BATTLE OF THE ART OUTLAWS |
A front page feature of the Big Issue written by Max Daly, August 25 - 31 1997
Fume and Bozo are London's most wanted graffiti artists. The two renegade 20-year olds from West London, who have made their mark on most of the tube trains running through the capital, are the bane of the British Transport Police.
The pair are part of a rapidly-growing mob known as 'bombers' - graffiti artists who vandalise trains by scrawling their name in as many places as possible.
They have declared war on the more law abiding 'old skool' wall painters, whose work has developed into vast colourful illustrations. The bombers make it their business to ruin the work of all other graffiti artists as quickly as possible, and are equally hostile to what they call 'bumpkins', graffiti artists from outside London.
This worsening graffiti war, exclusive to London, surfaced in the form of a punch-up at an annual gathering of graffiti artists - ironically entitled Unity - in Hammersmith earlier this month. The event, held at a disused sunken basketball pitch, was meant to bring together members of the warring underground cliques. But it degenerated into an ugly battle when a London bomber stole a can of paint from a member of the old skool from Brighton.
'It was absolute mayhem. I lost count of the number of fights. There were bottles flying everywhere," says Unity organiser Elk, who reigned supreme on the London Underground in the early Nineties. He is regarded as one of the UK'ss top five old skool writers.
'There were serious fights, people got their backs up pretty badly and the police had to be called. It's a reflection of how rough the graffiti scene is now. These youngsters have no regard for people who were writing when they were still in nappies. They are deliberately upsetting the hierarchy.'
If writers are caught tagging (writing their names) in the wrong area, or over existing graffiti they are now likely to get robbed or beaten up. The young breed, whose raids are commonly fuelled by drugs and alcohol, are prepared to go to any extent to get their name known.
Fume, who has been working in a gang of 20 since 1992, explains the cause of the fights. 'The only proper writers are on trains, that's where it belongs. Those fighting were mates of ours. The Unity lot just paint walls, we call them 'toys' because they're so lame. They cannot be allowed to dominate us and call themselves writers'.
'If someone has come down from the country you have to nick their tins of paint. That's why the fight at Unity started. It's our fee. You've got to earn the right to be hardcore. If you are not on the line (vandalising tubes), taking risks, then you've got no right to say anything about it. That's the beef: that these people are calling themselves writers and they are not.'
According to Fume and Bozo, a bona fide writer must leave the house with no money, and spend the day nicking food, tube tickets and paint to fund their graffiti lifestyle. They say it is like going on a mission. Both claim taggers know more about the workings of the tube system than the drivers and, as a result, have the right to do what they want.
'A real writer is someone who knows how many trains are in each depot and when to pounce; someone who scratches their tag on train windows, paints on them inside and outside,' says Bozo, who adds that getting stoned and arrested is all part of the buzz. 'If you're out with us the whole train has got to be fucked-up. Nothing less will do. It's no use painting the odd wall with pretty colours. You've got to smash every depot. It's a war and no one can control us.'
Hundreds of new tags are appearing each year, creating a scrabble for notoriety. If writers are prepared to take the risk to get their name up where others would not dare, reverence is instant. In urban areas, graffiti has become one of the most desirable ways of gaining status. However impossible a tag may seem, somebody will do it. They might get arrested, put in jail or killed, but they'll do it. And there is always someone prepared to take their place.
Children as young as 10 are climbing 40 feet up drainpipes and hanging from six inch wide ledges. Many enter areas designed to keep out the IRA. Security guards, railway and Tube depots protected with razor wire, and laser trips which trigger infrared cameras just act as a challenge to most graffiti artists.
'It is one of the most passionate art forms and that's why there is so much friction in London at the moment,' says Elk. 'Writing is about getting your name everywhere. There is a lot of resentment created if someone has got their tag in more places than you. Writers have phenomenal drive and motivation; people will steal paint so they can do it - and for no apparent gain.'
Ben, 27, used to tag trains in the early Nineties but avoids writing in London now because of the new breed of taggers. He says it used to be mellow, that writers wouldn't go over other people's work. 'There was a lot of respect, now there is zero respect. London graffiti culture is different from the rest of the England - everybody hates everybody.'
Pulse, who has been writing for 15 years, is also disgusted at the wave of in-fighting blighting the London scene, which he describes as being 'the worst in the world at present'. He says youngsters like Fume and Bozo resort to bombing because they can't produce the quality of work achieved by their enemies. 'They have to take the next step and use their imagination,' he says. 'They have no style. The older generation has got to show the youngsters the way forward.'
Despite the Unity brawl, old skoolers say the youngsters can still create something positive out of their passion - given time. 'There is not a chance in hell that I can bring these factions all together in peace by waving a magic wand,' says Elk. 'There is too much anger in these people, it is beyond our control now. Hopefully soon they will think what the fuck am I doing. The fact that some of the younger writers were there to see how the older ones work will influence them in the future. They might have been fighting but they were still there. We have planted a little seed which could turn these people into the graphic designers and magazine editors of the future.'