Marcus Barnes was the first person ever to be tried for "encouraging the commission of criminal damage," a charge never before heard of or handed out. When police arrested him on December 12, 2011, they were essentially saying that publishing a magazine about graffiti was the same as actively encouraging people to go spray up as much public property as possible. He was eventually cleared in court.
That magazine was called Keep the Faith, and only two issues had been released at the time. Over the course of three years and to the cost of Marcus's psychological and financial well-being, the government's newfound zeal for punishing graffiti was laid bare. Marcus won his case just over a year ago, so he has re-released the magazine as a celebration of the anniversary of common sense prevailing.
I spoke to him about the magazine, his struggles with the law, and graffiti's current position in the UK.
VICE: What was the idea behind Keep the Faith?
Marcus Barnes: I've been a writer for a long time, and there weren't any magazines out at the time that were representing the train graffiti side of things. And also at the time, the authorities' approach to writers was having an increasingly negative effect on everybody. There was a crew called DPM who was followed around, put under surveillance, was allowed to paint at train depots or whatever, and then was put away for one or two years. That whole thing cost the taxpayer £1 million [$1.4 million]. Then a couple of guys died. Ozone and Wants were hit by a train in Barking. So all of this bad stuff was going on, and I thought why not make something that showed people that like, even though you have friends who've died, or friends who've been put away—just keep the faith, because there's still good stuff happening.
You went through bad times with your court case. Can you tell us what that was like?
It was hellish man. I'd been raided a few times doing graffiti, but you kind of expect that, because you know the more you're out there and the more you push it, the closer you are to having police knock down your door and take all your stuff. That's just part and parcel of being an active illegal graffiti writer. But I was about 30 years old, a professional journalist, and hadn't done graffiti in about five years. I had friends who were still active who I hung around with, but I wasn't doing it. At the back of my mind I was thinking, "maybe they will come for me because I'm hanging around with these people, or maybe because my magazine has people doing illegal things they would want details of," but for them to come for me with a charge that had never been used before, for that to be thrown at me, I felt like, "How the hell am I going to fight this?"
How much did it cost to fight it? I heard it was like 28 grand [$39,000] a day for the court fees.
No, that's what it cost the taxpayer. I had to pay £3,000 [$4,160] up front in legal fees that had to be paid whether I won or not, just to have legal representation. But it cost me hope. I had so much uncertainty hanging over my head. I quit my job because I didn't want to have to tell my boss I needed a month off to be in court. I stopped my creative side of things—my writing, my graffiti,like legal stuff. I stopped seeing people who did graffiti, all my friends, and I was just depressed. I didn't even realize I was, though. It was actually at Burning Man, after seven days in the desert, that I broke down. It was kind of how I met my current girlfriend, but you know after seven days in the desert getting mashed, I had nothing left, and I felt they'd taken everything from me, and I was in floods of tears. It was after that when I came back that I decided I needed to get therapy to deal with this stuff.
What was the conclusion to the court case?
I got a not guilty verdict in the end.
Did you get any compensation for everything that happened?
I actually asked my lawyer about that, but he said I wasn't entitled to anything like that. You just suck it up, you won, that's it. All I could think, though, was why me? Of all the magazines, websites, why did they pick me? People were way more explicit in their "go out and do it" attitude. I didn't even say fuck the police or anything; I just said I liked graffiti. I think that's what sent me into a spiral of despair.
What do you think about the level of jail time writers are getting these days?
It's crazy. The reason is because graffiti has been put into a category called "volume crime." It's an attack against property. So basically it's like if you smash a window, it costs this amount of money, and as a graffiti writer, you're prolific, attacking trains constantly, building up a hell a lot of money doing crimes against property and property owners.
Over the years, the money they charge has gone up ridiculously. In 2002, a few other people and I got done for doing a whole train, and we were charged £540 [$748] total. Fast-forward to the graffiti case recently in 2012, and one section of a train was £1,500 [$2,080]. So it's gone up ten times in as many years. And the reason is because trains are all now owned by private foreign companies and leased back to us. So the overground trains are operated by a Chinese company. I don't want to get into conspiracy theories, but there is definitely a correlation between private companies taking ownership and these fines. The cleaning companies are also obviously making a killing from it and are all privately owned too. So what happens is the writers go over the financial custodial threshold, so if it's over 20 grand [$27,700] you can go to jail, anything less is a fine or community service.
So if they can prove you've done over 20 grand's worth of damage, they can put you away?
Yeah, which can be like ten trains, which sounds like a lot, but most writers will do way more than that. And if they get caught it's like 60, 70 grand [$83,000—$97,000] and straight to jail.
Is that why you think there are fewer taggers these days?
Yeah. There is a policy where if any train has any graffiti on it, it's not allowed to go into service. I don't know. I still think there are a lot of people getting busy. My one policy for doing graffiti, not that I ever encourage people do it, but my one policy when putting people in the magazine and stuff like that is that if you're going to do it, do it well. Don't just do any old shit.
Like lazy tags?
I feel like this is the era of the shit graffiti writer. It's like a lot of young people are kind of in an X Factor, Big Brother style mentality where they don't care what they're famous for as long as they're famous. There are a lot of kids doing stuff all over London that are shit, but everyone knows their names 'cause they're everywhere. I'd rather not have my stuff up if it was shit. When I was younger, I spent ages practicing my tag because I didn't want anyone to see it if it was shit—what's the point?
What do you think about the rise of graffiti on the internet? There's a lot more stuff now on Instagram and other social media outlets.
I actually wrote my dissertation on the link between graffiti and the internet, and this was back in 2003, about the evolution of all that. Like if I'm painting on Leake Street in Waterloo, there are tons of weekend warriors taking photos, and they're taking pictures just for the kudos of putting it online, but they didn't do the work. Sometimes it gets annoying because they take photos while I'm working and even though I'm painting in the public domain, I feel like it's an invasion of my privacy.
As a graffiti writer growing up, I had a hardcore mentality—don't post your pictures out there, earn your stripes from doing your stuff and let people know you're out there. Like if you did ten trains on the weekend and posted them all online, you're a dickhead. Firstly, you'd get in massive trouble anyway, but secondly, it's cheap fame. You don't need to shout about it.
Do you think we have a strange attitude toward graffiti? In some cases, you get glass being put over Banksy pieces and graffiti raising the house prices in an area, but then in other cases, people are being put away for two years just for a few tags.
There is the acceptable face of street art like Banksy and pretty murals and stuff like that, anything that fits in y'know? The fact is, the government is in league with property owners and local councils. They're all in league with each other and don't want anything that's there without their permission.
How do you think it ties in with gentrification?
A funny thing I heard was that a lot of these new builds in the process of being built will allow graffiti on the boards around the site, so it looks like it's a trendy up and coming area, and then as soon as the boards are taken away they put up signs saying "NO GRAFFITI" and enforce it incredibly hard. It's like, something as abstract as the war on terror or the war on drugs is almost the same as the war on graffiti, because you're never going to stop anyone doing it. So what—buff the wall, people will paint on it again, buff the wall, people will paint on it again. The way to move forward is to be progressive about it, accept that it's always going to be here and allow certain areas just to be painted on. Then you don't have to waste so much money cleaning it over and over.
You can buy Keep the Faith magazine here.
Follow Tom on Twitter.