Graffiti wars


There is a grand tradition of animosity and grudge amongst any era's foremost artists. Just think of the squabbles between Picasso and Matisse or even Michelangelo and Leonardo. But these cultural showdowns rarely take place on the towpath of the canal in Camden Town  until now.

King Robbo was one of the UK originators of graffiti art and, to other artists at least, is a bit of a legend. Banksy is the Bristolian who took the practice overground and made a fortune in the process. Now there is a battle for the spray can throne and it's being played out on the walls of north London's bridges. Or so it seems.

Few art forms split opinion like graffiti. To some it is heavy with youth, self expression, rebellion and urban attitude. To others it is nothing more than miserable vandalism, wrecking the appearance of precious communities. I would suggest it can be both.

The word 'graffiti' is from the Italian for a message scratched into the surface of stone. And perhaps that's the difference. It would be very difficult to argue that the trend for 'tagging'  a rough sprayed signature  involves any message greater than 'I Woz Ere' (a popular graffito in the UK in the 70s). And while that might be significant in terms of gang territory, it barely qualifies as a message.

However, the legitimate murals commissioned for public places, the witty alteration of political and commercial posters and, yes, the work of Banksy can claim to be carrying a message of sorts. King Robbo stands somewhere in the middle.

Robbo's ability isn't in question. If you have ever tried to draw or write the most simple shape with a spray can, you'll know how difficult it is to produce a multi-coloured, layered and textured image using these materials. And Robbo's work, in the tradition of the original New York graffiti B-boys, is particularly striking and noticeable. Mostly, though, the image is little more than his name.

Banksy is from a different 'school'  stencilling.  Influenced by the Parisian Situationist movement and latterly, the design styles of early UK punk, Banksy's creations actually take place in the safety of a studio, where his images are carved out of linoleum. Only then are they transferred to a wall, bridge or building with the ubiquitous spray paint. So, in all honesty, the two artists are not executing graffiti in quite the same way.

Nevertheless, when Banksy (or at least it is assumed to be him  anonymity is all in the graffiti world) defaced a Robbo 'masterpiece' which had stood almost untouched for nearly 25 years, there was trouble. The stencilist had added the image of a council worker papering over the Robbo work and to some, this was sacrilege.

Over Christmas 2009, revenge was taken and the words 'King Robbo' were restored to the artwork. Whether this was the work of the 'King' or his courtiers, isn't known.

As you might expect, the temptation proved too much for the man from Bristol and he returned to prefix Robbo's title with the letters 'FUC'. This was accompanied by six other pieces along the Regent's canal, perhaps to further assert his superiority.

And there the story may have ended had it not been for the multitude of online graffiti forums. There was some defence for Banksy, but for the most part, the spraying community could hardly contain its outrage - which is interesting.

Surely defacement is in the very nature of graffiti  indeed, it could be defined as artistic defacement. Banksy's work is very often defaced, sometimes in an artful way, often with tags or council chemicals. And it would seem he accepts this as an occupational hazard  even though each piece is worth thousands of potential pounds. This is the graffiti game and surely Mr. B is simply playing it, with some wit and no little irony?

Robbo, or at least his online supporters, appear to be taking a strangely purist stance over an art form that is always temporary and has a history of ongoing alteration. Had Camden Council erased it, they would have some justification in crying 'philistine'  but it takes a very inartistic outlook to miss the humour in Banksy's adjustment. If they want their art protected by severe looking guards, there are thousands of works in hundreds of secure galleries. But graffiti's intention has always been to oppose this stuffy, elitist arrangement.

A final thought. It is not beyond imagination that King Robbo and Banksy spotted the benefit of a joint enterprise. Neither is a stranger to self-publicity and both, like all artists, have a need to maintain their profiles.

So, as this graffiti war rages, it is just possible there will be two winners, because the whole escapade was designed that way.

Magnus Shaw - copywriter, blogger and consultant


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