April 10, 2016


Two railway lines bisect Tooting Common Triangle, where I walk my dog and watch birds and other animals. One is flanked, for part of its length, by a path and a scrappy wall which forms the base of the embankment. From time to time, graffiti appears on this wall. Someone tells the council, and the council sends some men to clean it off; they arrive in a van which manoeuvres its way along the footpath, and for a few hours the solvents they use to clean it off drift through the trees and across the grass. And then, a little while later, the graffiti reappears.

Last weekend I was part of an interesting debate on Twitter about this graffiti. Interesting, because it seemed to me that nobody was quite willing to be honest about the feelings it provoked, or the deeper and more difficult reasons for their objection to it.

Things kicked off when I made the point that, seeing as it doesn't actually do any harm either to people or nature, I'd rather it was just left there than my money spent on provoking another 'clean it off / graffiti returns' cycle. But not everyone felt the same.

Some of the reasons people gave me for feeling so strongly about it were:

It's without artistic merit
It's defacing public property
• It interferes with the appreciation of nature
It's illegal
It's exactly the same as dropping litter; the act of a 'lowlife'
It's arrogant for one person to impose their artwork on everyone else
Nobody wants it there (and we live in a democracy!)

I'm going to address these points in order, and then I'm going to raise some questions about what might really be going on.

It's ugly, and completely without artistic merit
That's completely subjective. I may think it's ugly; everyone I know might think it's ugly. But to the artist and their friends, perhaps it isn't ugly. When it comes to aesthetic values there is no objective measure; there is no 'view from nowhere'. There are only competing subjectivities, however challenging that is to accept. 

It's defacing public property
It's a rubbly bit of old wall. It's not a scheduled ancient monument, or a notable building. Be honest: were it not for the graffiti, none of us would give a toss about it. The wall isn't held close to anyone's heart.

It interferes with the appreciation of nature 
Tooting Common isn't exactly the Lake District, it's an urban commons set in a vast and extremely diverse city – and as such, graffiti is hardly out of keeping. What's more, I could just as easily say that the toddlers' playground interferes with my appreciation of nature, or the litter bins, or the redgra. Fortunately, like all these things, the graffiti isn't actually harming nature itself at all.

It's illegal
So is going over 20 in a 20 zone, but every driver's done it. We pick and choose the laws we obey: all of us, every single day. So the graffiti being illegal clearly isn't the true basis for people's objection.

It's like dropping litter; the act of a lowlife
It's utterly different. Dropping litter is thoughtless and lazy; graffiti is, like it or not, a thoughtful and deliberate act. It takes time and skill; it represents an investment of money, and risk, too.
Moreover, litter can have profound implications for wildlife; these images don't.

It's arrogant for one person to impose their artwork on everyone else
We are imposed on by posters and advertising billboards every day, given no choice about the images we see, the messages we read or the products we're exposed to – and that includes children. Some of those billboards and posters aim to make us feel insecure or dissatisfied with our lives in order to sell us something to remedy that feeling. Much of it promotes ideas of body image and gender (for example) that many of us don't feel comfortable with – and which we may be harmed by. If we're going to worry about things being imposed on us in the public space we'd be far better off objecting to advertising than the word 'Vope' in spraypaint. 
However, there is something in this objection that perhaps comes accidentally close to the truth, and I'll return to it shortly. 

The vast majority of people don't want it there (and we live in a democracy!)
This one's a doozy. Because – how on earth do you know? Have you asked everyone? All the Common's visitors? Yep: all of them, including the schoolkids, the teenagers (and this means not just your kids, but the ones who hang around after dark – the ones who you're a little bit scared of)? Have you asked the street drinkers and the guy who sleeps on the bench and the five-a-side footballers and the Polish guys who come to hang out on the logs and smoke roll-ups and remember the Old Country?
Well... why not?

This is really, really important. If you're going to make that kind of assertion – if you're going to speak for 'the vast majority of people' or 'most members of the public' – you'd better not be making a vague guess based on you, your spouse, someone you know who walks their dog on the Common and an imagined universe in which everyone who counts, everyone who really matters, looks like you and talks like you and thinks like you. Because that kind of thinking leads to all sorts of injustice. The fact is this: London is a big place, and if you're going to talk about concepts like democracy, then everyone who uses the Common counts.

I don't think the reasons people have given me for the strength of their feelings about the graffiti hold water. Something else is going on – and I believe it's to do with unexamined prejudices and beliefs about the person who's done it (rather than the harmless artworks themselves): beliefs that are visceral but essentially irrational, and which it might be useful to look squarely at.

We don't know who's behind the graffiti, but I think there's an image in most people's minds – one that may or may not correspond to the truth – and it looks like this:

Young. Male. Disenfranchised.

Am I right?

Marcus Barnes (photo by Sophia Evans)
"I've met super-rich kids from Thames Ditton, old men from the north, lawyers from China and girls from west London who all do graffiti for various reasons," says graffiti artist, journalist and DJ Marcus Barnes, editor of graffiti 'zine Keep The Faith. "Some people are quite conscious of their motives, while others simply do it and don't know why... the demographic within graffiti is as diverse as in society at large, and so are the motivations."

While this is true, it doesn't make our imagined young man prowling the Common with a spraycan any the less powerful a bogeyman, or allay our fears and prejudices about him – so that's the figure, for now, I'd like to discuss.

For someone to be disenfranchised there must be people doing the disenfranchising, and an interesting place to start is with the question: to what extent is that me?

We habitually 'other' people who challenge our sense of ownership of the public sphere, disrupt our beliefs or norms, or make choices that we don't understand. We write them off, suspend curiosity and empathy, fail even to see them when we tally up 'the vast majority of people'. We then absolve ourselves from blame by telling ourselves it's their own fault: that they have, by their choices, excluded themselves. What we rarely do is look inwards to try and understand what those 'others' may be reacting against, or why their choices challenge us so much.

Rarely, because privilege is a great insulator – whether it's the privilege of wealth, class, gender, or simply the ability to live a life inside the dominant social and economic model, something that's not possible for everyone. But I believe it expands our humanity to try.

When you belong to an economically or socially advantaged majority you become used to the world reflecting your priorities and preferences; you take it for granted that you're right about how things should be. It just seems... obvious, right? So to encounter proof that not everyone shares your values can feel deeply challenging. But why not be curious about it, instead of dismissive? Would it be so difficult, so frightening, to cede even a tiny amount of our vast, long-standing privilege of control?

Once upon a time the word 'pale' meant 'fence'. Most famously, in Ireland the pale denoted the extent of its occupation – so for the Anglo-Normans, to be 'beyond the pale' was to have abandoned civilisation. Nowadays – revealingly – we use the phrase to describe unacceptable behaviour: people who choose to live outside our dominant or 'normal' rules are 'beyond the pale'.
Or you might call them lowlifes.

But we know that the history of Ireland under English rule was – to put it mildly – complex, and the society the pale protected was not exactly benign to the Irish who lived beyond it. Similarly, I want to think about our unknown graffiti artist, in a socially mixed part of South London comprising both council estates and street after vastly expensive street, making the choice to do something harmless but provocative; something that challenges our values and aesthetic beliefs and makes explicit their position beyond our social pale. We may condemn them for it; but is the wealthy, mainstream society that forms the dominant voice in the area really such a welcoming and benign force in our imagined young man's life? Are you? Am I?
Small wonder that in the places we supposedly share some may wish to leave a mark.

During the week the graffiti was blasted off with solvents again, ready for another cycle. But it left me thinking about this: if the local primary school had painted a mural on the old railway embankment wall on Tooting Common nobody would react as strongly as they have. However crude it was, nobody would be saying it 'defaced public property' or 'interfered with the appreciation of nature'. The unpalatable truth is, it's not about what but who.

"Graffiti is an extension of the self/ego," says Barnes. It seems to me that may be particularly true of tags, or signatures – like 'Vope'. And therein lies the rub, I think: the insult graffiti represents to our sense of ownership and dominance – however problematic and excluding that dominance may in fact be. Graffiti makes visible those we have excluded and othered; it proves that, despite our suppressed wish that they didn't share our space, they continue to exist.

I don't pretend to know much about graffiti, though it's clearly a complex and fascinating subculture. And I don't always like it, just as I don't like all music, or performance poetry, or TV. But when I come across a form of cultural expression I don't understand – even one that deliberately excludes me – I try to approach it with an open mind, and I try to own my own feelings about it – including any negative reactions it provokes. I believe that two things matter here: humility ("I don't know enough about this yet to understand it") and curiosity ("I want to find out more").

The world is a big place, people are endlessly interesting, and mine aren't the only values that count.

If you'd like to learn more about graffiti culture, Marcus Barnes suggests the following online resources:

12oz Prophet: http://www.12ozprophet.com/

Art Crimes: https://www.graffiti.org/ 

Rocking The City: http://www.rockingthecity.com/

The wars on graffiti and the new military urbanism (paper)