Written by Imogen O'Rorke on June 28 1996, titled in full, 'This is Elk. At 16, he was the scourge of London Transport Police. Now he works in advertisng'

When SoHo street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat picked up a can of spray-paint it was poetry; a brave new expression of racial anger and social discontent. When Simon Sunderland, a 23-year-old student from Sheffield, got his hands on one recently it was five years for criminal damage. Twenty years since the jagged, hip hop-style tags started appearing all over our cities, the debate over whether it is art or vandalism is as hot as ever. Sunderland, who caused 7,000 damage using the tag Fisto, was given a "public hanging" to deter others. The authorities despair of ever containing the underground art form, which costs London alone 110 million a year in cleaning bills.

Society sends out confusing messages to graffitists: the Prince's Trust has been known to patronise them, Providing them with paints and canvas, while Politicians call for the "vandals" to be put in the stocks; council-funded youth centres put spray cans in the teenagers' hands and the law slaps handcuffs on their wrists. Captains of the art establishment like Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard dismiss the art form as "deplorable", "a form of aggression towards society".

Even the graffitists - who call themselves "writers". are divided over whether it is art. Elk and Cal, who wrote for the gang CWS (Cheeba Wizards) during the eighties, have wholly different experiences of the graffiti scene.

Cal, 25, grew up in the middle of the graffiti boom in Ladbroke Grove, where names like Mode2, Zaki and Pride, known as "the Chrome Angels", dominated the school playground.

He was handed his first can at his community centre when he was 14. He bumped into his teacher, a respected writer, on a train later that week. "He gave me a green can and I wrote 'Clash' all over the carriage. It was the biggest buzz ever. From then on I would ride the trains every lunchtime, wearing a big mac crammed with cans. I became a serial sprayer."

Getting his tag around guaranteed instant respect at school. The arrival of breakdancing and the book Subway Art - which he says was like "a junkie's first fix" - from the US in 1986 started off a craze. "It was all about getting your name up." he says "What we were all doing wasn't art. It wasn't like New York, where they were expressing proper anger at the government for poor social conditions. It was a status thing: I'm a nutter. I'm a bad boy. I do loads of trains - I'm the king"

Cal spent most of his teens crawling under wires and over roofs to get at trains; letting himself out of his bedroom window at night by a ropeladder to go on "wrecking" sessions in the yards. His favourite hits' were Gloucester Road (nicknamed "happy faces"), Wembley and Rickmansworth (Ricky). He left school at 16 and went to art college.

Graffiti became a full-time occupation' Cal scattered his tag over all the Tube lines, but was most prolific on the "Little Met" (a branch of the Metropolitan Line, since renamed the Hammersmith and City Line). 'At most stations you could just walk off,the platform and into the tunnels and wait in the cubby holes for the trains to stop," he recalls. "The trackies would yell, '0i, you! Drop it!'and we would run into the tunnel where they couldn't get us, hoping a train wouldn't come. I normally consumed a bottle of whisky beforehand, it was so nerve-racking."

When London Transport Police raided a station, they were supposed to give advance warning for the electricity to be cut off. Often it wasn't. The first death happened in Kilburn Park station in 1990 to the little brother of a gang-member. Evil, a 12-year-old, was scooped up out of his cubby hole by a train and dragged off down a tunnel.

Cal was unlucky in another way. At 18 he was charged with causing 45.000 criminal damage: for tagging and setting trains alight and raiding an off-licence with a gang of 50. He came back the day after to to take souvenir photographs and was picked up. He was still paying off the 800 fine and doing conimunity service two years later.

Times have changed. "I have to bite my tongue now when I hear advertising executives in moleskin trainers discussing graffiti," he says. "As coffee table art, it's bollocks. I used to have a motto when I was 17: 'The trains are the canvases and the galleries are the stations." That's bollocks too. Graff is about how much damage you can cause and how quickly you can do it. It starts through boredom and becomes an obsession."

He reserves his opinions, however, when dealing with clients, who Pay him handsomely to decorate their studios and Regency terraced houses with tags and murals. His client list so far includes the singer Wendy James (who asked for Tank Girl in her study), a member of the Rothschild family (who wanted Good V Evil. in the bedroom), a stockbroker, a banker, a publisher. Cal eventually wants to be a graphic, designer and has "absolutely no qualms" about marketing his skills in the meantime.

Elk, 24, reigned suprenme on the London Underground for three years from 1989 and is still considered be one of the top five "old skool" writers. He now lives in Manchester and has just been offered a place at Glasgow School of Art. He doesn't know what started him off: "What motivated me aged 12 to pick up a felttip pen and write 'Pinky and Perky' on a wall? I don't know," he says, "I guess it was the adrenalin at first and, later on, the fame." Driven by a desire to get his name up in the station-yard Hall of Fame, he taught himself how to trace the letters from Subway Art and develop his own style of writing, which has developed into what he calls "Old English".

It took years of dedicated "raiding", but at 16 Elk had taken over the Metropolitan Line. He formed his own crew, PFB - standing variously for Profits From Bethlehem, Punishment For Bumpkins, Paddy's Fighting Back - with big names Drax, Robbo and Shun.

In PFB, the more perilous the task, the higher the rewards: one of Elk's biggest thrills was to hide. in the bushes to wait for a Jubilee Line train to stop at a junction, then jump into the tracks and tag before a fast Metropolitan train came rushing through.

The death of a gang member during a raid in Neasden yard marked the end of "innocence". He remembers the night: "LTP surprised us, and we had to escape across a 40 track junction. It's like running through knives. Raze tripped and fell face down on the live tracks. Nobody realised that he was dead till the next day. One or two stopped after that. The rest went ballistic - declared all out war on LTP's graff squad." Nearly all of them ended up with serious convictions.

Elk has never been caught in this country and has carried on playing a game of cat and mouse with police. He plays it safe, hiding his designs at friends' houses, resisting the temptation to keep photos at home. He has started moving with the legal crowd as well, most of whom he says are "trainspotting types, more into graffiti art magazines than girls". They meet at "Halls of Fame" and "Unity" sessions, which he organises once a year, around the country to paint on sponsored hoardings or wall spaces.

He also teaches spray-can art to homeless people in Soho, deprived children in East London and Bengali kids in Brick Lane. Graffiti, he hopes, keeps them out of worse crime: "There is a kind of scally- wag who is gonna get a record whatever they do," he explains. "I never talk about the illegal stuff to the kids. But if a kid is already doing trains I will educate him."

ELK only hits BR trains these days (considered the lowest of the low by London writers) because they are "easier" and the "canvases are bigger". "Kids on the Tubes these days are hardcore. They have to deal with laser beams, hidden cameras, carry bolt cutters and gloves for fingerprints. It's a real hassle," he says.

He believes the British scene will progress naturally on to walls and canvas, but fears narrow- mindedness in other graffitists. "In Brighton there's some fantastic abstract being done. But they are outcast by train writers," he says. "Graff as an art form should not be scorned at. It is an expres- sion of where we are at now: of our insecurities, our disposable lifestyle. Our generation is starting to be influential. Young art buyers understand where we are coming from now."

From pop videos to the set of Lynda La Plante's new fihn, Supply And Demand, graffiti is being deployed for the designer cityscapes of the nineties. Elk is frequently contacted to do film sets and advertising promos and is soon to star as a graffiti artist on the run in a short film to promote Renegade Soundwave's new album. His work- place, scattered with multifarious cans of Smoothwriter, Krylon and sketches for a new "Old English" figurestyle that he's been working on, is becoming the studio of a fanatical graphic designer. Without equivocation he concludes, "Graff is definitely the best thing that ever happened to me."