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Gavin Haynes Sleepless Nights

Suburban Rebel Kristian Holmes: Boring Dad by Day, Graffiti Gang Kingpin by Night

Boring dad by day, graffiti gang kingpin by night.

by Gavin Haynes
18 June 2013, 11:15am

Kristian Holmes. Sounds like a retirement village for Methodists. It isn’t. It is the name of one of the biggest graffiti kingpins in British history. For seven years, the courts have just finished hearing, Kristian Holmes conducted one of the most expensive graffiti campaigns ever, costing Network Rail, Southeastern Trains and a range of others somewhere around £250,000 in clear-up bills. He tagged trains, stations, those little archways over pedestrian bridges, a Barclays ATM and – when he wanted to gain kudos from a more fashionable set than the British Transport Police – a wall on Brick Lane. That was to prove the undoing of Kristian – a man who, by day – before he magically transforms into the elusive, paint-devil villain known as "VAMP" – is an account manager at a surveying firm with two kids, a £60k salary and the look of a man who might sing a song in a Halifax advert.

When police eventually raided his house, they found 22 spray cans, hi-vis jackets stamped with Network Rail insignia and paint-flecked overalls. Then they found a London A-Z, covered in markings showing the location of his various tags and annotated with handy info on potential pitfalls – fences, electric rails, CCTV. But he couldn't wage his war against clean trains alone. Kristian Holmes had a gang known as PS Crew, including one Matthew Mandell, who stood just 4ft 3in tall and had to use a stepladder to do much of his better work, and a 21-year-old called Callan Pang. This fellow runaway from suburban tedium used to be a sales manager for Mortimer House Fine Wines in Bromley. His internet profile seems to consist exclusively of him soliciting donations to run marathons for charity.

Kristian Holmes smiled as he entered the court for his second trial (the first was a mis-trial). He smiled the familiar smile of a 32-year-old man with a professional job as an account manager at a surveying firm who is about to be sent to prison for three years for doing sprayed bumfarts under bridges. Which, it turns out, is quite a broad smile. It seemed like Kristian Holmes was having the biggest laugh of his life, but no one could quite figure out why. The police had come round his office and arrested him in front of all of his colleagues. Yet still, here he was, grinning like a shit-eater. Is he not very bright? Or is he actually fiendishly clever?

The prosecutor certainly didn't think there was much intelligence to Holmes' work, venturing his own bit of art criticism, sounding much like Brian Sewell on Hirst: “We are not talking here about witty imaginative images, such as those I expect you are familiar with by Banksy. What you make of the graffiti in this case is a matter for you, but I would suggest what you are dealing with is simple damage. It is damage which to the vast majority of the public is tedious and depressing.”

Wearing a lovely brown scarf, a well-tailored cream waistcoat, elegant charcoal blazer and a striped shirt in the Brooks Brothers style, Kristian Holmes did not attempt to counterbalance this opinion with a Dead Poets Society-style polemic on the nature of street art – its place within hip-hop culture, its part in the cycle of urban decay and renewal, its authentic representation of the psychogeography of youth. He just sat there, looking for all the world like Jacob Rees-Mogg attending a mildly unsatisfactory edition of PMQs.

Sometimes he and his pals would dress up like railway repairmen. His tags were apparently found as far away as Ibiza. Meanwhile, by day, he would talk to people about building supplies. “Yes,” he’d no doubt tell them, “I’m sure we can calculate how many yards of copper piping you will need for that new bungalow in Swanley up by Maidstone Road...” While in his head, he was still thinking about where in north-eastern Kent he had written the word VAMP the previous evening. And where he would write the word VAMP the next night. The sense of achievement after having written the word VAMP.

But there's a price to pay for all that dreaming. Now, his kids are going to grow up in that common middle-class purgatory where your dad’s in jail for tagging the fuck out of shit. Not for him the fifth birthday celebration at King Cake’s Party Emporium. No doubt, before he was sent down, Holmes had a chat with his kids. “You know how I told you not to write on the table in the living room? Well, Daddy wrote on some walls… I know you want Daddy to stay. But the big men from the police, they think Daddy needs to go away and think about why he wrote VAMP on over 200 different pieces of public property over the course of your lifetime, causing a quarter-million pounds' worth of damage. Why did Daddy write VAMP on all those things? Well, sweetie, Daddy was trying to impress the tagging community. Who are the tagging community? Well, they’re men like daddy who like to go out and write things like VAMP on walls. Yes, it is a bit silly. Silly Daddy.”

In many ways, Holmes is like a 21st century version of the cross-dressing vicars the News Of The World used to "expose" in the 70s. He’s an archetype of the suburban man who carries a dark secret of a dual life about with him. He represents the thrilling proposition that, just behind the thin veneer of civilisation, there’s something darker, more malevolent squirming. The idea that, all over society, there are a random distribution of people who look like tedious Ladsie-n-Boysie types in white collar offices, but who would shank a tramp if they could just be absolutely, totally 100 percent sure no one was looking. Like all of those "otherwise respectable" 2011 rioters, for Holmes, the veneer of civilisation was always just painted-on.

He might’ve kept up his cat-n-mouse thrill-seeking indefinitely. But in the end, Holmes just got greedy. He started trying for the Brick Lane crowd and was finally rumbled on July 26, 2009, when he was spotted writing his tag on a wall at a bar called Cafe 1001. He claimed to be "just reading it" and then gave the police a false address. But to all intents, the jig was up. When he realised the cops were on to him, this Night Stalker of the tagging world uploaded several faked-up videos to YouTube which showed Pang doing the VAMP tag, in a vain attempt to throw the cops off the scent by making them think that the guy they were looking for wasn’t white. For that, he was also convicted of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. As he was led away to the cells, Holmes waved to his family in the gallery. “Goodbye,” the gesture seemed to suggest. “Sorry ‘bout the abandonment. But frankly, I wouldn’t un-tag any of it for the world.”

Well he might not. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, but here was one who channelled all that nervous energy into flipping the script. He was trapped in the body of a man from Sidcup. But he fought back against it. I bet he stood on top of the vintage trains of the East Kent Railway while vandalising them in April 2009, and said: “I am not ordinary. I am extraordinary. I am Kristian Holmes. Yes, Kristian Holmes, the man who wouldn't go gentle into that good night, or at least write the word VAMP on as many public surfaces as humanly possible before being forced to bow to The Man. Tell me, are you not entertained?!” And then he probably went home and watched The Wire, and played Fifa, safe in the knowledge that ordinariness was not even on his radar.

Follow Gavin and Marta on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes / @MartaParszeniew

Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.

Previously – The Great Simon Cowell Egg Conspiracy

what is art
sleepless nights
Marta Parszeniew
Kristian Holmes