Monday, 15 March 2010

Underground Resistance

An 'account of life on the tracks', written by Elk.
Big up Foba 2 on 12oz who posted this up almost 7 years ago to the day, sick article.

I was drawn to graffiti as the first tasters arrived in London from New York. The first names I had seen painted on streets were the nicknames of London punks in the late 1970s. Written only with cheap British car paint, the poor pigments of red and blue that were soaked up by the brick were no comparison to the strength of what I was yet to see on the sides of New York subways. I was 12 years old and it was exciting. I knew nothing of the movement, only that it stirred something inside me in a way nothing else had.
'Graffiti' was the term used by the media to describe the wave of aerosol activity that appeared on the subways of New York and Philadelphia in the early 1970s. Its birth coincided with the recession of the time. 'Coco 144', a New York graffiti artist, who was active then, described it as "a cry, a scream from its streets...This was one way of saying, 'Hey, I'm Coco. This is where I'm from and this is what I'm doing'".
In New York, the city's infrastructure faced collapse under the leadership of Mayor John Lindsay and Mayor Abraham Beame. The Wall Street Journal said at the time: "Basic city services, once the model for urban areas across the nation, have been slashed to the point of breakdown...the subway system is near collapse, plagued by ageing equipment, vandalism, the frequent breakdowns and derailments." This was the perfect environment for those early writers. The cut-backs meant there was barely the money to run the system, let alone erase their work. The numbers of young writers were multiplying rapidly and it became increasingly difficult to compete with their onslaught. By 1975, Mayor Lindsey openly conceded that the fight against graffiti was "a losing battle". The scene crossed the Atlantic and arrived in London in the early 1980s. The city's teenagers quickly took it up and, as in New York ten years earlier, it spread rapidly through the many boroughs. By 1986, there was an established body of writers who were regularly visiting the depots of the London Underground. I was one of them.
The first time I went to a railway sidings, 'Skate', 'Kam' and me could hardly reach halfway up the side of a 12-foot high Metropolitan Line (or 'Big Met') train. We were 14 years old, miles from home; it was dark, cold and exhilarating. All we wanted to do was scrawl our names in 'matt dark earth' and 'gun metal' model spray. The concept of painting a whole car seemed unimaginable. How would you steal all the paint you needed, and how would you reach the top of the train? How would you get enough time before sunrise? How would you distinguish all the colours in the dark?
Answering all these questions was a slow process of discovery. As well as the physical implications, you had to learn the rules of the graffiti world, had to prove yourself and hopefully become accepted. This probably took me about five years. The community that existed on the London Underground consisted of competitive, judgmental and aggressive young men. A disregard for the rules of the community could result in immediate rejection, not just from the tube line you were painting on, but from all the lines across the capital. Initially, you had to develop your tagging style, which is a form of calligraphy. Maturing your tag seems essential in the progression towards 'pieces', and unfortunately it is these experiments that the public is subjected to. From the tag you'd progress to the 'throw up', from the 'throw up' to the 'dub', and from a 'dub' to a 'piece'. Really it was the mastering of the 'piece' that would be the recognised initiation into the upper echelons, though writers that only 'bombed' (to tag one's name) could achieve a King's status through the style and proliferation of their 'tags'.
It was during these early stages that the writing fraternity would skim off the weak. Train writers are very proud and there is no room for incompetence. If you had the skills and, more importantly, the motivation to ascend through the stages of style and colour, you then had to prove yourself by displaying fearlessness. Writers whose nerves were weak, who couldn't take the pressure of an illegal career were quickly weeded out. The apprentice would have to prove himself to a mentor before earning respect. This could involve anything from the ability to steal, to displaying the necessary courage to enter a depot on a reconnaissance mission. Once you had all entered the yard it was fairly easy to distinguish the 'throbbers'. If it wasn't something obvious like the shakes, you could tell by the look on their faces that they were scared.
Being nicked and not cracking under the strain was a fairly effective way of gaining acceptance. The news of a raid and an arrest would spread rapidly, with the community eagerly awaiting the result. Would those that got away have an unexplained knock on their door by the 'graffiti squad'? If the writer took the punishment and continued to write, he would instantly find himself in a position higher up the ladder. He would have proved his dedication by continuing after prosecution and would have instilled a sense of trust by keeping his mouth shut. The irony of the British Transport Police's efforts is the kudos it creates amongst us. Personally speaking, I found them an incentive - writing on trains wouldn't be half the fun without them.
But why do it? Why channel so much energy into a painting no one may ever see, that may have to be done in dark, cold and cramped conditions, and where there is potential for imprisonment or death? I never cared about the answer. I just did it. People seemed to spend so much time deliberating, I didn't give a shit, I just wanted to paint trains.
Though part of the same movement, the legal and illegal scenes are completely removed from one another. There is train graffiti and wall graffiti. When I'm painting trains the flow is a product of tension and adrenaline. At any point you may have to run. As your head looks from side to side in anticipation of a raid you don't even watch the paint you're applying. Every so often you lie on the ground to scan through the wheels for any approaching legs. The result is totally different to the writer who buys his materials and paints concrete walls in the comfort of a Sunday afternoon. Only through the acceptance of art with danger can the writer rise to become a 'King' - a high achiever of the graffiti world. To quote one such devotee, such writers are the 'true soldiers'.
On any one Tube line you may find many different Kings: 'King of insides', 'King of outsides', 'King of stations', 'King of the tracks', 'King of roof-tops', or 'King of style'. The highest accolade imaginable is 'All Out King' which is a very rare occurrence. Competition is fierce and writers will go to incredible lengths to stand out from the rest, scaling high buildings and walking through dangerous tunnels. Before you can get to this point you must be relaxed in your unusual working environment. I vividly remember the first time I got onto the tracks. It was like entering a new world. It was three o'clock in the morning and I knew track workers and train drivers were the only people that ever went there. I didn't know which rails were electric, which way we should run, and I felt sure that somebody was going to suddenly appear and try to catch us. I didn't relax once while I was painting, and yet the following day all I could think about was going back. I was hooked. Riding the train to school that Monday and seeing my name gave me an unmatched sense of satisfaction.
This feeling of personal achievement compared only to acceptance within the scene. The height of this was getting to know the Kings. Watching one draw in his black book or sketch up a first outline on a train carriage were invaluable lessons. I shall never forget the day I went to Rickmansworth 'lay up'. I was a young 'toy' out on a Saturday night 'bombing insides'. On my way back home I pulled into Harrow on the Hill station and saw a group of kids gathered on the back wall. Writers would meet at benches on the different lines. This was the 'Big Met', so I knew they were writers. I had to get home but I also wanted to go and see who it was. I paused while the doors closed and at the last minute jumped off. As I got closer I realised the importance of the company I was approaching. They were from different areas, so all of them being here meant they were doing an 'all nighter'. Kast was the 'All Out King' of the 'Big Met', Fuel was the King of the 'Little District' (Wimbledon line), Ganja was one of the many Kings visiting from the Little Met, Chain was the King of bombing and lastly there was Steam, an up-and-coming King of the Big Met and one of the most feared Kings around. I didn't have any paint of my own, so spent the night 'keeping dog' for the others, wandering up and down the lay up as their pieces developed. Watching Kast paint his 'top-to-bottom' was a highlight of my career.

It wasn't long before the electric world of the Underground became second nature to me. As my confidence grew, so I got more daring. I remember walking on the live rails being a kind of initiation. You know it can kill instantly, but you also know that the rubber soles of your trainers can prevent the connection. Every time I do it there's a little bit of apprehension bubbling away inside. The fact that you can die lingers in your mind, and, until your foot is firmly on that steel, you don't fully relax. It makes you feel a bit funny but you still go back for more. It's the same with stealing.
In my experience, almost all the major writers in London are criminals to some extent, and more than the obligatory stealing and 'breaking and entering' that are now the basics of painting a train. This might be small-time drug peddling to support a weed habit or a more serious involvement equivalent to a paying job. In essence, it's impossible to become a King without being a criminal. There is no way that a writer could afford to pay for the paint, pens, inks, sketch books, camera films and train fares necessary. You could say that thieving, or 'racking' is compulsory. It is certainly unavoidable if you want to sustain a career in graffiti.
When racking started getting difficult in London we began travelling further afield in search of paint shops less clued up to our ways. Initially this took us on British Rail journeys out to the country, and when that got difficult it took us to the continent. Going to Europe was like discovering an endless string of gold mines. Not only was it easier to steal, but the quality and range of colours was far superior. 'InterRailing' became known as 'InterRacking'.
First port of call when starting a trip in Europe would be Amsterdam, to stock up on skunk and Afghani. We'd go away for anything up to a month, sometimes having to return to England every seven days to relieve ourselves of stolen property. During the first jaunts abroad, the acquisition of as many spraycans as possible was the primary aim. If we picked up some clothes along the way it was a welcome bonus. As time progressed we became more familiar with what was on offer in the various European countries. Germany was, and probably always will be, the best place to steal paint - they have the best in the world. Scandinavia was always good for winter clothes, and Switzerland was the best for electrical goods. The beauty of this way of life was the independence it gave us as teenagers. As long as I had the money to cross the Channel I knew I could survive on the other side and paint to my heart's content.
The fondest memory I have of those tours is of a friend of ours who left for the continent with £10 in his pocket. 'Rozer', known to his friends as the 'Man with the Magic Trousers', returned five weeks later with the same tenner. He'd stayed with a Chilean family in Amsterdam, on a yacht in the South of France and had rolled across Europe sleeping in couchettes. Arriving home, he had a completely new wardrobe, cameras, leather jackets, a stun gun, hand-held Segas, sunglasses, bottles of bubbly, and enough paint to lighten the lives of many a Tube carriage.
As our tastes matured, so did our destinations, the finale of which were yearly trips to the French Riviera. Cannes and Saint Tropez were ripe. Hardware shops stocked aerosols in beautiful shades of 'Framboise' and 'Bleu Fonce'. Then we would visit the supermarket next door and help ourselves to the racks of Dom Perignon. If there were none in the fridge we would take our bottles to the freezer section and bury them amongst the frozen peas, returning an hour later. We would spend the night drinking champagne and then, in the early hours apply our fancy 'couleurs' to the local SNCF rolling stock. Our favourite train sidings backed on to the beach, where we would stand in our shorts, painting till dawn.
Customs officers are a problem when you cross borders with enough luggage for a family of five, but the Graffiti Squad is our main opponent. We might laugh and joke when amongst ourselves, but when you've just been chased out of a siding by a team of them, your heart beats overtime. It doesn't matter how many times it's happened. When they've sat in their unmarked cars until the early hours, and they finally walk round the front of that train and see you standing there, spraycan in hand, they really do want to fucking catch you.
If the surroundings are appropriate it's always amusing to conceal yourself somewhere and watch what they get up to. Quite often you can listen to their conversations because of the quiet of night. You get to observe their movements and how they conduct themselves. It gets even more hilarious if they try to hide in wait for you. Watching police who think they're watching you never fails to put a smile on my face. I'd love to share more of the moves we use to our benefit, but I don't want this article to be of too much use to the police.

They have a difficult job. If they are chasing us, chances are they will never know the area as well and won't be prepared to take the risks we will. If I'm painting a train and get raided, I will run for the most dangerous escape route. That might be into a tunnel, down a drainpipe or across a rickety roof. They might want to catch you, but it's not worth their lives.
Even when they make an arrest, they fuck up a lot. The most ridiculous example I can think of is when Diet got nicked on Boxing Day. It was the year Karl and Cherish had done the whole train in 'Snips' (Parsons Green Sidings) and a large group of writers had collected at Edgware Road where Fuel and Prime had both done 'whole cars'. We were all on one platform admiring the paintings when the transport police appeared on the opposite platform. We all left the station, hopped the barriers, and saw the empty car of the police we had just left downstairs. Within seconds a pen appeared and moments later the car was being tagged. Diet was the last to get the pen and decided that the front windscreen was where he wanted to write his name. He had his feet on the bonnet and his hands on the glass as a second police car pulled up.
Many months later, young Diet was up in court. With two policemen and the station foreman as witnesses we all thought he was definitely going to get done. The police, however, had no evidence and couldn't even remember how the crime had been perpetrated. I can't recall exactly, but they did something along the lines of accusing him of tagging the vehicle with blue spray-paint when in fact he had done it with a black marker. Diet's barrister highlighted their incompetence and fortunately the case was dismissed.
Christmas Day is when the 'true soldiers' of the writing community really come into their element. It's the one day when the whole system shuts down, so for someone who loves painting trains it is the highlight of their year. There aren't any drivers with timetables to keep or cleaners to inspect carriages, just rows and rows of shiny canvases waiting for you. The person you're most likely to bump into on Christmas Day in a depot is a graffiti squad officer. It took them many years before they started showing their faces on our special day, but once they did, they became regulars. A team of them is on duty and will drive round the various stomping grounds hoping to find some of us getting up to mischief. It's pot luck where we go in hope of avoiding them. Whenever you're arrested doing graffiti in this country there is a compulsory house raid that follows. Waking up the folks on Christmas morning with a gang of police wanting to search the house is never a good way to start the festive season.
I know that some of the kids that are bombing now think that they are the real writers. The new generation has to deal with security measures such as laser trips and infrared cameras. The first yard I ever went to only had a wire fence that barely reached my waist. They have a sense of superiority because they feel that we had it so easy in our day. I suppose that's just a matter of opinion. I know that a particular era of London's cultural history has gone and can never return. When we used to get on the system we were lost until we returned to street level. Now there is no station, ticket hall, platform, or subway that doesn't have a CCTV camera. There really is nowhere on the system you can go without being watched. We used to chase our pieces, trying to photograph them. If you do that now your every move can be followed. When 'WD' and 'The Bash St. Kids' started the Circle Line 'train jams' in the late 1980s, hundreds of kids used to descend on the Underground, free of any watchful eye. We gathered at a tube station and, soon enough, would pour into the back carriages of our chosen train. The neon lights were twisted off, magic markers brought out to provide the decoration, and, with the music blaring, round and round we went. When it came 'on top', we simply moved to another line. Within minutes we were lost again in the labyrinth. I don't even think LTs (London Transport workers) had radios then.
The PFB crew restarted the tradition in the early 1990s. The last one ended after a long wait in the tunnel outside South Kensington station. Once five minutes had passed we knew we were getting raided. It was a familiar tactic - containing you while they collected the necessary manpower. We started to spread along the train, mingling with the other passengers. Paints and pens were thrown out of the windows, while the really guilty ones jumped out the back into the tunnel. I sat down in my pinstripe shirt and buried my head in a newspaper. With the passenger doors still closed, the old stinkies entered the train one by one through the driver's cabin. They filed straight past me. The unfortunate ones were taken to the police station.
Writers may be seen as criminals, putting up our names everywhere, but is it any wonder? We are living in an age of brands and logos, where the sign and its duplication is king. Imagine a train covered in tags moving overland through London, past all the hoardings and the billboards - perhaps there graffiti has its true context. As long as there are big cities there will be graffiti. Out of the 70 or so Kings that have existed since the mid 1980s, over 60 are from broken homes. Graffiti gives you a family and a focus. Certainly, in my case it kept me away from more serious crime and taught me about colour, form and design. As daily life grows ever more homogeneous, it's one of the only ways kids on the edge of society can make their mark.

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