How London's Graffiti Writers Survived a Police Crackdown
After law enforcement announced it would go easier on low-level criminals, the city's graffiti artists are making a comeback.
Photo by Justin Kase Zninez/Alamy
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
From the early 1980s to the mid 2010s, graffiti was rife in London. There were burners on trains, tags on the streets, chrome and black dubs, and throw-ups on trackside walls and building rooftops. London had developed its own unique graffiti style, much like New York, Philadelphia, or Paris had developed theirs. On any day, looking out of a train window would be like attending an exhibition of London’s graffiti writers—names like Zombie, Oker, Fume, Teach, and others.
But at the start of this decade, things changed. Graffiti writers were getting busted and being handed actual prison sentences, particularly for painting trains. Where there had once been graffiti, there were now big brown rectangles of paint, as "the buff" took effect. Councils, the police, and the government were clamping down, particularly in the lead up to the 2012 Olympic Games, when panicked authorities and Games organizers were concerned that graffiti made them appear weak, or signaled impending anarchy.
It seemed like the days of widespread illegal tagging were over—that the only graffiti in London would be paid for by Adidas and later sold to art dealers. But something surprising has happened in the last two years: More graffiti is appearing in London again, particularly on the streets. From new young writers making a name for themselves to old school kings back in the game, there's been a resurgence. Not "street art" murals and stencils in Shoreditch, or tourist walking tours of Banksy’s work protected by plastic screens, but proper graffiti—tags, throw-ups, dubs, and pieces. This is graffiti much of the general public might not want to Instagram, but graffiti that writers and those interested in it can appreciate.
A key reason lies within Tory government cuts to the UK's public services, including the NHS, local councils, and police forces. The Metropolitan Police recently announced that "low level crime" would, in many cases, go un-investigated due to budget cuts, meaning the force must save around £400 million by 2020. In a policy reported by the Independent, the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner Mark Simmons said, "We are not talking about [not investigating] things like homicide, kidnap, sexual offences, hate crime, or domestic violence, but the lower-level, higher-volume offenses such as shoplifting, car crime, and criminal damage."
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Coming under the umbrella of "criminal damage" is illegal graffiti. I asked a London writer who wished to remain anonymous—we'll call him John—if and why he thought graffiti was on the rise. "There’s definitely been an increase in graff," he told me. "The internet has made people want to do it more. Instagram has made people wanna jump back on it because they’re seeing loads of pictures of graff, and a lot of graffers are hoping their dub gets flicked and put on Insta."
Certainly, the rise of smartphones and social media sites like Instagram, where pictures can be posted and shared in seconds, means writers' work can be photographed, shared, and "liked" without a wait. Writers may have previously used cameras, but pictures took time to develop, and getting such rapid respect from your peers wasn’t nearly as easy as it is now. In fact, in the pre-Instagram days, the graffiti scene involved some jealousy and anger as writers fought for wall space and respect. Having no platform or community meant many writers only knew one another by their tags, jumping to conclusions without communicating and creating competitive oneupmanship.
Former graffiti writer Luke explained how the internet might have brought some peace to a game often littered with fragile egos and disrespect. "Social media sites like Instagram have had a massive effect on creating a community within graffiti," he said. Luke said this online community has meant writers are encouraged by seeing new stuff, feeling motivated to get out there themselves. Even older writers who appeared to have quit are back on it. "I think the increase in graffiti from lower-level writers on Instagram has drawn them out of retirement," he explained.
If graffiti on London's streets has risen, what about trains? Painting trains remains one of the holy grails for graffiti writers. Getting a "runner"—a painted train running the lines—is what all writers want. It means a moving, truly kinetic display of a writer or their crew's name. However, punishments handed down to graffiti writers within UK courts have been off-putting for even the most dedicated. The risks for getting caught are still perilously high, even in these changing times. "Truth is, if you didn’t go to jail for it, I’d be out painting trains now, but I don’t wanna go jail," John told me. "The thing writers go to jail for is trains, so you’re seeing a lot of people up on the street now."
In the last decade, many train writers have been prosecuted in large scale operations by the British Transport Police (BTP). Writers have been arrested and placed before courts after being put under surveillance and having their houses raided. Graffiti has been treated like serious organized crime by the BTP and justice system. A recent case, which ran from 2013 to 2017, saw five members of SMT crew handed jail sentences ranging from 12 to 16 months. Investigating officer PC Tony McGibbon said, "Our painstaking efforts have now paid off and I am pleased that each of these defendants have now been sentenced. I hope this sentence sends a very clear message to other graffiti vandals out there that we will not tolerate this form of criminality."
When prolific train writer Vamp was sent to prison for an eye-watering three-and-a-half years for graffiti in 2013, the sentencing judge told him, "You are a prolific graffiti vandal. We are not talking here about witty imaginative images, such as those I expect you are familiar with by Banksy… I would suggest what you are dealing with is simple damage, which to the vast majority of the public is tedious and depressing."
The harshness of Vamp’s jail sentence said a lot about the priorities of the UK’s justice system, the police, and the country. While the transport system fell to its knees with rising fares and poor service, energy seemed to be deflected from ensuring trains ran on time and served passengers adequately to instead focusing on making examples of graffiti writers.
The authorities were so hot on graffiti that painted trains were often buffed before going into service and, in some cases, taken out of service altogether to prevent them being seen by the public. Now, the government cuts which led to the increase in street graffiti have also begun to affect how quickly trains can be cleaned up. Until recently the buff was instant, but runners are now being seen more frequently, with pictures appearing online and painted trains being spotted across the Transport for London network.
Key to the graffiti clampdown of the last few years has been the government's fear that they lack control over the population. A city with lots of graffiti must be a broken, scary, deprived place. But a glance at many thriving European cities with much more illegal graffiti than London or other UK cities shows this theory is simply unfounded. Copenhagen, Madrid, Berlin, Barcelona, Rome—shop shutters, bridges, trains, and walls are covered in graffiti, and it doesn't affect the cities one bit. The governments and local councils are devoting energy and taxpayers' money towards improving public services, rather than catching graffiti writers and buffing everything. It's about priorities, and whether you love it, hate it, or just don't care, the UK’s bizarre focus on graffiti has distracted from far more important issues.
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