Our city is currently under attack from an unprecedented wave of graffiti vandalism. But there’s good news …
A guest opinion piece by Julia Basnett.
The people of Brighton & Hove are fighting back. So far this year grassroots groups have emerged to encourage the council to wake up and start doing their bit. One of these is BRAT ‘Business and Residents Against Tagging’ (see www.brat.org.uk – and this article). Another is Graffiti Go. More generally, initiatives have popped up across the city and I describe one involving the Russell Martin Foundation below. First, however, some background to the problem engulfing the city may help readers.
Better described as ‘tagging’, the invariably downright ugly spray can scrawling that appears overnight on walls, fences, post-boxes, shopfronts – pretty much everywhere – should not be confused with the commissioned street art for which B&H has become renowned.
The tourism website Visit Brighton advertises graffiti walking tours hosted by veteran street artist REQ. On the tour, you can “dive into the mysterious and eccentric world of the city’s graffiti scene with a professional by your side”. On the Eventbrite page for REQ’s tour it says “London and Bristol based graffiti artists often come to Brighton, where the scene flourishes, to unleash their raw talent on the streets”. I have to say ‘unleash’ sounds a bit like what the vandals are doing but tour organiser Enter Gallery on Bond Street can’t be meaning that. Can they? I fear that that is exactly what they mean (and we might ask Visit Brighton/Enter Gallery to clarify what would seem to be an open invitation to ‘tourist’ vandals).
Once murals were a political activity, empowering a community, highlighting injustices. Now they are a commercial enterprise with the council cashing in on second rate artworks. Please let’s get rid of tagging, but please let’s be more critical about the other types of graffiti: Throw-ups, Wildstyle etc.
There is commissioned art – or artworks given permission at certain locations (or appearing on derelict walls or neutral positions like temporary board at the perimeter of development sites) – and then there is spray can vandalism.
Certainly, REQ himself knows the difference. A few weeks ago a tagger coated one of his seafront murals. I gather it was a London tagger down for Saturday night. REQ came and repaired it almost immediately.
Another recent low-point in our early summer onslaught of tagging appeared on a recent mural by street artist Guy Favela . The mural, located on the side of Costa on Ann Street has been defaced with the word ‘Crew’. Favela quickly returned to repair the artwork but a few days ago it was defaced again with a different tag.
It was once the case that taggers ignored street art in the same way they ignored the sides of homes but now it seems anything goes. Are the taggers just purposeless teenagers engaged in what they see as a fashionable fad? Perhaps – though it seems that, more than a few are drug dealers. However, several of the taggers we know of are a long way from the feckless teen stereotype. John McMillan aka Johnny Crew is almost 50 years old (he insists in his recent Argus profile that he gave up coating walls, refuse bins and post boxes with the hundreds of ‘Crew’ tags we can still see over a year ago. Does he have a copycat tagger? or an apprentice?)
But let’s get to the good news. White Street Community Garden (WSCG) has been collaborating with a local Russell Martin Foundation (RMF) youth project, Extra Time, based at Trinity Hall on Carlton Hill. As one of the gardeners but also a part-timer with RMF, I’ve run sessions with young people planting out and tending a patch down at the community garden.
Immediately opposite WSCG, on the south side of Edward Street, Kebbell Lodge residents have been blighted by tagging on an overlooking wall but also by persons gathering in a secluded space beside this wall. One resident, pensioner Wendy Pearson, had become particularly affected by late night disturbance outside her ground floor flat. The heavily tagged wall was especially depressing to look out on and the area had been made worse by a communal bin that allowed people to congregate unseen from Edward Street.
Along with Adrian Hart (founder of the garden but also a part of BRAT), myself and colleagues at RMF seized the opportunity to help Wendy and the other residents by organising a team of young people to paint over the tagging. On Thursday 25th May, with paint and rollers supplied by BHCC the wall was painted over. BRATs recent re-awakening of the council’s Environmental Enforcement team proved timely and we are grateful for the resources the council provided.
Members of WSCG then fitted trellis on to the wall so that taggers would be deterred. We all recognise that painting out tagging presents a fresh canvas for further graffiti vandalism. The tenascious, entirely unpaid, efforts of artist Sandy Moon in creating an aesthetically pleasing alternative to the canvas has been impressive (albeit alongside our weary acceptance that, like Favela and REQ, Sandy Moon has to expect the taggers might return to deface her work).
“The ugly graffiti was bad enough but with the big bin blocking the space off I had people gathering outside my kitchen window in the dead of night!”
“I’m so pleased that the White Street Community Garden and the youngsters painted over the graffiti. And I’m very happy that the council moved the bin. There hasn’t been anyone loitering at night since”.
Wendy Pearson – Kebbell Lodge resident.
“Russell Martin Foundation are invested in our local community and deliver projects for our pupils to become involved with such as “Acts of Kindness and “Community Engagement”.
We work to build positive relationships within the community such as tending the community garden and beach cleans which are in partnership with Brighton & Hove City Council. Our pupils tell us they feel positive and proud when given opportunities to invest in their local community”
Jane Coleman, Designated Safeguarding Lead & Head of Programmes, The Extra Time Project, Russell Martin Foundation.
ABOVE: (Top) Young people eliminating the tagging (Photo: RMF) – (Below) Kebbell Lodge on Edward Street; trellis fitted.
More good news comes in the form of the new Labour administration seemingly determined to tackle the tagging epidemic. Hopefully this isn’t just political rhetoric (after all, we heard the same promises from the Green administration). We’ll have to see how this latest solution ‘from above’ goes.
Resourcing the grassroots effort rising spontaneously ‘from below’ seems a better idea. BRAT are committed to building up intelligence on who the taggers are and pressing for action. Both BRAT and Graffiti Go urge citizens to take action on removal. Graffiti Go put it well when they advise like-minded residents of the city to “choose a small defined area that you already walk round regularly. Possibly the street where you live or work. That way you will easily notice any improvements, or lack thereof, without using up too much of your spare time and be able to act”.
This article is just an opinion piece (and a conversation starter – please feel free to comment underneath) but I know the Brighton Society agree wholeheartedly with BRAT that without detection and arrest followed by heavy fines and a change in the sentencing for offenders we won’t stop this attack on our city. We may have a council refreshing its resolve and taking the vandalism seriously but can the same be said of the police?
This is exactly the approach of White Street Community Garden. The group is committed to becoming informal custodians of its patch – what it can see in and around the garden and the homes nearby where we live. It’s an idea that can spread. Three cheers for BRAT, Grafitti Go and youth work organisations like RMF. But also to ward councillor anti-tagging sessions organised by the likes of Cllr’s Fishleigh and Earthey in Rottingdean & West Saltdean. It’s nice to see other ward councillors hit ‘like’ when they see an initiative photos of the Kebbell Lodge project on Facebook but let’s hope we see them organise their party supporters to roll up sleeves and become custodians of the patch they live or work in.