DESIGNS OF THE TIMES |
This article was originally published in The Big Issue, issue no 23 on 5 Feb. 93. The author is Mathiason and was accompanied by photos of the Angel & Devil Elk at Unity 2 and Artful Dodger's Weetabix advert piece.
Goldie's got a chip on his shoulder. He says people see him as a "nigger with a mouth crammed full of gold teeth." "I was dropped in the ghetto and never got anything at school. I've been in care and I've been locked up." But when he got into graffiti, Goldie finally found a way to express himself spraying angry messages about "inner city business" like Clean Up The Ghetto and World War Three Beware. That was 10 years ago when graffiti emerged hand-in-hand with Hip-Hop. It came from New York when black kids wrote their names on neighbourhood walls creating local identities and marking out turf. As designs got wilder, it ushered in a whole new multi-racial generation of artists rising out of the ashes of ghetto life. Graffiti was a natural companion for Hip-Hop and break-dancing. It's 'in yer face' designs complimented rap's harsh, sparse rhythms.
Today, Goldie(28) is ranting on the 18th floor of a Chalk Farm tower block. He hammers out his philosophy: "I'm against the traditional system in Britain. This fucked up society. So I become like a chameleon. I adapt to the system around me and then reflect it like a mirror using inner city language. For every legal piece (elaborate mural), I do an illegal one. If I painted a pretty picture, people have to assume meaning. With graffiti, you say something."
Goldie has done business with top PR outfits like Lynne Franks who've used his "streety" work to sell it's clients' products. But he doesn't deal with the commercial world any more, preferring to produce hardcore house music and spray 'wildstyle' - a complicate interlocking letter design. If Goldie met the Artful Dodger, they'd probably have little to say. The Artful Dodger (26) is making a living out of his art. His surreal 'pieces' were up by Bomb the Bass, Schooly D, and the Cookie Crew. Janet Street-Porter commissioned him for the graphics on Def II and his work has appeared on billboards nation-wide for a Weetabix ad campaign. He now sprays stockbrokers' homes but denies he's sold out: "It's a question of me having a career as an artist. Aerosol art is going that way. If it isn't me it would be someone else but I'm not in it for the money. When I started, I really didn't know there was money in it. I was just blown away by the look."
Graffiti was once the calling card of disaffected working class, black kids. Not any more. Like most youth cults, what black people invent, white middle classes imitate. Eighties graffiti was characterised by gangs like The Chrome Angels and the Supreme Team. Competition was healthy and helped the art form achieve respectability. in 1989, a buyer representing the Queen snapped up a piece for an undisclosed four figure sum. Today, there are two main crews - PFB and BNB with about 50 members each spending most of their time mutilating each other's work.
Coochie's typical of London's new wave of illegal graffiti artists. He isn't a mucked up city kid. He wasn't brought up in a no-hope high rise. His dad has a lucrative job on a national newspaper. Like most 'writers' today, he's white, middle class, in his late teens and not necessarily unemployed.
You'd need to be working to afford the tools of your trade - aerosol cans cost around 10 and any self-respecting writer needs several colours. It's uncool to but paint and with graphic art shops refusing to sell cans to under-18s most writers have little choice but to rack (steal) it. There are legal graffiti sites - Westbourne Park Hall of Fame, Crystal Palace - but local authorities, pressed for cash, have closed many of them own.
Illegal artists write on any available space: Underpasses, walls and passage ways on estates - although they normally steer clear of private property. Pride of place is reserved for London Underground property. Travel overground on the tube and there are tags and pieces smothering walls and bridges all over London.
There not much graffiti on the tubes themselves because to spray a piece, writers have t break into goods yards. The IRA bombing campaigns have meant increased security and made raids harder. London Underground claims that cleaning the graffiti costs them 2 m each year. In 1991, it reported 1,385 cases of graffiti with 400 arrests.
The British Transport Police thought they had the problem under control in London. But a Manchester spokesperson says graffiti is once again increasing and predicts a comeback in London this summer: "It goes in cycles," he says.
Coochie's mate JB says spray-painting in the dead of night " is a great way of picking up women". So that's it. Graffiti these days is all about sex. But JB's taking the piss: "It isn't really. You're out all night and you stink of paint when you get back. I think women prefer the Chippendales. They smell better." So why do the arch-enemies of the British Transport Police risk their lives and ruin their chances with women just to daub their tags or pieces on walls and railway carriages? For fame and respect explains Coochie: "I'm addicted to it. I love seeing my name all over the place. It's about fame. There's not a lot of it around but if you rack the paint and you've got the nerve, you can get it for free."
Their bid for fame has occasionally back-fired. London Underground railway workers, they say, have chased them with crowbars and spanners. And they've both come close to joining the 12 who've already died for their art.
Three years ago, Gary Baxter (16) was killed after his friends say they were chased by policemen carrying truncheons. In the melee Gary slipped onto live rails. Others have been crushed to death by trains. One boy was killed 'surfing' a tube from one site to another.
Coochie's been arrested three times for causing criminal damage escaping with 300 fines. Now he's going to skip bail and leave the country rather than face a third conviction. The maximum fine is 1,000 but if there's more than 800 worth of damage, crown courts can dish out 10 year prison sentences.
Coochie's writing days are temporarily over, but JB says he'll never give up. He's a student at Wimbledon School of Art where his interest is tolerated by the tutors: "I'm going to carry on doing it illegally forever. It's for my own benefit. I don't tag trains. I take care with my work. It's a struggle because London Transport doesn't want the public to see what we do. They leave the untidy tags on trains but buff (clean) the good designs. They're scared that if the public sees them, people might like them."
A British Transport Police spokesperson denies this:" We have a policy of cleaning trains immediately unless they are urgently needed. If we didn't, it says to the public that the environment you travel in is out of control. Graffiti degrades everything. People think nobody cares about the system. Once you let it go, the floodgates open to criminal elements. You start getting vagrants, drunks, more robberies and muggings."
Some reckon that with the increasing influx of middle class thrill seekers racking aerosols for kicks, graffiti runs the risk of going mainstream and losing it's edge. Others argue that because it's illegal, it'll be forced to remain underground and kicking. Either way, the contemplation of a good 'piece' en route to work is just as valid as being force fed larger than life Naomi Campbells spread-eagled on the advertising hoardings which line our platforms and roads.