My art’s a load of old rubbish – Robi Walters recycles trash into designs

Making money was something artist Robi Walters once shied away from. His dazzling kaleidoscopic collages, made from discarded rubbish, are owned by Sir Paul McCartney, Usain Bolt and U2, and now sell for tens of thousands of pounds.

But the arrival of financial success caused him fear and guilt instead of pride and happiness.

“In my childhood, I thought I had done something so bad and wrong that I felt I was unworthy,” he admits. “I constantly punished myself internally.”

We are speaking at London’s Quantus Gallery where the 50-year-old recently launched his new solo show, A Nation of Millions. He creates his ­extraordinary pieces with­ ­packaging and greeting cards found in skips and street corners, hand-cutting them into tiny petals before layering the shapes into entrancing geometric designs.

By turning rubbish into ­beautiful works of art, Robi makes something wanted again – and his motivation stems from his own tragic loss.

When he was five years old, Robi escaped a house fire in South London that killed his brother, Lee, aged three. At the time, they lived with their teenage mother, beset by personal trauma and ­unable to cope.

“It was chaotic, there were ­people doing things they shouldn’t have been doing which I witnessed,” says Robi, who is softly spoken and gentle. That fateful night, the brothers discovered they were home alone.

Downstairs, they found a box of matches and began to flick them into a straw bin. Before long, it caught fire. The boys tried unsuccessfully to douse the flames with pans of water. The front door was locked so Robi and Lee retreated to their mother’s front bedroom.

“I was screaming out of the window,” Robi recalls. “My brother said he was going to go and get the stepladder because I couldn’t get him up and out of the window as he was too small.”

A man ran towards the house. “He screamed, ‘jump’ not realising someone else was inside,” says Robi. “I kept saying, ‘My brother, my brother’ but he kept telling me to jump.”

Robi leapt out of the window. When the fire brigade arrived, they found Lee wrapped up in bed. He had succumbed to smoke inhalation and couldn’t be saved. His lifeless body was brought into the ambulance where Robi begged the paramedics to save him.

“I discovered later through ­therapy that I mentally stepped inside that ambulance and I never came out,” Robi says.

“My life was restricted to a very small space with a cocktail of unworthiness and guilt. It’s a nasty mixture for a child without access to help.”

Robi is mixed race – his mother is black – and he briefly lived with his Jamaican grandparents before he was fostered by a white couple, Val and Rob Reece, in South West London.

His distressed mother couldn’t care for him but Robi was unable to ­understand her absence. The transition to an all-white environment added to his sense of displacement.

“I thought my mum was angry at me and that triggered a specific set of nightmares I had every night for years,” Robi says.

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Unbeknownst to Val and Rob, he spent every evening on bended knee with the same heartbreaking request: “Please, God, kill me or make me special.”

Today he explains: “I prayed because I knew I had to get into bed and have a nightmare. It was horrific, it was like torture.”

His foster parents showered him with love and gave him stability – he calls them “lifesavers” and they remain close – but Robi struggled with guilt.

In his mind, he had been Lee’s protector, walking him to his ­nursery alone before school and checking on him at night during stays in children’s homes.

“I was already responsible and that’s why it hit me so hard because I thought I was responsible [for his death],” says Robi. It was not until his forties that he was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Art became his release and, in that respect, he was saved and became something special: a talented world-class artist.

Robi always drew but it was the wave of graffiti, hip-hop music and breakdancing crossing over from America to Britain that sparked his creativity.

He studied graphic design at what is now the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham and worked for influential graphic designer Ian “Swifty” Swift.

He started making collages in 2007 and soon amassed an A-list of clients including Bryan Adams, Michael Bublé, Thandiwe Newton and Robert Rinder.

Fame doesn’t interest him – he spends his spare time running art workshops for disadvantaged ­children. But he was starstruck after meeting his all-time favourite F1 driver, Nigel Mansell, at one of his shows during his time as Aston Martin’s artist-in-residence.

“I was almost beside myself as I really looked up to this man,” Robi says.

Today, he still sees his birth mother. She is his closest but most complicated relationship. “Life is difficult for her,” he says. “I’ve tried with all my might not to have a difficult life, I almost religiously keep it to the straight and narrow so I’m there for my family.”

He has a nine-year-old son with his partner, plus a son, 20, and a daughter, 17, from a previous relationship. He protects his children but “pushes them out of the nest with slight ­uncomfortableness” so they are resilient.

“I had the entire world thrown at me constantly in terms of what the human can take, from the age of nought to eight,” he says. “It moulded me in a way that I have no regrets and I wouldn’t change a single thing about it because it’s made me who I am.”

Robi rarely has nightmares now and has learned to fly in his dreams. Has he relinquished the guilt of Lee’s death? “Fully? Probably no, most of it, probably yes,” he admits. He has one photo of him, which he treasures.

Robi tells me one of his main aims for his new show is to find buyers. “For me to exist and to keep going, I have to sell my work,” he says. “I’m not afraid of that any more.”

  • Robi Walters: A Nation of Millions is on now at Quantus Gallery, London, until November 14; visit

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