‘The train came insanely close’: graffiti artists on why they risk their lives | Art and design
‘We sometimes stand on station platforms,” a young graffiti artist tells me. “When a train comes in on the opposite side, we jump on the tracks and start painting the train in front of the bemused passengers. One time someone shouted, ‘Train!’ – meaning there was one coming down the line. Everyone jumped back onto the platform except me and another guy. We looked at each other, daring each other to break first. I won but the train came insanely close to hitting me. It had its horns blaring.”
The death this month of three London graffiti artists has raised many questions, in particular this one: why would young men risk their lives to write their names in prominent places? The bodies of Jack Gilbert, 23, Harrison Scott-Hood, 23, and Alberto Carrasco, 19 – known by the tags Kbag, Lover and Trip – were found on the tracks at Loughborough Junction. They are thought to have been struck by a train during the night. It was, say police, a particularly risky location, offering no refuge and no means of escape.
Graffiti artists are often thought to be motivated by two things: the egotistical pleasure of leaving behind their nom de guerre or tag, and the excitement of doing something dangerous and illegal. But this view is seen as “monolithic” by Rafael Schacter, an anthropologist at University College London, who has spent 10 years researching graffiti and written three books on the subject.
He says that – although there are risks of electrocution, being chased by the transport police, or falling from high ledges – it is rare for graffiti artists to die in the way these men did. He believes that neither egotism nor risk-taking are their chief motivations. What matters to graffiti artists – also known as “writers” – are the social rewards that ensue from being part of a subculture.
The modern graffiti scene, linked to hip-hop, was born in the early 1970s. It really took off in 1971 when the New York Times wrote about a Greek writer called Taki who was leaving his name and street number on the ice-cream trucks and trains of Manhattan. TAKI 183 became widely imitated: suddenly there was a competition to see who could become more famous, to see who could “get up” the most.
At first, “getting up” – or achieving graffiti fame – was all about the number of tags, but soon tags started being written in ornate “hand styles”, which evolved into simple graffiti pieces called “throw-ups”. These were names filled in with one colour, often chrome, then outlined in another. Later tags were elaborated into full-colour “pieces” complete with cartoon characters.
Initially, the number of tags or throw-ups a writer produced was the sole criterion for judging who were “kings” and who were amateurs or “toys”. But style and clean technique became increasingly important. Writers may gain respect if they have enough tags but, to be a fully developed writer, you have to master all the graffiti forms.
If pieces hold more kudos than tags, then pieces in highly visible locations, from busy transit routes to exposed rooftops, hold still more. Pieces on trains – especially whole trains – are seen as the pinnacle of getting up. This is why graffiti artists prize such locations as Loughborough Junction, whose track feeds into central London, meaning their work will be more visible both to other writers and to the public.
Today, writers can air their graffiti globally using social media and specialist websites. In the real world, meanwhile, there are also many graffiti spaces or “halls of fame” that are either legal or tolerated by the authorities. So why do writers continue to take risks, illegally painting trains and tracksides, to get their work seen? The reason is not just that locations such as Loughborough Junction offer great visibility. It’s because writers are still expected to write much of the graffiti under illegal conditions.
In his 1982 book Getting Up: Subway Graffiti in New York, Craig Castleman says that only by writing graffiti under challenging conditions can the writer demonstrate “grace under pressure”. As one 25-year-old writer who wished to remain anonymous told me: “When you get people painting in a calm legal space for the public, you end up with clean art – without any of the hardcore soul you get when you’re painting in the pitch black with an eye over your shoulder.
Some academics view the egotistical self-expression, illegality and risk less as primary attractions than as a means to develop feelings of identity and belonging. Nancy Macdonald, author of The Graffiti Subculture, homed in on the role of gender. Pointing to the fact that writers are predominantly male, she said graffiti was chiefly about forming male identity – becoming “someone” through familiar tropes, such as the outlaw.
Rafael Schacter, author of award-winning World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, believes Macdonald gave too much prominence to masculinity. Although graffiti is overwhelmingly a male activity, he says, artists are less concerned with masculinity than to encounter, engage with and explore the city. He thinks the obvious gender bias simply echoes divisions in wider society. “Girls,” he says, “are not ‘supposed’ to explore dangerous places, to engage in extreme activities, to stay out late, whilst boys for the most part are.”
There are female artists in graffiti, says Schacter, but they often arrive at a later age. They’re no less daring, he adds, pointing to the example of one female writer, Gold Peg, whose graffiti occupied the highest spots at King’s Cross in London. Duel, another female writer now in her 30s, once climbed out of the window of a moving train to tag its roof. Schacter sees the willingness to take risks as “intrinsic – but as a way to show commitment to a community. These are not the lone, disaffected youths often depicted, but individuals totally committed to their collective and practice.”
Although competition has always been built into graffiti culture, it is not between enemies. Writers paint their crew’s name as much as their own and they practise together. “Of course ego exists,” says Schacter, “and some artists lean in this direction, but the community is paramount. It is about painting with people.”
This view is echoed by Aroe, a former member of international graffiti super-crew MSK. Aroe is now a commercially successful artist. Although he is aware that many see him as selling out, he believes he has paid his dues. In Madrid, he once pulled the emergency cord when a train was in a tunnel so he could paint it.
Aroe gives some credence to Macdonald’s view, by emphasising the importance of “the thrill of the chase” and the figure of the outlaw. “There are a few girl writers,” he says, “but that’s probably because there is less attraction for women in infamy or the thrill of daring.” He recalls the time his crew, Heavy Artillery, arrived at Churchill Square shopping centre in Brighton with bags of paint and tried to act as if they had official permission. Sometimes this worked, but not this time. “The police turned up and said look just take your bags and fuck off.”
While writers prize such escapades, Aroe also says: “Graffiti is not necessarily machismo.” He mentions a sense of male identity achieved through belonging. “Graffiti is about oneupmanship, marking territory, flag-waving, peacocking – but it’s also about claiming an identity with a clan or crew. You write the crew name and you’re saying me and these individuals are one.”
Sometimes, graffiti is depicted as a way for disfranchised youth to assert their identity in public. Through effort, skill and flair, writers gain recognition that may otherwise be denied. But the follow-on from this, the idea that graffiti is predominantly practised by young working-class men, is disputed by Aroe. “Working-class people don’t tend to do it for as long,” he says. “Because if you’re from a middle-class background, you may be more able to get out of trouble.” Some of the most hardcore writers he has met are middle-class, but he does say: “There are some who conform to the stereotype, live in tower blocks in Battersea, do graffiti and go to prison for it.”
My 25-year-old anonymous writer differs, however. “It’s a multi-class subculture,” he says. “But it’s mainly the working class and disenfranchised. I’ve met way more working class writers and definitely 90% of the hardcore writers were working class too
I ask Aroe what he thinks about the death of the three writers in London. “It’s just a tragic loss,” he says. “In a year or two, it might not have even mattered to them as much.”
He doubts that the tragedy will put other writers off, however. In fact, if anything, he thinks there could be a rise in graffiti at that location – because it will now be more notorious.
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