Street art, vandalism and me

I’ve frequently been accused by contemporary graffiti purists of jumping on a bandwagon by painting in the street. Today when I make a mural it’s authorised by the building’s owner or a local authority (I’m too slow to beat the police in a 100 metre sprint now) and admittedly, because of this requirement, it is harder to make work as political as I did when I started. That’s another reason for working with the paste-ups too. I get the time to make and finish the image in the studio and when it’s ready it can be pasted up with a minimum of fuss. I feel that the private individual has as much right to put work into public view as business does with its massive advertising campaigns – it’s just that generally the individual doesn’t have the money to buy the authority. I do try to be responsible in my siting of my work; I wouldn’t paste up a drawing on an historic building without permission – unless the siting was specific to any political point that I couldn’t make any other way. Also, I only use water based adhesives and the work is just on paper so it’s not going to be there for a huge amount of time. In my mind it’s free public art that the public purse doesn’t have to pay for – one of the side benefits of all unauthorised street art.

Going back to 1980 and my street graffiti…

In the early 1980s I wasn’t very interested in the hip hop scene or its music as it started to develop in the UK. Admittedly, there was a large and varied black music scene in nearby Bristol that did have some attractions, but in the small rural town where I lived in north Somerset it was the punk scene and the growing community of politicised travellers (defined as the ‘peace convoy’ by the media) that attracted me more.
The anarcho-punk of CRASS, Poison Girls, Conflict and Dead Kennedys struck me with their musical ideology and their cut and paste visual aesthetic and I decided to follow their visual lead. I made my own paste-up, photocopied pieces that expressed my anger at whatever the Thatcher government was doing at the time to piss me off. I was angry at the Falkland’s War, the treatment of the striking miners, the Poll Tax, the installation of nuclear missiles at Greenham Common and many other things – and I made and pasted up A4 and A3 sized, photocopied objections. At the time I didn’t consider it art or graffiti; it was just my way of expressing frustration at the world I lived in.
A can of Holts white primer car paint would sit happily inside the left pocket of a jacket and stay warm enough to be sprayed on a cold night. Text stencils on card would fold up and tuck away in the inside right pocket when not needed. It was easy, it was quick and it was all within my control.
And if I found New York subway style graffiti in my small, rural, English ex-mining town (an aesthetic I considered incongruous to the location at the time) I would just stencil “WHY?” or stencil marks out of ten at the end of it rather than attack it by tagging.
If I found racist or National Front graffiti I would obliterate it. At the two local job centres I regularly attended I would stencil “UB NAUGHTY” on their walls (a play on the name of the Unemployment Benefit form UB40). It would be removed and I would put it back again – repeatedly. It became a game. On roadside kerbs I stencilled “GET OFF YOUR KNEES” and “MY GOD, IT’S FULL OF STARS”, on walls I stencilled “NOTHING HAPPENED HERE”, “FIGHT WAR NOT WARS”, “DESTROY POWER NOT PEOPLE” and I always carried stencils of the CND sign, the logo of the band CRASS and their anarchy broken gun symbol to spray anywhere. If you read “KEEPER OFF THY GRASS”, “MIND THEE ANIMAL” or “JUMPING UP & DOWN THERE” in Bristol or Bath in the 80s that was me – so it wasn’t just politics.
I’d cut and paste newspaper photographs and add them to my own drawings and apply cryptic phrases that only meant anything to myself. It was just an attempt to make people stop, look, read and question the reason for the message. To notice that not everything pasted on a wall or bus shelter translated as ‘buy this’. It was fun.
And now people have asked for photographic evidence of my 1980s street work while they forget that photographs in the 80s required film, developing and consequently money to waste. This would have been not only a ridiculous expense but also a ridiculous habit. Why would any sensible person record, and keep for posterity, evidence of what was considered a criminal act? And, I also thought, who would possibly want to see it? At that time, from the punk (as opposed to the hip hop) perspective, I never discovered a like-minded community of people doing the same thing as if it was an intrinsic part of their youth culture. It was never about gaining peer kudos so I never developed an identifiable tag. Firstly because I didn’t want to identify myself as the individual responsible for an act that would have been defined as criminal damage. Secondly, the graffiti tag was specifically identified as being part of a subculture that I didn’t feel represented my concerns at the time (the fellow punk vandals that I knew didn’t spray tags). Thirdly, whatever most punk graffiti was about (and its reasons were many and varied) it was never about the identity of the individual making it.
Like the essence of the music I was listening to at the time it was generally about expressing anger at the unfairness of contemporary society without resorting to violence. This was pre-internet when the media was very limited and controlled so we decided to take a degree of that control back ourselves and pasted-up information about nuclear disarmament, animal rights, apartheid, pollution and a hundred other issues. All made possible with a spray can and stencil or crudely photocopied poster art.
The DIY aesthetic and methodology was inspired (via punk) by the spirit of Paris ’68. Using street walls as a platform for the message was inspired by the spirit of Paris ’68. Didactic, surreal, satirical, polite and rude were all appropriate methods of making the message and that heterogeneous approach too was inspired by the spirit of Paris ’68.
Because the contemporary adult audience is one that grew up with the aesthetic of hip hop graffiti being part of their normal visual consumption (rather than being transgressive vandalism), street art is now embedded within the mainstream of culture generally; we have artists being paid by local authorities to put up enormous murals which add positively to the urban visual environment. But most of this work is decorative and frequently artists are commissioned on the basis that they will not make work that challenges the political orthodoxy. Undoubtedly it is certainly an improvement to the urban landscape when we lose commercial advertising space to individual artistic murals; it returns that public space to its community where it becomes a site of interaction and not a site of a silent acceptance of the rights of consumerism, but I do worry that perhaps we are losing some of the reasoning that brought many street artists out onto the street in the first place.

card stencils and a paste-up in Liverpool in 2016

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