As residents of the city of Nottingham, we know his legend better than most. A hero of English folklore, Robin Hood is as important today as he ever was. A crusader against social injustice, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, he was a powerful symbol of hope for the downtrodden in medieval times. Whilst today in Nottingham he may be of more value economically speaking, drawing in an estimated 300,000 overseas visitors to the city each year, he continues to be canonised in popular culture. Played by modern screen greats such as Connery, Costner and now Crowe – who is set to embody the icon in Ridley Scott’s upcoming epic, Nottingham – his story of sacrifice for the greater good remains as compelling as ever.
Interestingly, however, rumours surrounding the newest Scott-Crowe collaboration suggest a departure from the predictable pantomime characters of The Prince of Thieves; Robin will become the villain while the Sheriff will step into the role of the good guy. On second thought, that is not at all inappropriate. Whether we like it or not, our so-called hero was, after all, an outlaw, a criminal, but as far as popular representations go, Robin has been largely excused of his illegal activities. This would seem to suggest that questionable means can be justified by the achievement of laudable ends.
Moving to the present day, we see ever more people following Robin Hood’s example, taking matters into their own hands and pursuing what they see as right with full vigour, consequences be damned. Consider for example, Fathers for Justice, the political pressure group working toward stronger paternal rights. It is hard not to sympathise with such a worthy cause despite it being brought to our attention through illegal methods. Upon further research, I uncovered many other modern day Robin Hoods whose diverse interests range from street art to sifting through bins, but who are all deserving of their own Ridley Scott epic.
Our first example was brought to my attention courtesy of comedian, Griff Rhys Jones. In his recent television series documenting the greatest cities of the world, he journeyed to Paris where he met with members of the ‘Untergunther’, a faction of the infamous ‘les UX’ responsible for restoration projects. This clandestine organisation devotes its time to restoring Paris’ extensive heritage sights. Their achievements to date include the renovation of a defunct government bunker and the restoration of a 12th century crypt, as well as parts of the underground Catacombs in the Left Bank area of the city. The organisation’s real coup however, came after they unveiled the results of a year-long operation in one of the city’s most celebrated monuments. Unbeknownst to employees and security services at the Panthéon, these ‘cultural guerrillas’ were able to establish a workshop (with internet access) on the premises and set about restoring the building’s broken antique clock. Going public only to ensure their work would be maintained, they were subsequently detained by the Parisian authorities, only for the case to be dismissed by a judge after just twenty minutes’ deliberation. So thankfully, this complicated network of highly-skilled individuals was free to continue being the proverbial thorn in the side of the French police and the Robin to their Sheriff.
Whilst restoration is surely a very noble and worthwhile act, there is something to be said for doing something totally new. If, like me, you were ignorant of the existence of ‘clean’ or ‘reverse graffiti’, it is the practice of creating street art on dirty surfaces using cleaning fluids, scrubbing brushes and at its most sophisticated, power hoses. Authorities have reacted in a somewhat bemused fashion to this activity, some insisting it is tantamount to vandalism but unable to arrest an artist for simply cleaning a dirty wall. Notorious clean graffiti artists include Leeds-born Paul ‘Moose’ Curtis and Brazilian Alexandre Orion, both of whom attempt to highlight the pollution, dirt and general lack of cleanliness in urban environments. The latter caused a great deal of discomfort for authorities in Sao Paulo when he began an ambitious reverse graffiti mural of hundreds of skulls in one of the city’s transport tunnels. His image was intended to remind drivers of the harmful effect of their vehicle’s emissions on the environment and his message didn’t go unnoticed. After days of work, with police unable to stop him permanently, authorities were forced to clean the entire tunnel to eradicate this provocative image. Furthermore, in a preventative measure, the thoroughly embarrassed authorities took the decision to clean every single tunnel in the city. Though not technically a criminal pursuit, although undoubtedly disruptive and subversive, clean graffiti artists operate in intense conditions, aware that their ‘art’, like in Orion’s case, will most likely be removed. Such dedication and commitment to the diffusion of Green ideals should without a doubt be commended.
Staying with the theme of street art, it is unlikely that many are ignorant of the existence of Banksy. The graffiti artist who to this day remains anonymous began his career in the 1990s, in his hometown of Bristol, but perfected his easily recognisable stencilling technique more recently and in more varied locations. Original Banksy works can now be seen in London, Los Angeles, New Orleans and even on the wall segregating Israeli and Palestinian territory. Often satirical in nature, Banksy’s graffiti has been applauded by the general public, although opposed by authorities, who have removed several of his images – notably ‘Pulp Fiction’ which was removed by Transport for London in April, 2007. In his old stomping grounds of Bristol, however, the council has elected to preserve what they ascertain to be original Banksy works due to their important contribution to Bristol’s revival as a young and vibrant destination. Given that it is now the setting for popular teen drama Skins, their strategy seems to be paying off. Similarly, tourists in Paris are now able to take alternative walking tours to explore the urban art scene of the city, which is home to artists such as the dubiously named, ‘Jeff Aerosol’. Though not necessarily an operation intended to benefit the greater good, such works are a perfect example of freedom of expression in practice. Using this medium, Banksy and his European counterparts have not only brought politics to a new and younger audience, they have generated revenue by enhancing the culture of their environment.
A less artistic pastime is that of ‘gleaning’, brought to the world’s attention thanks to a film released in 2000 by French filmmaker, Agnès Varda. Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (in English ‘The Gleaners and I’), documented individuals rummaging through bins, crates left over from street markets, supermarket surplus stores and garbage dumps, and appropriating the discarded items that no one else wanted. As bizarre as ‘gleaning’ might sound, there is a sensible rationale at its core. Supermarkets dispose of huge amounts of food that have extended their display date though are still edible and households throw away furniture that is in perfect working order every time they redecorate. As a society we are horrendously wasteful, so it makes sense that if someone can derive utility from something we no longer want or need, it should be recycled. Yet to salvage items from someone else’s garbage is considered a criminal offence under Section 1 of the Theft Act, and though an unlikely eventuality, equivalent to a maximum sentence of three years imprisonment. A friend recently told me that a form of ‘gleaning’ is happening right here in Nottingham; groups use the leftover Supermarket produce to create gourmet meals, in order to emphasise just how inefficiently modern society utilises its resources. Although it’s not something I can see catching on, it at least serves as a reminder to dispose of our rubbish responsibly and attempt to reduce wastage.
The most satisfying aspect of this research was discovering that in large part these promoters of subversive culture, our modern day Robin Hoods, tend to shun the limelight. Admittedly, it’s all too easy to class all celebrities who actively engage in charitable works or promulgate green behaviours as usurers, especially given the good work and influence that stems from it, but there is something refreshing about genuine attempts at preserving anonymity. In today’s modern society, where tyranny and injustice are generally no longer tolerated, these contemporary Robin Hoods and their lack of ulterior motives have become our powerful symbol of hope.