Great works of art speak to the zeitgeist of a time or place. Warhol's soup cans, for example, can be read as a comment on the nascent hyper-industrialisation of food in post-war America, if you like. Similarly, if we were to choose a piece that sums up the abject hopelessness of Earth in 2017, there would surely be just the one contender: "NAT HAS HƐRPƐS".
If you've spent any time in London over the past couple of years, you'll have probably seen the phrase scrawled on a wall, or a tree, or a fence. When you're looking for it, it's everywhere. But little – actually, nothing – is known about its creator, only that (according to general consensus) the graffiti first appeared on a brick wall somewhere in Hackney Wick, east London, and that instead of Es the artist used backwards 3s.
I needed to know more; to find the person responsible for the original piece, to ask if Nat really does have any kind of venereal disease, to uncover whether each and every tag was the work of one human, or if "NAT HAS HƐRPƐS" has become a real-world meme, emulated by an army of pisstakers with spray paint and marker pens.
So: what do we actually know.
1. Probably started in Hackney Wick.
2. Nothing else, really.
Based on that exhaustive list, my investigation started the only way it could: by searching "London graffiti" on Facebook.
On reflection, joining "((GRAFFITI aka W0RDZ ON WALLZ - LONDON-UK-WORLDWIDE))" was a mistake. It's only got 438 members, no profile pic and the air of a highly inactive page. Is that a zero instead of an O in "W0RDZ"? It is. Not good enough.
On the other end of the scale, an admin at "Graffiti Kings" – a page with over 2 million Likes – told me he had "no idea" who's responsible for NAT HAS HƐRPƐS.
Undeterred, I pushed on – i.e. scrolled down a bit more on Facebook – and messaged LDNGraffiti, a group with around 3,000 Likes. I was in luck.
VICE: Hi, what's your relationship to the world of graffiti?
LDNGraffiti: I'm an observer of London graffiti and have been for a long time. I've produced books and appeared on documentaries talking about it.
Okay, so: do you know the people behind NAT HAS HƐRPƐS?
The perpetrators are anonymous, but the first time I saw it was about a couple of years ago; I saw it in Hackney Wick.
So you know them?
I'm not sure – I think they produce art in their own right, but my understanding was that this was a flippant comment – you know, like the mundane gaining popularity. A bit like the [graffiti] toasters that kept popping up everywhere; it's simple, but people know about it.
Can you put me in touch with these people?
I can pass your details on and you may get a response.
The agonising wait began. LDNGraffiti said he'd get back to me "by the end of the week". In the meantime, I thought I could at least identify which tags came from the creator and which were copies. LDNGraffiti might have been having me on, but science wouldn't.
I rang The Radley Forensic Document Laboratory, which specialises in "Signatures, Handwriting and the General Forensic Examination of Documents", and asked if they would be able to tell me – based on what was thought to be the original tag, with its backwards 3s in place of Es – which were originals and which were copies. They said:
"Well, there are all sorts of problems with graffiti tags and identifying exactly who's created them. For example, they're done on different surfaces and at different heights, making it more difficult to hone in on technique. Most forensic documenters will likely tell you the same thing."
No matter – 24 hours later I got my reply from the supposed perpetrators.
VICE: Hi. I'd like to know if you could chat on the phone?
Supposed NHH Originators: Sorry – since its initial inception the number of people responsible for "Nat has herpes" has grown, so it's hard to all be in the same place at the same time, so unfortunately we can't (read: won't) do phone interviews.
What was the first time you wrote "NAT HAS HƐRPƐS"? Was it in a sketchbook, then taken to toilet walls and the streets, or did it just go straight up on a wall?
It was definitely on a wall – we're not here to fuck spiders. Also, because the first one was so impromptu, the wall where it appeared was perfect for the intended Nat.
Does it have any grounding in reality? Is there a real Nat and do they actually have herpes?
The "Nat" is real.
Did you intend for it to become as popular and widespread as it has?
Absolutely not. It began so privately, albeit on a public wall, as an exchange between two people that instantly and noticeably was having an impact for a curious wider audience. Those simple elements of curiosity, humour (as long as you weren't a Nat), repetition and obscurity are undeniable factors for its popularity.
How do you feel about the attention it got?
Bewildering and also completely hilarious. Almost as soon as it had hit the wall it had a life of its own. The hashtag (#nathasherpes) made it possible to see how far it had spread. It was amazing to see it manifest itself in places as far away as Australia, the US and Finland, and how that ties into not only a primal and honest graffiti culture, but that of its evil partner in crime, commercial advertising. After a few years, mainstream media outlets had written articles about it, and even recently word trickled in that a pharmaceutical company was interested in using it for an advertising campaign (though you're probably not going to find this on freeway billboards for cold sore cream any time soon).
It was hard to understand the appeal initially, but herpes is really common. The saying that you're never more than six feet away from a rat in London also applies here: you're never more than six people away from herpes.
You're a graffiti artist, right? Does it annoy you that the more complex and time-consuming works you do get less attention?
Yes and no. The over-exposure of imagery in the public space, especially alongside the rise of the mural festival circuit, has played a huge role in desensitising us as an audience. Something that is simple and instant often gets more time than it may actually deserve. "Nat has herpes" – case in point.
Were you influenced by any other graffiti of a similar kind?
Early British protest art by the likes of King Mob, Heathcote Williams and whoever the genius was behind "CATS ARE LIKE PLAIN CRISPS" are a huge influence. Of course a nod has to be made to social media and a modern desire for some sort of comfort in celebrity or recognition. "Nat has herpes", in contrast, is a shift from ownership by any one person or people and swings the impact back to the original message. As pointless or as poignant as that message may be.
So there we are. Approximately 48 hours, two social media searches, one phone call and a couple of emails later, I'd made contact with someone purporting to be the originator of "NAT HAS HƐRPƐS". Mind you, they could – of course – have just been someone with far too much time on their hands, trolling me and my earnest quest for answers, so I emailed them back requesting some kind of proof. A reply pinged up on my phone:
A photo of some fresh graffiti on the building site hoardings directly outside the VICE UK office. Spooky.
I went out to check the graffiti – which was, in fact, right there – and noticed that the security camera that usually faces this wall, a full 12-feet above street level, appeared to have been turned around to protect this person's anonymity. Hats off to you, guy.
I may now be part of graffiti folklore, but I wasn't satisfied. Yes, the Es were backwards 3s, and from my amateur analysis the other letters appeared similar to the ones in the Hackney Wick photo, but I still couldn't be 100 percent sure. This could just be someone having me on, as it's not exactly difficult to google the VICE office address and write "PAT HAS HERPES" on a wall outside it.
At this point, I just wanted to wrap things up, so decided to ring LDNGraffiti again and ask for any further information they knew of. They said: "Whatever extra research you've done, whether that's Twitter or Instagram, I can tell you that's not true and there's lots of misinformation online."
So there you have it: this person – whoever they are – may well be the original creator. I felt a semi-sense of accomplishment in tracking them down, but then almost instantly an emptiness – a feeling of guilt. In my search for the "creator", I'd been blinded. Really, it doesn't matter where it came from; all that matters is that it's now an actually recognised thing for people, apparently citywide, to write "NAT HAS HERPES" on public walls.
More on VICE: