Are there rules to graffiti? That question is at the crux of the fascinating new Channel 4 program Graffiti Wars, which chronicles a long-running feud between a legendary London graffiti artist and an artist whose fame and marketability are unsurpassed in the street-art genre. While the movie tells of an alleged physical altercation between Banksy and King Robbo years ago as one possible motive for the feud, the central question of Graffiti Wars is whether Banksy "broke the rules" of graffiti by altering the last remaining work by 1980s writer Robbo.
Robbo apparently thought so, and engaged in a call-and-response with Banksy:
He responded to Banksy's image of a worker painting over Robbo's piece on a canal wall in north-central London by replacing his old mural with the words KING ROBBO.
To that, Banksy or his fans replied, adding a FUC before KING.
Banksy's infamous "I don't believe in global warming" piece was likewise modified by Robbo, who reportedly canoed to the site in a confiscated canoe (paddling with his hands) to alter the message to read: "I don't believe in global war," with the added note, "It's too late for that, Sonny." He signed it Team Robbo.
The back-and-forth continued from late 2009 and into 2010, with some of Banksy's more famous works getting Robbo retouches. Eventually, as the film tells, things got uglier, with Banksy's fans threatening Robbo (someone added a "Die Robbo" tag to one piece) and Robbo altering one of Banky's trademark rat pieces to give homage to Blek le Rat, the Parisian graffiti artist who pioneered both street stenciling and rat imagery in the '80s: Banksy Le Rat.
While Banksy once acknowledged his debt to Blek, the French artist doesn't seem to share the sentiment. "I'm not sure about his integrity," says Blek in Graffiti Wars about the appropriation of his style and imagery. Blek, whose website says he's the "original stencil pioneer," also doesn't get the same kind of props in the art world. The Deitch-curated Art in the Streets exhibition at LA MOCA dissed Blek altogether, as Carolina Miranda wrote in her ARTnews review of the show: "British prankster Banksy is given a sprawling space for an installation that includes a steamroller, stencils, and a taxidermied dog apparently relieving itself, while Blek Le Rat, a pioneer in the stencil form whose tongue-in-cheek images predate Banksy's work by at least a decade, is left out entirely."
The program -- which includes interviews with Ben Eine, Robbo, Blek le Rat and others -- concludes with Robbo starting to see some Banksy-style success of his own. After criticizing Banksy's lucrative career and his lack of "street cred" Robbo winds up with a solo show at a gallery that helped launched Banksy's commercial career, and gets a commission to do a giant mural to promote a film at the Berlin Film Festival. Unlike Banksy, who didn't make an appearance at the Oscars when Exit Through the Gift Shop was nominated, Robbo attended the film's premiere, wearing a suit and a mask to hide his identity, to vamp for the cameras on the red carpet.
But that seems to have been the end of his rise, at least for now: A few days after filming for Graffiti War finished in April, Robbo was found unconscious with serious head injuries near his home and put into an induced coma. Robbo has been released from the intensive care unit, the London Standard wrote last week, "but his condition is not thought to be improving." As Team Robbo plans a fundraiser Sept. 4 to raise funds for Robbo and his 17-month old daughter, Banksy is being urged to donate a work for auction. He reportedly hasn't yet responded to that request.