In the UK, Writing Graffiti Can Get You Sent to Prison
Why are the penalties for unauthorized art so harsh in Britain?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I knew things had gone too far when it was announced that graffiti writer Skeam had been found dead, hanging in his prison cell. While many questions have been asked during the inquest into his death, an important one remains: why was this 23-year-old handed a 30-month jail sentence for painting walls and trains in the first place?
Barely a month goes by without a graffiti artist being sent to jail. While GCSE art students and Italian tourists pay £20 ($30) a pop for a Shoreditch street art tour, writers are receiving heavier punishments than ever before. The maximum penalty for 12 -to 17-year-olds is 24 months of detention, while adults can be sentenced to up to ten years in prison.
"Malicious mischief," as vandalism is legally termed, might be a nonviolent, victimless crime, but, for whatever reason, Britain has decided to make itself one of the only countries in Western Europe where artists can be punished with hefty custodial sentences. Whether or not you're a fan of graffiti, surely it's easy to recognize that it's an offense best punished with a fine or community service, not a prison sentence—a penalty that costs the taxpayer and inflicts far more suffering on the artist than is really deserved.
Mike Robson* has firsthand experience; after serving two years on bail, he was finally sentenced to two years in prison. "None of the other inmates believed our sentences when we went inside. They thought I was talking shit when I said I'd got two years for graffiti," he told me.
Initially charged with criminal damage, Robson's charge was later changed to conspiracy. "The conspiracy charge is a way of ramping up the seriousness of the case," he explained. "Graffiti might be putting paint on the surface of a train or a wall, but, in their eyes, it was organized crime and a conspiracy to commit these 'attacks,' as they called them. My flat was raided and they took my computer, phone, books, and CDs. I wasn't allowed to stay anywhere but my own address. I wasn't allowed to talk to friends that were involved in the case, or leave the country, or carry pens or paint on me."
As if these bail conditions weren't enough, it wasn't just Robson who got a visit from the police. "My mum's house was raided, even though I didn't live there. Detectives in suits turned up to my work saying, 'Don't move. We're confiscating this computer.' Nobody thought this was just for graff. People definitely thought it had to be some sort of drugs or money laundering [offence], or fraud," recounted Robson. "They did DNA testing on our clothing, matching particles to paint on trains, facial mapping from CCTV to mugshots. Suddenly this big spider web started coming together."
In Robson's opinion, "All of this stuff is meant to mentally break you. They want you to lose your job; your relationship with your girlfriend; possibly be cut off by your parents, depending on how they take it, all while facing the possibility of going to prison and getting your name dragged through the media. You're just painting with your pals [one minute], and all of a sudden you're an organized crime syndicate."
Even though Robson had no previous convictions, he served a year inside, followed by a year on probation. "Prison is a cold environment, and you have to mould into survival mode," he told me. "There's no normal conversation in prison; it's all about crime. Even if you don't want it, you get a big schooling in everything."
As such, Robson believes the whole ordeal criminalized him. "You're unwittingly dragged into this other world," he said. "You end up with a lot of criminal contacts. Also, it really broke my work ethic. I used to be in full-time employment, so being banged up, lying on a bed for 23 hours, talking to a crackhead about armed robbery for weeks at a time threw me off. Going through that whole process—the bail, the courts, the police, prison and probation—is really what makes you a criminal."
On top of this, Robson says the rehabilitation he received was nonexistent. "I was even asked to paint a graffiti mural in the prison, the same thing I would've done on a train. There's no other crime that they'd make you do inside," he pointed out, adding that he believes these double standards are deeply engrained in societal attitudes towards graffiti: "For example, around the time we were sentenced, the Tate Modern flew in writers from around the world for a graffiti exhibition. These artists made their name doing the same thing we did—illegal graffiti."
Once he was released from prison, Robson struggled to adapt to life on the outside. "When you get out, it takes a long time to adjust, to get back into the world and out of the system, and to feel relaxed and to make amends in your personal life," he said. "Plus, when people know you've done time, they do treat you differently; people are wary of you."
Robson argues that there were many other ways he could have been punished: "It'd make more sense to give a community order or a fine, or put someone on tag, or all of the above, rather than to lock someone up. It's a shame that these kind of sentences are now the norm for what is a relatively harmless, nonviolent crime."
Unfortunately, the disproportionate sentencing that Robson and many other writers receive has glamorized prison for younger generations. "They think it's a badge of honor," said Robson. "They think to be a prolific graff writer you have to have done time. But you're supposed to be known for being prolific at what you do, not because the police have made you prolific."
Like Robson, G.Money (his graffiti name, perhaps unsurprisingly) has also served time for spraying walls and trains, arrested in 2008 at his home address by Detective Colin Saysell, the UK's top anti-graffiti officer. Throughout his career he's helped to convict at least 300 graffiti artists, earning him the moniker "the graffiti bogeyman."
"I have the same name as my dad, so they actually told him he was being charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage," said G.Money. "When I came downstairs there were six officers, including Detective Saysell, who was wearing a Banksy T-shirt and a pair of baggy jeans, with some sailor tattoos on his arms."
G.Money went on to serve almost four years on bail, before eventually being sentenced to 21 months in prison. While this might sound like more than enough, the British Transport Police (BTP)—the force that deals with a large amount of graffiti cases, sending 569 suspects to court in 2005 alone—were far from pleased. "They were pushing for international conspiracy charges, but these were dropped on the last day," said G.Money. "BTP can't nick people for what they do abroad. In the end, our case cost way more than the damage we committed. After all, I was only found guilty of £50,000 ($78,000) worth of damage."
Inside, G.Money was surrounded by a selection of seasoned criminals. "I was mixed with murderers, rapists and serial killers. How am I rubbing shoulders with a high-profile armed robber who's killed people when all I've done is graffiti?" he asked. "Custodial sentences are way too strong. People would be less likely to paint if they got a £50,000 fine."
So what impact has hefty sentencing had on the graffiti community itself? What happens when writers like VAMP are sentenced to a staggering three and a half years in prison?
Noticeably, it's caused many talented writers—including Robson and G.Money—to put down their cans. However, it's worth noting that no matter how long sentences get, or how invasive surveillance becomes, graffiti will never cease to exist.
This leads to the question of what drives people to risk their lives to spray surfaces. G.Money told me he'd been electrocuted and had high-speed trains hurl past his face—and that he'd known people who'd been killed while painting—but that the danger never turns anyone off. Does it come down to thrill, notoriety, obsession, creative expression, escapism, straight-up insurrection or the drive to mark territory?
At its simplest, graffiti is a hobby—albeit a slightly more dangerous one than fishing or whittling—and it's as much about observing as partaking. The notoriety aspect may hold up with some, but things have changed since writers' primary objective was to spray a throw-up at as many spots as possible along the Metropolitan Line. These days, you might spend the night painting a train in a high-security yard, but it's likely the graffiti will be cleaned off before it ever leaves the depot, meaning no one else will ever see it in the flesh. Mind you, it's exactly this that makes it so precious. Graffiti as a transient artwork—here today, gone as soon as staff spot it and get it buffed—is something done for personal satisfaction; something individuals do for themselves rather than Instagram likes or a spot in a gallery.
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Of course, if they're caught in the act, that satisfaction changes hands. In a column called "Gotcha" in the BTP newsletter, the writer details "a young graffiti vandal who had earlier been caught on camera damaging property at Barry Dock railway station" looking directly at the CCTV camera, identifying himself to police. T/Inspector Gary Ash is then quoted as saying "[Barry Dock] station isn't the most inviting at the best of times, so catching this youth makes it all the more satisfying."
The relationship the anti-graffiti squad have with the artists extends beyond chasing them through train yards. As Detective Seargant Jez Walley, the cop who was responsible for tackling graffiti in the South East, explained in an issue of the BTP magazine: "Repeat offenders come to know us very well, and some regularly write abuse about us as part of their vandalism or on social networking sites. It can get pretty personal, but you accept that it comes with the role and shows, I think, that what we do is having an effect."
G.Money argued that some police officers, namely DC Saysell [who declined to be interviewed for this piece], make it personal themselves. "He's as obsessed with graffiti as we are, but he's obviously just backing the other team," said G.Money. "He's in the corner where he can pretty much pick who he wants to fuck. If he sees graff that he likes, then he wants to nick you."
According to Saysell, he's just doing his job. "I am a disciple of the 'Broken Windows Theory,'" he said during a lecture at the Southbank Centre. "I personally, in my own experience, do think [graffiti] leads to antisocial behavior, other types of more serious crime and urban decay."
In other words, if a commuter sees some bubble letters on a panel rather an advert, they might think they're about to get their bag nicked.
The Broken Windows Theory has been widely criticized by criminologists, with one study concluding that "the relationship between disorder and serious crime is modest, and even that relationship is largely an artifact of more fundamental social forces." Effectively, some graffiti on a wall isn't going to inspire someone to rob a house; the societal and economic causes for this kind of crime could be numerous, and the solution is endlessly more complicated than just locking up some guys with spray cans. In Robson's case, it was spending a year in prison that really exposed him to crime, not painting some walls.
The fact is: People aren't going to stop doing graffiti, so why not direct already stretched resources towards crime that actually affects people?
Despite increasingly harsh sentences and enhanced surveillance tactics, graffiti writers will continue to paint. In turn, millions of pounds of taxpayer's money continues to be pumped into the prosecution of graffiti, without a thought to whether it's actually what the British public need or want.
* Name has been changed to protect Robson's identity.
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