Not many hobbies come with the risk of electrocution, severed limbs, or jail time. Unlike streetwear, sneakers, or football, graffiti is a masculine pastime without – at first glance – tangible rewards. With technology and teams dedicated to its swift removal, such as the train cleaning service known informally as “the buff,” graffiti often has a short half-life. So why bother? The buzz. For graff writers, seeing their train run resplendent with throw-ups, pieces, tags and etched windows is their fix. And it’s addictive: each challenge the writer surpasses pushes them to trickier terrain. As well as artistic skill, kudos is earned proportionate to the level of danger involved. Hence those enigmatic pieces on building tops, metros, and freeways.
In both contemporary art and fashion, New York graffiti is a mainstay. Auction houses list works from cult figures such as Zephyr, Rammellzee, and Daze, as well as household names such as Kaws and Jean-Michel Basquiat, both of whom cut their teeth on graffiti. In the fashion sphere, Kaws has cropped up everywhere from Dior to Uniqlo, while scene legends have surfaced too, such as Dondi, who Virgil Abloh dedicated his Off-White SS19 collection to.
As for the other cities, they too have effervescent scenes, although these are not documented to the same degree. In Berlin, Kreuzberg’s 1UP crew work as a cohesive unit, achieving maximum coverage across their native city and Europe. Meanwhile, Paris is run amok with crews like UV and TPK. In London, names like Zonk, Koze, 10Foot, 4CE and hundreds more crop up incessantly, their works either an eyesore or a masterpiece dependent on the viewer. Unlike New York, London’s due recognition by the cultural industries has yet to be cemented, however, there are signs that it is underway.
Stylistically speaking, London graff is typified as aggressive and dirty, meaning its entrance into other spheres may require more legwork. Not only is it best appreciated by insiders, but it is also shaking the negative press and shell-shock from the sentences, fines, and house raids from the past three decades.
People have been writing on walls for thousands of years. “Byron famously graffitied the Parthenon,” notes UCL academic Rafael Schachter. However, there are particular changes which enabled graffiti to exist as a distinguished criminal practice, and according to Schachter these include “the different ways we see public and private.” To put it simply, graffiti must deface that which is not the writer’s property. Hence the archetypal vandal that threatened New York, and following that, London.
As New York has been disentangling its demonization with help from the fashion and art worlds, London is beginning its journey. Given the SAS-style stealth, dedication and creativity of its participants, both former and current, it’s a subculture with plenty to give, both historically and artistically.
Capital G-graffiti started in Philadelphia and became an established subculture in seventies and eighties New York. Eventually, it crossed the pond to reach the UK in around 1981 when famed graffiti writer Futura painted Ladbroke Grove, West London. Since then, London has developed its own styles and nuances, making it a worthy fixture on the worldwide map of graff.
The eighties saw the advent of UK b-boy culture, and with that came its artistic counterpart, graffiti. These American imports were boosted with guidance from movies like Style Wars, a documentary by Tony Silver and graffiti photographer Henry Chalfant. While these movies highlighted work from writers in New York (including Dondi, Iz the Wiz and Seen), they didn’t provide a comprehensive blueprint for “getting up” (writing graffiti) in London. London writers would need to carve out their own methods of working, because as writer Drax found, Style Wars and books like Subway Art gave them some information to consume, “but from that point onwards, it was a learning process.” Where Subway Art had tips on creating spray cans (specialist shops were not yet a thing), they would be specific to the US, suggesting caps from American oven cleaner brands. “We were now in the late eighties in London, going into shops, nicking caps off UK oven cleaner brands and sticking them onto spray cans that didn’t exist in New York,” explains Drax. Without internet or mobile phones, London’s scene was self-constructed on word of mouth, little pointers from visits to New York and innovation.
As the scene solidified, so did its documentation. Photography was vital because of graffiti’s inherent transience; however, it wasn’t easy. One photographer and collector, Steam156, would be dodging dicey situations just for his prized snaps. “Back then people didn’t like you taking photos of their graffiti,” he remembers. Despite being robbed on multiple occasions, Steam156 would ardently continue photographing graffiti in trafficked hotspots such as West London’s Westbourne Park. Obsessed by the work from crews like the Chrome Angels, Steam156 was working across London as an assistant to a furniture delivery driver. During shifts, he’d take note of any graff he scoped and return later.
As well as photos, Steam156 was collating serious graffiti collateral, meeting writers abroad, from New York’s Crash and Lee Quiñones to Dondi and Futura, many of whom would sign his sketchbook or open their studios to him. After being tipped off by a fellow writer that the British Library housed a collection of Artforum magazines, he would visit and cut New York gallery ads out with a scalpel so he could contact the writers’ representatives. His dedication did not go unrecognized: at one point, he would receive around thirty letters a week from across the globe, requesting his photos. When New York’s International Graffiti Times put his address in an issue, it wasn’t long before graff tourists were coming by to pay respects. “I was living with my nan in Mitcham, South London. I walk into the house and there’s these Dutch guys begging to see my photos,” he recalls.
After some time, London’s scene was established enough to lay claim to its own movies. In the nineties, Steel Injection was circulated across the UK’s graff scene. Soundtracked to UK hip-hop and rave, it showcases work by lauded writers such as Teach, Rate, Fuel, Drax, and the late Robbo, who was the subject of Channel 4’s Graffiti Wars, a documentary detailing his feud with Banksy. As well as this, the London scene was becoming increasingly cunning. Writing has always involved skills beyond pure artistry, and that comes from viewing transport systems in unique ways, knowing secrets the other city-dwellers do not. As recalled in an interview, during the nineties, Teach and a few writers had found a secret entrance into a railway lay-up at a central London station; it was their own personal space to prep before ambushing the stationary trains. Now the site of nightclub Fabric, it was a former meat store stained with blood, but above all, it was the perfect hideout for Teach and his peers. “Now the trains were always there, but this particular way in changed the procedure such that if anything happened, we could never get caught,” recalls Teach. “Once we shut that door, no one would have a clue where we went.”
More than twenty years later, Teach holds a Masters from the Royal College of Art, has shown design work in the MoMA, and has collaborated with Maharishi to create prints, tees and enamel artworks. That a London graffiti writer has branched out into other worlds is perhaps surprising for some to hear, but for Teach, it is graff that paved his path. “Vandalism is the key ingredient to my creativity. If I never got up so much, I would never have gone to art school.” And Teach isn’t the only London writer to push their creativity into new spheres. In 2018, writer Oker was assigned by fashion house Coach to interpret their iconic C logo on shutters across London, spray-paint their store and design accessories. The collaboration occurred when Wavey Garms were asked to do some brand strategy for Coach. “We had to think of a plan to integrate them into the London scene,” says Wavey Garms founder Andres Branco. “I was hanging around with Oker and thought who better to give them a bit of street cred?”
For Time, a London writer who is currently active, fashion, art and graffiti go hand in hand. Citing the Oker x Coach collab and high-profile moments like David Cameron gifting Obama an artwork by graf-writer-turned-artist Eine, Time feels graffiti is increasingly accepted, and he plans to make money off it. With a sold-out book, canvases and custom fashion designs for Jorja Smith, his trajectory signals change.
This change is happening in the realm of UK streetwear trends too. Branco and Time describe now on-trend items such as Arc’teryx coats as an example of writer style. According to Branco, writers would travel across Europe to get their names up in different cities and steal coats to fund their trip. Eventually, the coats became a staple of graffiti writer fashion in London. “It was like showing off how big your bollocks are,” says Branco. Whatever your opinion on this, it further highlights the Machiavellian skills that constitute London graffiti. “Graff’s all about being sneaky,” Branco notes.
There’s no doubt London’s writers will continue to indirectly mould the fashion and art worlds; but perhaps sometime soon, in a far more direct way. Just recently, we’ve seen Louis Vuitton team with Futura, Supreme collab with IRAK’s Earsnot, and KAWS sell work for $14.7 million. With a stable pool of talent, it’s only a matter of time before London mimics the States’ trajectory.