There’s a war going on all around us. It’s a war between two forms of expression and their battlegrounds are the walls of our cities. Graffiti is viewed as a scourge of society and a criminal act. Street art has come to be loved by the community as it appears in galleries and is collected by the upper echelons of the art community. However, when pitted against each other and though they share common roots, Graffiti and Street Art have very different connotations. Perhaps the best example of this is a graffiti war that took place in a hard to reach tunnel in Camden. Through the artistic battle between King Robbo and Banksy, we understand the inherent ideological differences expressed in the opposing creative approaches of Street Art.
Before you can understand the full scope of conflict, you need to learn about the struggles and motivations of the two opposing sides. When this war began, it started with a simple graffiti tag by King Robbo. He is considered to be a pioneer in the old school graffiti scene in the UK and around the world.[i] He made a name for himself by tagging trains, which are considered to be the most difficult and sought after tagging spots. This trademark of tagging earned him two things that graffiti artists seek. It was both a way to defy authority and to use the trains as moving galleries to be seen by as many people as possible.[ii] Graffiti tags tend to reinforce the male ego and are used as a way to mark the artist’s territory.[iii] The more dangerous or difficult the tag is to make, the more respect the artist commands. The danger and risk involved in creating the tag is merely a bonus. The main payoff for the artist is the creative escape.
The Graffiti tag that was the epicenter of this war was over twenty years old and considered to be one of the oldest Graffiti pieces in London. It was also one of the last surviving King Robbo works. This Robbo piece was partially painted over and the remains incorporated within Banksy’s stenciled Street Art. Banksy stated later that, because the piece was in such a bad state, he hadn’t realized he was painting over a part of London’s history.[iv] Despite what may have been an honest mistake or not, from that point on, it was now a war between Graffiti and Street Art.
Street Art is considered to be a hybrid form of graffiti that utilizes stencils, stickers, posters, sculpture and other media in order to create the artist’s mark and convey their creative statements.[v] Graffiti Art, especially tags, are a vehicle used by the artist to make a statement about who they are while Street Art tends to be more focused on conveying messages about the world at large. Street Art is often used to make political, environmental, or anti-war statements. While these messages and artists are often anti-establishment, they have garnered respect in the art world, none more so than the prolific Banksy.
Banksy is considered to be the world’s best known Street Artist, and just like Street Art, his roots lie in the world of Graffiti. Early on, he realized that he needed to gain speed in order to create his work and grow as an artist. For that he turned to stencils.[vi] This decision is where his ideals as an artist turned away from Graffiti Art values. Stenciling is considered to be cheating in the larger part of the Graffiti community[vii] as it removes the hand of the artist and a large part of the danger involved. However, this also allows the stencil artist to carefully plan out their work and to put further thought and meaning behind it. For example, the Stencil by Banksy in the Camden tunnel could have any number of interpretations. It could be a statement of the commodity of Graffiti, or that Graffiti is staring to become more accepted. It could also be a bit of an insult to Graffiti by saying it is unoriginal and something that can easily be done by anyone. Whatever the meaning, the piece is not just the tag of the artist; it is an image that inspires deeper thought.
Banksy’s Camden tunnel piece also broke one of the cardinal rules of Graffiti art. As King Robbo explained in the Channel 4 documentary Grafitti Wars, “…never incorporate a piece by another artist into your work without that artist’s permission.”[viii] Before Banksy added his contribution to Robbo’s tag, there had already been quite a lot of graffiti drawn over his work by others. However, these were tags in their own right and had never incorporated Robbo’s work into them. In an interview, Robbo stated, “What people don’t realize is that he’d already gone over loads of my stuff before and I hadn’t bothered retaliating but this time it was just so deliberate, so cowardly. If you’ve got the hump about something, you send a message and discuss it like gentlemen, you don’t wipe out a piece of graffiti history. “[ix]
King Robbo retaliated with traditional tag lettering to let Banksy know, in no uncertain terms, that he was encroaching on his territory. He did this in a classic lettering style he is known for working in, and he attacked with the wit, rebellion, and spontaneity that had earned him so much respect back in his heyday.[x] He recreated a tag and incorporated Banksy’s work into it, thus making it look like Banksy was paying homage to him. He turned the tables and the battle lines were now officially drawn.
Banksy stated in his book Wall and Piece that, “Graffiti remains gloriously unspoiled by progress.”[xi] While this is a potentially insulting statement, Banksy underscores a very important point. Like it or not, Graffiti isn’t trying to be anything more than what it is; a statement of the male ego without visceral meaning. Street Art, on the other hand, takes a different creative approach. It uses whatever means necessary to create a commercially acceptable, anti-establishment message that provokes thought in the viewer. The artistic battle between Banksy and Robbo has only begun, but it has revealed that while Street Art has an ideology, Graffiti Art doesn’t need one.
Continued in part two…
[i] Jo Fuertes-Knight, “King Robbo Eclusive Interview: My Graffiti War With Banksy,” Sabotage Times, February 28, 2012 , http://www.sabotagetimes.com/people/king-robbo-exclusive-interview-my-graffiti-war-with-banksy/.
[ii] Channel 4, “Graffiti Wars,” Street Art News video, 46:47, August 15, 2011, http://www.streetartnews.net/2011/08/robbo-vs-banksy-graffiti-wars-full.html.
[v] Banksy. Exit Through the Gift Shop. DVD. Directed by Banksy. USA : Producers Distribution Agency (PDA), 2010.
[vi] Banksy, Wall and Piece (London: Century, 2006), 13.
[vii] Channel 4, “Graffiti Wars.”
[ix] Fuertes-Knight, “King Robbo Eclusive Interview: My Graffiti War With Banksy.”
[x] Matilda Battersby, “The Gloves are off: Graffiti Legend King Robbo has resurfaces to Settle a Score with Banksy,” The Independent, April 21, 2011 , http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/the-gloves-are-off-graffiti-legend-king-robbo-has-resurfaced-to-settle-a-score-with-banksy-2270575.html.
[xi] Banksy, Wall and Peace, 184.