F*ck Banksy, This Is The Real Story Of Team Robbo

Forget the war with Banksy, Team Robbo exclusively detail the rise of King Robbo and the roots of graffiti...
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Forget the war with Banksy, Team Robbo exclusively detail the rise of King Robbo and the roots of graffiti...

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Team Robbo is a graffiti crew – an organic collective with unwritten rules, which has now become a movement and a network – driven by shared values. Although the name is the signum, the essence is not about self-promotion. It is the action itself, and graffiti writers admire and respect each other, based on these actions.

It is widely known that Team Robbo is the brainchild of ‘King Robbo’, a legend of the London graffiti scene, but knowledge of the subject stops right there for most people. Flashing back to the 80s, Robbo was a key proponent of ‘The London Style’ and a member of several crews including the infamous crew - WRH (We Rock Hard). Today, Robbo’s co-writers, all legends of the scene in their own right: Doze, Fuel, Prime, PIC and Choci-Roc have joined with other artists, such as Pranksky and Elinros, expanding the core Team and the creative bandwidth of the collective.

In addition to classic graffiti, a digital mutation has taken form through Pranksky’s virtual ‘Prank Sky Media’, which provides a philosophical and sociological reflection with a comedic slant and Elinros’ soundscapes, which take a similar position, lie on the border between reality and fiction with samples of dialogues, situations and beats. What does this say about Team Robbo? Well in short, Team Robbo was created as a reaction to a congested, uptight and predictable art world.

The joke behind the scenes was that in the early days, ‘Team Robbo’ was actually just Robbo himself.

The joke behind the scenes was that, at least in the early days, ‘Team Robbo’ was actually just Robbo himself. Robbo had the idea of graffiti ‘fighting back against street art’ - a modern day David, pitched against a Goliath of the street art world. His choice of crew name is entertaining in its relationship to the sophisticated world of ‘contemporary street’, where graffiti writers and street artists suddenly found themselves in the shadow of one big brand: Banksy, and one artistic technique, the stencil.

Not until the late 90s had street art itself received recognition as a valid art form and its route into the realm of contemporary fine art - the galleries and museums - did indeed seem to require the expert navigation that is typified by those ‘gift shop’, back-door techniques. When everyone (and their dog) simply must have a screen print, a ‘Time Out’ poster, or in the worst case scenario a drinking mug sporting an image created by their favorite street artist, we know that an artist has been ‘successful’.

Somehow Duchamp always eluded Mr and Mrs Smith and they probably still can’t understand him to this day, but everybody has quickly engaged with left of field newcomers such as Ben Eine and Ai Weiwei, outsiders that have come to be rapidly endorsed by the contemporary art establishment.  How individual artists and art movements reach public recognition is a thesis in its own right, but it is interesting to touch on this subject, because graffiti has so often been ignored by the mainstream - just acknowledged occasionally by photographs in glossy, coffee table books. No matter how difficult it is for the art world to accept ‘real’ graffiti, it is an art form that has been around for over 2000 years. The powerful mechanism of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital’, which helps to maintain existing cultural values and norms, has perhaps managed to keep graffiti blacklisted; if all you need is a pen or a spray can to be an artist, then what happens to the prestige of the highly educated artist? After all, for some, the art world primarily revolves around this obsession with the concept of prestige.

Robbo himself acknowledges that it was Banksy who gave him ‘the kick up the arse’ to make a come-back into the writing scene when he created a piece of street art over Robbo’s now quintessential ‘Robbo Inc’ piece, next to the Camden Canal in December 2009. Given the etiquette of the graffiti world, that is well known to most writers and street artists, there is considerable speculation about Banksy’s motives for engaging with Robbo’s original piece and he probably did not anticipate the explosive effect that his artistic intervention would have.

No matter how difficult it is for the art world to accept ‘real’ graffiti, it is an art form that has been around for over 2000 years

Initially there was the feeling that the pair enjoyed the attention that their artistic spat generated, but as time has worn on, the ongoing feud has generated into ‘war-weariness’ on both sides. A wallpapered version of ‘Robbo Inc’ re-appeared in the exact same spot in December 2011 but it is not entirely clear how that happened. In the documentary ‘Graffiti Wars’, broadcast by Channel 4 in 2011, Blek le Rat was shown to have pioneered stenciled street art back in 1981, a technique later adapted by street artists worldwide - the technique finally permeating public consciousness in the late 90s.

‘Stencil-based graffiti’ became ideologically separated from ‘old school graffiti’ and thus ‘street art’ was born. Street art has been widely embraced by the public, perhaps simply because it often contains figurative elements, as opposed to the text roots of graffiti, making it far easier for Mr and Mrs Smith to relate to the artworks.

Counter to expectation, Robbo is flexible in his use of media and techniques and although he is an amazing ‘free-hand pro’ with an aerosol - he sometimes uses stencils himself, when he feels that their use is appropriate. For Robbo and Team Robbo, love for creativity and freedom is the message and the drive and the mission is to brighten up our streets; to create freely in the world. In the open spaces of a city, creative thoughts can flow freely and evolve. There is an inevitable collision between writers’ interests and a typical Council’s agenda. Since cities (not people) are mainly designed around consumerism, big open walls are usually taken over by large billboards carrying paid advertising. There is a striking similarity between a company’s commercial logo and a graffiti writer’s tag and perhaps we should consider whether graffiti is a natural consequence of a society based on a series of questionable ideals - a society that prioritizes capital above creativity, compassion and human values and over-commercializes the work of certain artists until their work becomes nothing more than another saleable commodity. From this viewpoint, it is interesting to see how street art has become entirely embedded into the commercial mainstream. Certain street artists have been highly adept at promoting their commercial work via this means and for them, the street has become an efficient means of ‘advertising’ - wake up Shoreditch! What happens to the political message when the accused shines up in the light of the accusation and reduces the rhetoric to a sweet and funky little idea?

Street artists are used to transposing their work into an art gallery and for Robbo; this has always been a thrill but something that needs to be treated with a degree of caution, because for the graffiti world the art establishment is associated with the establishment in a wider sense.  However in his eyes the main thing is to fill as many walls as possible with art and how sweet is this revenge for Robbo, who has had almost all of his life’s works removed from walls by those men in fluorescent yellow suits. At first glance, it appeared as if Team Robbo was ‘selling out’ to the commercial world (hence the title of Team Robbo’s 2011 show at the Signal Gallery - London: ‘The Sell-Out Tour’). Ultimately Robbo loves ART, wherever it is located and he is grounded enough to understand that gallery shows are just a normal part of the artistic process, so long as the street is still a venue for his work as well. In any case, in the graffiti frame of mind, a wall is simply another ‘canvas’ - period - and the main motive is not to break the law, but to express creativity and to enjoy the thrill in the making of a piece. In the visual language of graffiti, text and letters are the fundamental starting point for creative expression and to the untutored eye, this form of expression can appear as the simple repetition of a simple word or tag. To be able to appreciate old school graffiti one must have a sincere love for and an understanding of letterforms, colours, patterns, shapes and lines. In that sense graffiti is like any other contemporary art form; it requires a degree of education by the viewer (but not a fine art degree).  Clive Bell, the English art critic who was associated with formalism in aesthetics, would probably have had much to examine in the field of graffiti and its endless variations of ‘significant forms’ since it does indeed arouse ‘aesthetic emotions’ that creates very strong bonds between graffiti artists and their admirers.

Team Robbo have become representatives for the graffiti world and it’s clear that this art form has now begun to re-assert its presence. The media sometimes portrays Team Robbo as reckless hooligans or even as an unknown terrorist group, however the reality is that throughout the world, as with others in their community, they are astonishingly creative writers, artists, philosophers, clowns and poets and not at all the people that the conventional media world expects. Other well known graffiti writers who command substantial respect plus lesser known writers from around the world have now also begun to identify themselves with the crew and form a series of ‘satellite’ Team Robbo crews. The widespread grass roots support amongst street art and graffiti communities does at times result in a degree of visual anarchy, with the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly, being written in the name of Team Robbo. An international graffiti art movement is never going to be entirely cohesive, which is why this crew will always be more than just a brand - it’s a momentum. The artistic battle that has waged for over two years between Team Robbo and Team Banksy (now a popular way of describing his crew) on both the street and in the media is of course a tongue in cheek ‘war’; in some ways a pointless and absurd struggle, but with a serious sub-text. The ‘war’ has served the useful purpose of flushing out several pre-conceived ideas that surrounded street art and graffiti and has also provided a fresh public perspective, as well as fuelling a vociferous debate. There are still considerable layers of visual prejudice and hypocrisy that operate within the legal framework around graffiti. At least this has now been exposed for what it is. A bizarre situation has been maintained, where some writers are locked up for their creative work, whilst others (generally street artists), are celebrated by our culture and the media.

The media sometimes portrays Team Robbo as reckless hooligans or even as an unknown terrorist group

Despite an unfortunate accident last year in which King Robbo was hospitalized, the Team Robbo Collective moves from strength to strength, with new creative members joining from all possible directions - such as music, fashion, installation art, theatre, poetry, film, product, furniture and even architecture. There are rumours that Team Robbo are planning another exhibition that might just wake up a few sleeping monsters under the streets of Shoreditch. Right now DJ Choci-Roc spreads good vibes on the radio station Kane FM 103.7 and takes his listeners back to a happier, groovier place with the Team Robbo Show. In addition to the high level of rivalry and competition in contemporary street art and graffiti culture, many aspects of Team Robbo reference back to two cultural eras - first, those hippy trippy days of the 60s. Robbo’s ‘Peace Flower’- petal canvases, exhibited at his solo show at the Pure Evil Gallery in 2010 are probably the least thing you would have expected from this monument of a man. Second, there are certain elements of Team Robbo’s output that conjure up memories of that subversive collage of ideas, which was at the heart of so-called Punk Rock culture, back in the 70s.

London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona… We might be about to witness a worldwide re-birth of graffiti. On the street corners of London you can already begin to hear B-Boys murmuring "Team Robbo - All The Way" amongst each other, but history also tells us to expect - the unexpected.

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