Graffiti is now so socially acceptable that there is a ‘family friendly’ annual graffiti festival, Meeting of Styles, in London. The artist Banksy, famed for his satirical stencil-based street art, has been the subject of a row between a local community and an art dealer. And the trendy Old Vic tunnel has been turned into a legal wall for art school hipsters to daub with pseudo-political commentaries.
All this, though it may be paint on a wall, is not graffiti. The best definition of graffiti comes from Jano, an original London writer – he called it ‘a contact sport for tough guys’. Banksy found this out recently when he encountered old school writer Robbo.
Real graffiti as he was talking about, barely exists any more. 25 years ago it was different. The Metropolitan Line in North London was the home of UK graffiti. A youth culture that flourished for a few years in the mid 1980s then disappeared.
The roots of graffiti in New York have been covered many places. In the UK it started to seep over around the same time as hip hop in the early 1980s. The first writers like Sir Beau, Kis 42, Set 3, Tilt and Coma started tagging and piecing trains and tracksides around 1985-86. Much of their work can be seen at the wonderful Rockingthecity.com.
These writers set the template for the Met Line style, which emphasised getting up quick and often, using angular bubble letters that were easily readable to those in the know. The Metropolitan line was the chosen line because it was long, overground and had yards in sleepy backwaters like Rickmansworth and Chorleywood, where clued-up kids from Wembley and Harrow could paint with impunity. The British Transport Police (BTP)’s lack of understanding of the scene also allowed it to develop unhindered to start with.
Inspired by these pioneers, the scene really took off around 1988 and 1989. In this period you could not pass between 2 stations on the Met Line without seeing an explosion of pieces by Cast, Mise, Shok, Rase, Steam, Dsyer and dozens of others. These guys and the original stylists had expanded the look – colours, characters and 3D now adorned many trackside pieces as artists sought to outdo each other with bigger, better, more outlandish artwork.
Around 1988 Pinner Wall (the stretch of trackside between Pinner and North Harrow) was covered with at least 30 pieces, an illegal technicolour gallery for fellow writers and commuters. Nowhere was safe – power substations, a driving school, bridges and stations themselves. A church on the outer stretch of the Met Line had a piece by Kaes on it that also asked ‘forgive me father for I have sinned’.
Tracksides were important but the biggest kick of all was piecing trains. Due to the difficulty of accessing the yards, the threat from BTP patrols and video cameras, not to mention the very real danger of death from electrocution (one famous writer, Rase, died when he was chased by BTP and fell on the live rail), train pieces were more highly valued than tracksides.
Window down, top to bottom or even whole train, a train piece travelled the length of the line, displaying to all who saw it the writers skill, dexterity and bravery. The fact that they were usually buffed or erased within a day or two and only added to the incomparable excitement of seeing a train piece pass you by as you sat at Harrow on the Hill.
The point is that graffiti was not just painting. It was a lifestyle – racking (stealing) paint to piece with; riding the lines smoking weed, drinking and taxing other kids; hanging out with your mates; avoiding the law, especially the hated BTP. Graffiti artists were usually streetwise and tough, on the whole the kind of kids your parents warned you about. Despite this, they produced some of the most exciting art you ever saw under unbelievable circumstances.
Even so, many writers were not into art for arts sake, or to make any kind of point. They could design great colour schemes or fantastic outlines, or copy Vaughn Bode characters from comic books, and some went on to become graphic designers and incorporate graffiti style into their work. But that was not why they were writers. The point of it all was adrenaline, living for kicks, a desire for notoriety amongst your peers. This combination of creativity and excitement make it just as important a part of British youth culture as the better-publicised mods or football casuals.
Like so many youth cults as quickly as it arrived, the graffiti scene disappeared. Improved trackside security, more regular buffing and anti-graffiti paint on the tracksides meant that the risks started to outweigh the rewards. But another trend had also taken over. Much like the ‘love on the terraces’ effect of raving on football violence, dancing in fields while on lots of drugs also took over the lives of many writers. Tough kids who had worn puffas and sportswear while breaking into train yards were now wearing acid tops and kickers, growing their hair and getting into dance music.
By the early 1990s the scene was pretty much over, to the extent that much of the expertise had been lost and the new generation were considerably worse graffiti artists than their predecessors. Thankfully a trend among writers was to photograph their own and others work, and much of this is archived at the wonderful rockingthecity.com. So forget the latest Banksy artwank and click on rockingthecity.com to check out the real thing.
The writer was not a graffiti artist but was friends or acquainted with a number of Met Line writers – Norty Stash Soak Kaes. This piece is based on memories of them and recollections of events 25 years ago.