In Defence of Jailed Street Artists

Tuesday, 18th September 2007 at 7:57 UTC 2 comments

I’ve found myself, not for the first time, drawn to speak out in defence of Street Artists who have been penalised for their work. Thomas Dolan (20) and Thomas Whittaker (18), aka Krek and Mers, have been given 15 months and 1 year for their work, at a time when much more serious offenders are getting lesser terms and we’re being told that jails are over crowded. Their parents are outraged, and their friends have set up a Facebook campaign in their defence.

My thoughts here run like this: art should be visible, it should be part of our communities and our daily experience. Also, it should not be constrained, other than by the need to protect the very young and most damaged from art that may damage them in a real way (that includes psychological damage, but not regular emotional responses).

It shouldn’t physically stop people going about their daily lives unless it really has to, but it shouldn’t be devoid of effects. It should also be free from all but material constraints. It should be free to happen and to not happen, to happen where it must and to be created by each and every person in society who feels they have something to contribute.

Now, I’m all for communities that feel they must challenge that art work, add to it, subtract from it, change it, interact in positive ways. What I’m not against is either state (or sub-state) attempts to airbrush it out; that simply isn’t democracy. Nor is it democracy when a town is covered with corporate images, which repeat themselves and become ingrained in our consciences. Why do people have a problem with unique works of graffiti art, reminding them that they can decorate the gray walls surrounding them, but not problem at all when they are forced to see the same corporate image hundreds of times reminding them that they are not free?

I can understand why people say that there should be some method by which art is selected, some collective process through which it could come into being, but this cannot work, simply because of the nature of art. Art by committee is always terrible, art by civic body often ends up causing just as much offensive, and art by a chosen elite of ‘safe’ artists is simply not art at all.

Art simply cannot be conformed to the boundaries of legitimacy and still remain art. When a group of people decide that one kind of art is acceptable and another must be erased from our memories and our lives, they damage our society. The fact is, even the most democratic group in the world could not decide what is and isn’t art work and what of that should and shouldn’t be kept.

Graffiti, or street art to give it a less emotional loaded, right-wing-press-please-beat-us, name, is a part of every truly functional democracy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the hugely political stuff Banksy does; it can simply be the loving work of a young person leaving their mark on society (there’s a whole other blog post on this). The trains which Krek and Mers painted were branded products, they were not neutral territory, and yes, its probably true that I’m adding far more political significance to their choice of surface.

Privatisation of our railways has brought us corporate image obsession prioritised over real service, and train companies have begun refusing to allow decorated trains out of the yard, instead canceling services and thus creating a false dichotomy between people’s behaviour and the operation of a decent service, making passengers feel that somehow this interruption of corporate colouring has caused them real suffering, when it clearly need not have done.

Britain really is a country full of oppressively ‘grey’ walls and of huge corporate facades over a real poverty of free speech and human rights. We should not be asked to take pride in the images of companies who screw over our fellow citizens. We should, however, be called upon to support young people using their talents to break through the grey, challenge the world around them, its presuppositions and its insecurities, and bring some kind of colour to our streets.

There’s a wall in York which I’ve walked past hundreds of times, mostly getting to church and back. Its about 200 meters long, about 1 meter high, and performs the function of keeping people off of the railway tracks and the railway off of the footpath below. I often wonder why some kind of project can’t be started to get the community at the end of the path to brighten up this borring wall.

But I know that if any project were accepted by the council, their rules on it would be stringent, and I’d end up hating the outcome because of the controlled image we’d be left with. And then I think of people like Mers and Krek, and thousands like them around the world, who don’t wait to be told the rules, instead choosing to challenge them. Now thats the kind of initiative we should be seeing in society.



Entry filed under: Art, Community, Culture, Free Space, Free Speech, Human Rights, Participation, Politics.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. stevetag  |  Tuesday, 18th September 2007 at 8:51 UTC

    wonderfull thoughts much to ponder over thanks steve

  • 2. jonathan  |  Wednesday, 19th September 2007 at 18:19 UTC

    I much prefer graffiti to a gray wall but graffiti on trains?… I’m not so sure. Those sentences are outrageous though and its just one example of the twisted nature of the criminal justice system. Here’s another one; from November it will become a criminal offence to abuse or neglect a vulnerable adult (and its about time too). If the offence involves physical or emotional neglect or abuse the max. sentence is five years if it involves financial abuse or neglect the max. sentence is 10 years – notice under the system money is considered more important than humanity.


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