray-can battle with Banksy began in 2009 when he had overpainted the “Robbo Incorporated” piece, covering it with an image of a workman pasting wallpaper. King Robbo retaliated by painting his name again in large letters over part of the Banksy work. Banksy responded by adding three letters in front of “King Robbo”. “I never wanted to take Banksy’s stuff out, I just wanted to do something tongue in cheek”, he said, “But when he put those three letters, ‘Fuc’, up, that changed things”. There followed a series of overpaintings by Banksy, King Robbo and the local council, resulting for a time in a plain black wall devoid of any decoration.
In March 2011 The Independent’s Matilda Battersby interviewed King Robbo to find out about his forthcoming show and his rivalry with Banksy. “A towering giant at 6ft 8in, he’s as solid as an oak tree, with his face obscured by a dark hood when we first meet,” she wrote. “If I were Banksy I’d be quaking in my boots. And I certainly wouldn’t want to upset him. Which makes the artistic spat played out between these two on London’s streets, the biggest public display of artistic rivalry since Matisse and Picasso, all the more audacious.”
An exhibition of his work at the Signal Gallery in Shoreditch took place in April 2011. But days before the show was due to open, he was found at the bottom of a flight of stairs outside his King’s Cross flat, with severe head injuries. He had been in a coma ever since. A coroner’s inquest was opened on 8 August and adjourned until 3 December.
A documentary, Graffiti Wars, produced by Jane Preston and telling the story of the rivalry between King Robbo and Banksy, was made for Channel 4 and first broadcast in 2011. Preston told The Independent: “I spent quite a lot of time trying to track him down and found him in the shop where he worked. It took a while to establish trust and spent a lot of time with him, travelling and on midnight missions. It gave me an incredible insight into that world. He was an extraordinary character who lit up a room with his talent.”
The Regent’s Canal wall, the site of much of the artistic rivalry, now hosts just a single, large silver and pink letter “R”, in tribute to the late artist. Team Robbo, a group of grafitti artists with whom he worked, responded to news of his death with the message “Peace and respect to Robbo’s close family and friends... the Crew of Team Robbo ... and all his many fans and supporters around the world... Robbo changed the art world… forever!”
John Robertson (King Robbo), graffiti artist: born London 23 October 1969; one son, two daughters; died Hertfordshire 31 July 2014.