Tagged as a nuisance

Following the death of two ‘taggers’ in east London, chattering graffitists want a clampdown on those who give their art a bad name.

Emily Hill

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On Fashion Street in oh-so-trendy Shoreditch in London, there’s a very amateurish graffiti design, spraypainted in black upon a wall. It’s trying to say ‘Warning: CCTV in operation’ underneath a witty drawing, only the stencil hasn’t worked; it is dripped and blurry, the unformed shadow of whatever it is supposed to be. Next to it someone has scrawled in thin black ink: ‘Your [sic] not Banksy so don’t even try.’

Now that Banksy has pretty much made graffiti the preserve of the chattering classes, with exhibitions of his ‘art’ and endless column inches spent on deciphering what his street works mean, some who have fallen for his charm are increasingly worried that this ‘artform’ might slide back into its old, un-satirical, un-witty, urban ways, where the impulse is to scrawl pointless things (such as your name, or ‘tag’) on a brick wall.

Following the tragic death of two ‘taggers’ in Barking in East London last Friday – two young men who had been spraypainting their ‘tags’, or nicknames, on London Underground property before being hit by a train – the new chattering graffitists have been calling for some tough measures to protect their ‘art’ from those who apparently give it a bad name.

One blog, Londonist, which chronicles the appearance of ‘street poetry’ on London walls in a section of its site called ‘Random graffito’, had some stern advice for the random vandals who jump security fences and spray their names on walls. Reprinting the British Transport Police’s threat to hunt down anyone spraypainting the Underground over the Christmas period, Londonist explained:

‘Much as we regularly feature and even celebrate graffiti on this site, clamping down on railway vandalism is something we support. There is a big difference between a semi-artful stencil on the streets of Shoreditch (illegal though it may be) and an ugly series of tags on a tunnel wall that involve trespass and the resultant risk to passengers and train crews.’

The site went on to say that it might miss the stupidity of its favourite tagger, Tox, who has never let a fistful of Asbos prevent him from running amok in London and the south east of England, but otherwise its message was pretty clear: If you can’t be like one of the artists sold on Picture on Walls, a serious, apparently socially-concerned graffitist, then you have no business approaching a vertical surface and defacing it with an aerosol can.

Behind its pretty snobbish distinction between good graffiti and bad graffiti, Londonist accidentally raises an interesting question: why do some young people ‘tag’ walls? Is it worth risking your life on the railway lines simply to stake your claim on a grey, flat surface? This does seem to be something very different to the hi-jinks featured on Art of the State, who cock a wry wink at the right kind of people with the right kind of haircuts.

Where these ‘street artists’ featured in December’s Santa’s Ghetto art show in London, and can be bought, Googled or catalogued on their own websites, the graffitists who sneak out to tag a wall in their own name, or in the memory of a dead friend, are not so easily tracked on the web, or brought to you courtesy of Myspace or flickr. They do not go on ‘graffiti vacations’, hitting Cape Town one year and ‘bombing’ a Parisian train line the next. Who are these taggers, and why do they do it?

One list they do feature on is ‘Name that Tag’, the government initiative to identify and prosecute persistent offenders. The London Underground Graffiti Unit, which was re-established to counteract a reported resurgence in graffiti in 1997, says there has also been a growth in ‘glass etching’ or ‘Dutch graffiti’. If you travel on the District or Hammersmith and City Lines, you will see this sort of graffiti daily, with names scraped into the glass of the carriages.

According to the Graffiti Unit, part of the attraction of such glass-etching is that the name or message stays there for much longer, as glass cannot readily be replaced because of the high cost. The Unit says these graffitists ‘want to be accepted, to get fame, to get recognition; they want their name to be known all over London’ – a bit like Banksy, perhaps, and yet the young taggers’ messages are seen as being futile and criminal whereas Banksy is celebrated and displayed.

It’s hard to get to the root of tagging when you can’t track down those who tag and ask them why they put so much effort into doing it. But in the absence of any other clear explanation, perhaps it is because these young people want to claim some ownership of their surroundings, to stake their claim on a world that often offers them few real choices. Living in dull, suburban areas made up of concrete and endless brick, there is an understandable streak to old-fashioned street graffiti: defacing can make stark and bleak what is already drab and ugly, and anarchic decoration can spice up uniform space with new colour. And at a time when young people are encouraged to express themselves and seek out recognition, is it really so strange that some choose to express themselves on walls as a way of winning instant recognition?

Traditionally, graffiti has been associated with boredom and a lack of purpose. As the middle-class graffitists make such boredom and lack of purpose into an artform, graffitists in working-class areas are exposing themselves to danger, seemingly running greater risks in order to boast to friends or to try to establish their mark across the city. It may not quite be Banksy, but in some ways it makes more sense than Banksy does.

Emily Hill works at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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