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For almost forty years now I have been traveling regularly to and from London on the East Coast mainline. For three quarters of that time I have been enjoying the increasing gallery of graffiti which has blossomed along the line. Initially these were the odd bit of tagging but following the publication of Cooper and Chalfont’s book Subway Art in 1984 everything changed. Most contemporary graffiti in this country can be traced back to the influence of that book.

Over time straightforward tags developed into dubs and then full blown pieces. This seemed to reach a peak around the late 1990s when there were some really colourful pieces along the line, then it recessed again. Currently it is almost exclusively dubs in silver and black. Hopefully I don’t have to explain, but in case I do, a Tag is someone’s signature, in one colour and usually coming across as a bit of a squiggle. Dubs are the full name drawn out in open letters in two colours, one outline the other infill. A Piece is the name elaborately drawn, multicoloured on a coloured background.

The whole essence of my enjoyment of the graffiti along the railway line is its transience. The tags, dubs and pieces do not last long. Either they are cleaned off by the authorities, worn off  by the weather or covered over by other graffiti. Consequently they are a running record of people’s lives. The names come and go, so a long time ago I started noting them down. Behind every name there must be a person and a story. Some of the early taggers are undoubtedly now middle aged, with jobs and families. Maybe they always were …

Currently we are going through a fairly quiet stage. As I have mentioned, things have settled down to dubs, with very few pieces in evidence. The dubs themselves are almost exclusively executed in silver with black outlines. Frankly it’s a bit boring at the moment.

The show starts in earnest at Oakleigh Park, where there is a fairly select band who keep very much to their own territory: ZARD and LETAS stick strictly to the patch. KASH and SEAL stray as far south as New Southgate.  RYZE is the only dub here which drops the silver ( for red) and SLAM has the only real piece – silver and grey lettering with pink and red highlights outlined in black on a blue background… but then SLAM is not from here. His pieces can be found all the way in to King’s Cross. I particularly like his piece at Finsbury Park where the S and L are in blue with the A and M in Green, all  outlined in black with white highlights and embellishments.

New Southgate also has a fairly territorial bunch of artists who don’t stray far from this station, and a couple of dubs (Tits and Ahem) where I’m not sure whether they are tag names or not.

At Alexandra Palace we hit the first of the more impressive pieces. This is ONST, whose characters are formed from stylised birds, in silver, black and two shades of blue. It is an accomplished bit of work.

By Hornsey we are beginning to get more colourful:  DOWT (blue lettering / red outline) SPAT (silver with blue cross-hatching and black outline) and then the twin dubs at Haringay, HUH and RODEO, side by side in silver with orange and black outlining. It makes you wonder if they are mates who swopped cans as they sprayed.

It is in the run into Finsbury Park that things really explode.  At my most recent count there were over 60 separate artists creating dubs and pieces, and I’ve probably missed quite a few. There is a superb ONST, the same stylised birds but this time in silver with black and red outlining and the eyes and beaks in yellow with red highlighting. JER, SIAR, FENZA, DOSA, KEIS, DREN and KING have all delivered creditable pieces, but the highlight for me is LONER, who has produced excellent lettering grading through from pale blue at the bottom, mid and dark blue to purple at the top, outlined in black with shadow depth on a superb flame background in three shades of red, all with yellow embellishments. Of the basic dubs here, my favourite is PISTOV, just for the name.

Most of the names here continue at Drayton Park, where the best piece is probably THUM in white lettering on a yellow background with orange and red outlining. (There is also a nice clothes peg up the side of the tunnel arch at Drayton Park in yellow and black. It’s not tagged but whoever did it has a sense of style.)

As we come in to Kings Cross, I particularly like the AHOY with the anchor in the O and the blue/orange/blue/silver AINT.

So who are these guys? Who knows. The whole point is the anonymity, except their anonymity goes when they appear in court and so I can put names to some of the tags I have noted down over the years.

One of the most prolific used to be TOX.  TOX turned out to be Daniel Halpin. TOX’s style was pretty basic. If I was being really unkind, it was rubbish, but it was everywhere (You could even see it in Glasgow) What made TOX interesting was that he dated his tags. (i.e. TOX 03, TOX 04 etc.) There was a gap in 2005 when he was sent to prison for the first time. In 2009 he was sent down again, this time for 27 months, and again in 2011. He should be active again soon. (I can say that with some certainty: as he left Westminster Magistrates Court he defiantly said: “I don’t care. I’ll do it again. I’m an offender and I will offend.”) After TOX went down BANKSY  did a mural near to TOX’s home showing a small boy blowing bubbles which formed TOX’s tag. The owners of the house quickly protected the Banksy with a sheet of perspex while the prison service were protecting TOX in the slammer… but more of BANKSY later.

The common perception is that graffiti writers are young, potentially violent yobs from council estates running rampant with aerosol sprays. In fact, if the court transcripts are to be believed, they are far from that. Let’s just take a few from my collection of tags:

NOIS (William Setzdempsey) was unemployed at the time he was caught.

SKAM (Joshua Piehl) was a locksmith

FDC (Darren Austin) was a plumber

SKEAMS (Tom Collister) was a glazier

DPM (Andrew Gillmann) worked for the BBC on Eastenders

VAMP (Kristian Holmes) was a property surveyor and accounts manager

NOIR (Glynn Judd) was a banker.

A reasonable cross section of society.  Mostly mature men with stable jobs, married with children, their ages ranged from 19 – 40. They just happened to like going out at night and spraying things.Their sentences ranged from fifteen months to three and a half years.

Like TOX most of them are unrepentant and will probably do it again. At his trial RIBS (Robert Lee) asked for a further 51 offences to be taken into consideration.

So what motivates them? Detective Sergeant Pete Thrush of London’s South’s graffiti unit probably got it right in his evidence when he said that  “For a lot of them it is self-advertisement. They see it as art so want as many people as possible to see it and there are a lot of people moving through train stations. It’s also about kudos. They hang around in gangs and the more damage they do, the more kudos they get from their peers. For some it’s just the buzz of doing something illegal.”  I would disagree with him slightly on the first point. My perception is that graffiti writers are doing it to impress each other not the outside world. It is street artists who are trying to get the public to see their work. There is a difference.

There is also a lot of guff spoken in the courts about Sgt. Thrush’s point on doing damage. This is because technically the ‘crime’ is criminal damage, so you get comments like that made at the trial of CHEWS (Lee Shillingford) that “ this is crime on a large scale with real victims. It is planned and well organised with the sole intention of causing as much damage and disruption to passengers as possible.”  No it’s not. There is no big conspiracy here to sabotage the british rail network to cause disruption to passengers. Network Rail does that effectively enough on its own. Nevertheless CHEWS got a twenty one month sentence.

What is not stated in court is the amount of money spent tracking down and prosecuting the taggers.  GNAT (Daniel Rothero) was caught after his tags in various locations were fingerprinted. How much police time, and tax-payers money is being wasted carrying out forensic investigations on bits of graffiti? Or maybe it is just box ticking to meet targets. The British Transport Police claim that due to their efforts incidents of graffiti fell by 63% between 2007 and 2012. Not on my train route it didn’t.

Maybe that alleged drop is explained by EINE (Ben Flynn) who points out that “ we are now older and less willing to take risks. We can’t run away from the police any more. I have lots of friends who used to paint trains. Now with wives and children, they paint abandoned warehouses at the weekend. It has become something to do on a Sunday afternoon—a slightly healthier alternative to sitting watching the football.”

The other amusing aspect of recent court transcripts are the attempts to deflect self expression through graffiti away from the concept of art. At VAMP’s trial a police constable giving evidence said that “Vandals who commit graffiti offences often believe their work is art – sadly when the chosen canvas is railway property it cannot be considered art and is nothing more than wanton damage.” Prosecutor James Murray-Smith said: “We are not talking about witty, imaginative images such as those by Banksy. This is simply damage.”

Note the distinction being made there between VAMP’s work and BANKSY’s. In terms of the ‘damage’ they cause there is no difference. Presumably, if BANKSY was caught using railway property as his chosen canvas he would be arrested by the constable, but would Mr. Murray-Smith have prosecuted him?

But then BANKSY is a proper artist, isn’t he?  He is certainly an accomplished draughtsman. He is also an incisive social commentator and undoubtedly a brilliant self publicist. But he is not a graffiti artist, at least not now. He is a street artist who has successfully subverted the art business to his own ends. I’m not going to put down BANKSY here, I enjoy his work and broadly agree with the stance that he takes in relation to the art world, most effectively illustrated in his film Exit Through The Gift Shop. Probably the most direct expression of his position was the print he released some years ago which showed an auctioneer taking bids for a framed ‘masterpiece’ across which is scrawled “ I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”

It is the fact that BANKSY’s work now goes for silly money which suddenly makes him ‘art’. That’s not his fault. The guy who paid $1.8 million for Keep It Spotless had more money than sense. It is this ‘value’ which makes people cover their Banksy’s with perspex and leads to the absurdity of one London council paying a fortune to have an expert remove a tag which had been sprayed on a Banksy while protecting the ‘art work’  for which a few years before it would have been prosecuting the artist for perpetrating.

The true irony in that case was that the tag they were carefully removing was ‘Team Robbo’. Anyone who knows anything about graffiti in Britain over the last thirty years knows that ROBBO is of infinitely greater importance than BANKSY. One of the earliest, and best of the Capital’s taggers, ROBBO is held in the highest respect and, given that most of his work has disappeared over the years it would have been more meaningful to have removed the Banksy and kept the Robbo, except the Robbo wouldn’t fetch anything at auction.

In 2009 there was a ‘war’ between the BANKSY and ROBBO and this tag was one of the last vestiges of that. It started with some verbal disrespect between the two during which ROBBO allegedly hit BANKSY across the head. Probably ROBBO’s best known piece was one on the banks of Regents Canal. This was no ordinary piece. It was generally recognised as the oldest extant graffiti piece in London. BANKSY obliterated part of ROBBO’s original and stenciled a workman with a brush so it looked like the workman was bill-posting ROBBO’s name.  So ROBBO changed it so it looked like the workman was painting ‘king robbo.’ BANKSY retaliated by adding Fuc before the king. So ROBBO painted the whole thing out and covered it with a picture of Top Cat leaning on a gravestone which said ‘RIP Banksy’s Career’. BANKSY replaced Top Cat with a crown and a can of spray paint. ROBBO then went around London defacing as many BANKSY pieces as he could find, wittily adding to one piece “He’s Not The Messiah, He’s A Very Naughty Boy,” Unfortunately ROBBO sustained serious injuries in an accident in 2011 and the tit for tat came temporarily to an end. Earlier this year it started again, this time with ROBBO adding to a Banksy in Mayfair.

In an interview in Sabotage Times last October ROBBO said that he has no qualms with people earning money from something they love, but he is not willing to produce commercial bollocks to pay bills. People forget that some of the greatest artists died broke, money isn’t an indicator of skill.

BANKSY himself has said that  the people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think that nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit. The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff.

It’s fascinating how much wit and wisdom can be gleaned through a commuter train window.

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