I ordered a Budweiser and anxiously looked at my mobile. It was 7:50pm on a Friday night and Robbo has agreed to meet me at the Princess of Wales pub in Primrose Hill, London*. This friendly little pub was filled to the rafters with people who had gathered to watch the world cup on the two TV screen at either end of the bar. I didn’t have a good view of the entrance so I grabbed my drink and went outside where I was quickly joined by Robbo – a huge stature of a man with shaved head, a white ‘Team Robbo’ tee-shirt which he had designed himself, shorts and trainers. I spent the next few hours learning more about this old school graffiti legend who has been thrust back into the spotlight. –Helen Soteriou
Helen Soteriou: Can you tell me about your background and how you got into graffiti?
Robbo: I’m from Scottish and Irish decent but I was born in London. I am a Londoner, a true Londoner.
I got into writing my name back in the late ‘70s during the punk and skinhead movement. I was a skinhead, like most of the guys round my way. They all used to write an ‘O’ at the end of their name. You had skinhead writers like ‘Wilko’, ‘Bozo’, and ‘Rolo’ and that was where it began for me, I wrote ‘Robbo’.
I used to hang about with the bigger lot and I was about 9 or 10, and it just progressed from there. I just kept doing it. I was writing around the estate, on the buses, on my way to school and on my way home.
I just liked seeing my name everywhere.
What does graffiti mean to you?
It is a love affair. It always has been. It has been my mistress. I love graffiti. I love the rawness of graffiti – the original graffiti. You just go out there and express yourself and not really care about what other people thought …and be creative.
I think it has been milked down a bit nowadays, but I still love graffiti and I love all aspects of graffiti from the bombing to the piecing and everything.
What does it mean to be so highly regarded in graffiti circles?
It is humbling. You don’t realise how big you are at the time. You know you are big. You know you are up there. There are so many competitions and people battling each other and they want to be the best but they don’t like to admit that they respect you, because we were all young. We were teenagers and young adults. There was a lot of testosterone. That’s how it was. Years later and people have chilled out, it’s like everyone has got a lot of love for me and it’s humbling. I really do like the way I am held in peoples regard.
Sources say that you moved away from the scene when you started your own family – is this true?
It is true to a certain extent. The first couple of years when the kids were young, I was still graffing quite hard, but then my life moved in a different direction. I was working to support my family.
To me, to be a good graffiti writer you had to live it 24/7. You would go out raking paint and go out bombing yards. You had to have your finger on the pulse. When I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t live it to the full and get-up the way I used to, then it is sort of like, I have done everything, I’ll take a back seat now. I’ll do the right thing. I’ll just get up here and there, little blants, you know, but things have started to change for me now.
What is your current situation – are you still active, would you like to do more – indoors and out?
I used to love doing the trains. That is what I used to do. Now that is sort of gone. I can’t do that, especially being in my position. I have three children. I have got a business. I can’t afford to go to prison again…but that is my real love affair – the trains.
So I’m out. I’m doing my bits and pieces. I’m getting a good buzz out of doing it but it is not going to be the same as it was.
If someone offered you a gallery show, would you consider it?
If you can get money out of something you love then why not.
There is a demand for me at the moment. I am getting head-hunted by a lot of different galleries approaching me with opportunities. I think ‘why not give it a go. Just see what happens’.
You only get a few chances in life and this is a chance. I want to see where it takes me.
You have been thrown into the media spotlight overnight because of Banksy’s actions – why do you think he painted over your piece?
A friend of mine had a book coming out called ‘London Hand Styles’. It was different to all the other books. It was all about tagging and bombing. So he approached me and asked me to give him some photos and he wanted to get some quotes off me. I was happy to oblige. I was reminiscing and then all of a sudden he asked me what happened with Banksy, and I had said that we had had a fall-out in the 90s when he was a cocky young fella. I reinstated that in that book, and I think it came out September last year.
December of last year, a couple of months later, Banksy decided to go over probably the oldest piece still standing, which was from the 80s and it was from a completely different era. It might have been tagged and bombed but it was still a part of history, whether it was mine or not. So for him to have such a big ego to think he can swipe that bit of graffiti history and use it for his own gains, I just could not put up with that.
I think he did that as a litte ‘f*** you’ to me thinking I would not come back doing anything because I have been out of the game for a while. He didn’t like that I released a story in a friends book, so that was his little way of getting back at me…plus he had a film coming out two months later and he knew it would cause such a storm, and it was going to get him a lot more press and people talking about him again…but he was totally out of order, as far as I’m concerned, and as far as real graffiti writers are concerned.
It was a sort of win-win situation for him. He thought he was getting one over on me and having the last say, and having people talk about him again just before his film come out, so that is what I thought it was all about really.
What would you say to all those people who think it is a publicity stunt?
No, I’m not Banksy.
That first happened when some people on Banksy’s forum went ‘Robbo has took it the wrong way’. ‘Banksy is paying homage to him’. If Banksy was paying homage to me he would have left the roll saying my name on it, so everyone would have known it was my piece that he used, but he totally wiped that bit out and he used it for his own gain.
Then in amongst all these, comments like ‘it has been the best piece of work that he has done for a long time’ and ‘I think it might be a collaboration between the two’ … the first time I read about it was on the forum, and then recently about 6 weeks / 2 months ago there was a rumour going around that it was started by his PR team, and I really do believe that. They are not silly people. I thought the way that they would want to get out of it is to spread the rumour saying it is a collaboration, by saying that Banksy is the bigger and better guy by helping out an old school legend like myself, getting me a higher profile, and just doing me a favour. I really believe that rumour was started by and spread by his pr team…but it just a rumour.
Do you think there will ever be a reconciliation? If Banksy approached you now what would happen?
Banksy will not do that because his ego is too big. You know what I thought he might do? I thought he would do a big me up piece. It would have made him look better – like he is the bigger man – in his circles, for street art fans, and gotten credit from graffiti artists.
Do you have a message for Banksy?
You have woken-up the wrong person. You woke me up, you bought me back. I think you realised it was a mistake to start this. It has back-fired and now you have to deal with the fall out whether you like it or not.
Who inspires you?
I follow the old school rule. I respect anyone that deserves respect. In all my time I don’t think I have had a fall-out war with anyone. I respected other writers and other writers respected me. There is a code of conduct. There are certain things you didn’t want to do and certain things that if you did them you would become crossed-out and dogged out.
I’m from the old school mentality: live and let live and we are all in this together and we all fight for the same cause. Nowadays this has changed. There are a lot of street and stencil artists that see that Banksy earns a lot of money and they emulate and copy and try and be like him, and they are just in it for the money and good luck to them, but at the end of the day that is not graffiti. You get into real graffiti for the love of graffiti.
What is next for Team Robbo?
I have about 4 more of Banksy’s lined up.
At the moment I am just having fun.