Update #1: The New Statesmen spoke to the British Transport Police about this story, who claimed that only four people were arrested, not thirty. The New Statesman shares our opinion, however that process should not be used as pre-emptive punishment. We posted the story as it was told to us, and do apologise if there are any inaccuracies.
It’s not uncommon for us to be contacted by respected ex-graffiti writers. That said, we certainly weren’t expecting the late night phone calls that we received from some past artists last night, who got in touch to tell us that they had been raided by the police yesterday (17th July). While graffiti writer’s homes being raided by the police is not a rare phenomenon, this series of raids came as quite a shock to many of the artists as most had given up painting illegal graffiti some 15 years ago.
Some of the people who were arrested had stopped painting graffiti without prior permission over a decade ago, and now paint commissioned artwork for corporate clients, while others haven’t touched a spray can at all in many years. For both types of ex-graffiti enthusiast, a knock on the door from the British Transport Police was the last thing they were expecting.
As they were escorted by officers back to the BTP headquaters in Victoria, the retired graffiti artists overheard radio chatter which made it clear to them that raids were being carried out on addresses across the length and breadth of London. Once they arrived at the station, the ex-graffiti writers spotted thirty or more familiar faces from the past – and realised that they weren’t the only ex-graff scene dweller to be arrested. Retired graffiti artists had been pulled in a big way.
It was around then that the graffiti artists realised what point the police were trying to make with them. Having been arrested, they were questioned about what they considered petty matters – accusations of criminal damage in the ’90s, questions about websites and magazines that they were involved in. After being briefly questioned about these seemingly irrelevant matters, they were told that they were to be bailed until November on the condition that they did not use any form of railway in London (overground, tube or tram), carry spray paint (or other graffiti tools, presumably) at any time, or travel within a mile of any Olympic area. That includes the Olympic Park, the ExCel center and other Earls Court locations, Greenwich park, Hampton Court Palace, Hyde Park, Lord’s Cricket Ground, North Greenwich Arena, The Mall, The Royal Artillery Barracks, Wembley Arena, Wembley Stadium, Wimbledon and a host of out-of-London locations.
They felt that they were arrested for one reason – in order to place bail restrictions upon them that would supposedly discourage graffiti from being painted during the Olympics.
It’s no secret that graffiti and street art are being targeted in the run up the London 2012 games. Each day stories emerge of artworks treasured by locals being removed by excited councils, or of graffiti that had remained untouched for years suddenly being washed brown by the over-zealous buff. Even so, we didn’t expect that unsolicited artwork would be considered such a threat to the image of the country that the authorities would manipulate the legal system to send a message out the graffiti artists – picking up anyone they could with a past in graffiti and slapping them with harsh bail conditions. Whether the BTP ‘s arrests served any genuine purpose, or if they were simply a tool used to issue people with draconian bail conditions, only they can say.
Assuming our contact was right, the British Transport Police were trying to send a message to them. A message that says graffiti would not be tolerated during the Olympics. Quite why the BTP decided to target a group of mainly retired writers, no one is quite sure. If they were trying to make a point to these men that they shouldn’t attempt to gain graffiti notoriety during the Olympics, they are most likely a decade or two too late to advise these men.
These men have told us that they are not currently involved in painting illegal graffiti. These men are living law-abiding lives, but can no longer travel on public transport or enter large areas of London due to harsh bail conditions. In addition, laptops, mobile phones and other devices were taken into evidence by police. How these men are supposed to work and look after their families under these conditions, they are not sure.
While thousands of people every year travel to cities like Barcelona, Los Angeles and Berlin to enjoy the graffiti and other vibrant youth movements, the heavy handed actions of government and law enforcement in London could see our fair capital descend into the cultural deadzone. The growing sanitisation of the city threatens it’s status as a creative hub, and now the authorities are harassing legitimate artists in their never ending pursuit of those who dare to create art without permission.