Over the weekend, a mysterious piece of graffiti was spotted on Ebor Street, round the corner from Shoreditch High Street station. It read – in bright white capital letters, against a black painted wall – "SEX WITH REFUGEES IS JASMINE-SCENTED AND BEAUTIFUL".
It was first spotted on Saturday the 16th of December, when a photo was posted to Twitter and people started getting angry about it, calling it "distasteful" and "wrong on so many levels".
The artwork is the creation of Robert Montgomery, who has since posted a semi-apology to Facebook in which he says he did not paint on the wall and that the phrase, from one of his poems, had been taken out of context – but that he still feels "responsible for any offence it caused".
Clearly the internet doesn't like it – but this was "street art", intended to be seen by people on the street, so I went down to speak to five people who saw the slogan before it was taken down, including David, a member of the Graffiti Life collective, as he painted over the mural.
VICE: Were you tasked with painting over it graffiti?
David: We paint that wall quite often. We do murals for huge brands normally.
What were your thoughts when you saw it?
When you see something in massive letters about sex, on a wall, obviously a lot of people are going to pay attention to it, then throw in refugees... this is conjuring up exploitation. So I’m like, 'What are you saying?' I don’t know, and there’s no way for me to find out – there were no social handles on it to explain more.
Do you know who painted it?
I know it’s a piece of work by an artist. I work for Graffiti Life – we paint that wall quite regularly, and from what I understood from the owner of the wall, an artist wanted to do a piece on there. From what we heard it was going to be a poem. A poem is something you can digest a little bit more easily compared to this kind of salacious headline. Is it a political statement? Is it an artistic statement? What is it trying to say? I’m not really sure.
What were your opinions about it?
It was of wonder! I still wanted to know what the artist was trying to say. It’s hard to draw your own conclusions from that [message] which are positive, really. I saw it and I was like, 'I don’t understand what you are trying to say.' I need to know the motivations of the artist before making a full conclusion.
What’s going up next then?
We’re painting a Merry Christmas wall. It's quite self-explanatory. People will understand it so will appreciate it. And if you don’t understand something, it’s very hard – especially when art's involved – to relate to it.
Dan, worker at nearby shipping container shopping centre Boxpark
VICE: What were your opinions on the wall?
Dan: I was a little bit shocked and confused, to be honest. It almost didn’t make sense, which was probably why it was so insulting.
As you can see, it’s being removed.
I’m quite glad it's gone. There was nothing constructive about it. It was so divisive, alienating a sect of people. Singling them out and pointing out their differences like that.
VICE: What are your thoughts on the mural?
Kieran: It was bold. It’s a bit weird that "sex with refugees" is up there, and "jasmine-scented" seems very racist, doesn't it? It’s trying to say refugees smell nice, but jasmine-scented is a bit near the line, definitely.
Do you think it should have been up there at all?
I don’t think it should have been up there at all, because sex with refugees is sexualising them. Why do you need to sexualise refugees? They weren’t sexualised before.
Do you think the artist was trying to be controversial or bring people together?
I think their aim was to be controversial and bring people together. But they failed in the second part. They were way more controversial than community building.
Were you really offended?
I have a really high tolerance to stuff like that, so I just thought that was a bit weird. But for a central part of London – a multicultural city with many immigrants – it wasn't that great.
Jamie, Boxpark worker
VICE: What were your thoughts on the slogan?
Jamie: I personally don’t think it’s that bad. But with the word refugee there’s this whole thing that goes along with what a refugee is. I guess I get why some people find it offensive. You can replace the word refugee with any other ethnicity and someone is going to find it offensive. It’s down to the person and how they feel about it in the end. I don’t think it's anything too major though, in my opinion.
But a lot of refugees are fleeing from war and political turmoil, where they may have been sexually violated or even trafficked.
That’s an interesting way to put it. I actually never thought about it in that way. What you're saying is 100 percent true, but what’s more important is how a refugee feels about it.
Do you think it was a political statement or for controversy's sake?
Definitely controversy. But then again, I think people in general are far more sensitive now.
Kane, Boxpark worker
VICE: What were your initial thoughts when you saw the wall?
Kane: It was different, to say the least. It was crazy – how savage of the artist.
Do you think it was inappropriate or racist?
Definitely inappropriate – I wouldn’t say racist, though.
Do you think the use of jasmine-scented was to trigger people?
Jasmine smells nice, but it was clearly used to set people off. They could have used rose-scented, or something far less provoking.
Do you think the artist was trying to be controversial, political or both?
Controversial, 100 percent. A refugee sounds worse than what the word actually means. It’s just a word for someone not from here. Fleeing war, for example. It’s because of the negative connotations of the word in today's climate, with Brexit, for example. The word just sounds negative. It isn’t, but the feelings and opinions attached to it make it a sort of dark word.
Why do you think the artist, in an indirect way, sexualised refugees?
It’s insensitive in that aspect, especially considering a lot of them may have trauma associated with sex, on their journey to the UK.
Don’t you think the artist did a poor job if people didn’t get their message?
Not really. They’ve done their job because you’re doing an interview about it. It’s controversial, so he or she has done their job. This is why people say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, because people are talking about it.