We’re all familiar with barely legible scrawls on railway bridges, shop fronts and any other accessible surface across the capital. And from colourful nicknames and indecipherable tags to full-blown abuse, graffiti has a predictably bad rep. To paint messages on walls for which you do not have permission – no matter how offensive, witty or distinctly average – is, of course, criminal damage.
But if you have a little spare time this month, it’s worth considering the art that surrounds us; needless to say, our area has examples galore. Take a train north out of St Pancras, for example, and you may spot the unabashedly loud and proud ‘pegging’ displayed three feet high. Why? Perhaps best not to ask.
Camden and K-Town are a hot bed of giant monkeys (courtesy of artist Elmo) and tribal faces (Panik), while the scope for making political statements and social observations is of course vast (see Mau Mau, below). The criminal implications of spraying ensures that it remains a fairly anonymous activity; the unseen poster boy for street art, Banksy, has long used this to his full advantage.
In the 1990s Banksy (see his Top 5 NW locations here) deftly brought graffiti out into the open and his style has been much replicated, although he is not without critics: not only is much of his work heavily influenced by Blek le Rat, who first began stencilling rats and lifesize figures around the streets of Paris over twenty years ago, but the very fact that it is stencilled rather than free hand is something that can raise a sneer in the graffiti world. Yet, from a practical point of view, stencils speed up the spraying and hence minimise the chance of a run-in with the police (or so I hear).
This crucial advantage meant that even the much respected London boy and free-sprayer, King Robbo, on occasion would resort to stencils. Although Robbo has been big on the London graf scene since the 1980s, gaining notoriety through tagging trains, his renown spilled over into the general public’s awareness when late in 2009 Banksy instigated a turf war down on the Regent’s Canal in Camden Town. A piece of work produced by Robbo in 1985 – and considered the oldest piece of graf in the capital – was partly covered over by a Banksy stencil of a man applying wallpaper of Robbo’s tag.
‘Wallpapergate’ led to an ongoing feud of destroying and modifying each other’s work, followed with interest by local residents; amusing – if petty – it showed the real passion and dedication which drives artists in niche street culture. Each time Robbo sprayed over a Banksy he risked a serious charge of criminal damage: easy then to see why sometimes he too would resort to the odd time-saving stencil?
The feud reached a dramatic conclusion. In 2011 King Robbo was found in the street with a serious head injury and was in a coma for a substantial period of time. At the time of writing it is still unknown as to how these injuries occurred; he remains unable to speak. Banksy is one of many artists who sprayed a tribute to Robbo, repainting the original 80s piece in black and white, giving it a crown to acknowledge the ‘King’, and a candle in the form of a (painted) lit spray can. So yes, that scruffy patch of NW1 wall has quite a sense of place in local history.
Another, more substantial, piece of what we might call memorial art is the infamous Kentish Town tag; originally by Panik from Ahead o’ The Game graffiti crew, the old sign was resprayed in tribute to an old friend, Spike from T-shirt manufacturers Fifth Column.
One long standing K-Town resident, musician and respray collaborator, BigBand Hijack, explains how the respray happened: word reached him of the need for a cherry picker, and, as someone with a background in theatre and set design, he was well placed to obtain the necessary mobile elevated platform. (Incidentally, Bigband is so called because of his tendency to casually slip the odd swing track into the mix at trance parties.)
Around the same time a sympathetic neighbourhood policeman bemoaned the state of the scruffy existing Kentish Town tag and it was inferred that a smartening up of the sign would be welcomed (for that, read that he’d look the other way). What then occurred is a truly organic process of collaboration by the community: a certain well-known Michael reckoned he might “know someone who knows someone who can spray”, the musician and ex-bar man at the Oxford supplied the paint, a friendly shopkeeper offered up his electricity for the feat – the list goes on. Watch the video of how it all came together here.
What is very apparent is that graffiti and street art create an interaction or dialogue between the place, the piece and the audience: this is perfectly exemplified by the Mau Mau work, above.
To avoid the wrath of some interviewees, however, it should be noted that graffiti is considered quite distinct from street art, at which some taggers sneer for “losing the truth, immediacy and rawness” of traditional tagging. How to differentiate between street art and graffiti is not clear, although amongst many it is considered that Banksy is a street artist (this is not a compliment) and King Robbo is a graffiti artist. There is a sense that street artists have ‘sold out’ in some way. Perhaps it is just down to professional envy. Regardless, the intrinsic value of something sprayed illegally on a wall will inevitably differ from person to person. To many though, an attractive, amusing, commemorative or thoughtful piece of spray can not only bring a community together – be it collaborative, appreciative or even feudal, it can actually help cement an area’s identity.
It seems that there is a very real need for people to feel they can express themselves, to escape, to rebel, to trespass. For many it is just the thrill, for others it’s an excuse to explore the rooftops of London.
It is also an affirmation of existing. Although at its most primitive level tagging and spats such as the Banksy/ Robbo turf war can be viewed as having the same purpose as, er, a dog urinating on a lamp post, perhaps street art fulfils a basic instinct to (literally) leave a mark. One tagger who we shall call Tee says simply that “seeing your name emblazoned on a wall, seen by thousands every day, it makes you smile. Like, it’s your secret but no-one can pin it on you. Makes you feel alive!”
Recently I had a chance encounter with a magistrate and I told him that I had witnessed, one Sunday morning, a couple, spray can in hand, half way through defacing a park wall. I watched another passerby turn from a distance to observe them, reproach written across his face. But, after reading the pink word they were busy outlining in black, he instead gave them a big thumbs up and smile. The word? ‘Hope’ (see writer Andrew Whitehead’s brilliant exploration of the area’s Top 10 “Hopes” here).
The magistrate looked reflective. Minutes after the thumbs up, I continued to explain, a passing jogger suggested that the couple write the word ‘Love’ on the adjacent wall.
I suggested that while this was vandalism of public property, perhaps there is a place in society for certain poignant words, or uplifting observations that make the world a better place. The magistrate tentatively agreed that there might indeed be scope for “happy” graffiti”; however he was quite emphatic that being “egged on by a jogger” is no defence in court. Noted.