Roger Perry’s long out-of-print The Writing on the Wall—–a collection of photos charting London’s early graffiti scene—is being republished this week. Here, George Stewart-Lockhart, an art historian and publisher who wrote the extensive new foreword for the re-release, takes us through a few of his most striking images.
An Open Letter to Banksy from an LA Native
Hey dude, I heard you were gonna Art all over LA again. That’s cool, man. Or, hey, maybe you’re not even planning on coming back here, and all this #buzz is just ahoax perpetrated by a phalanx of tech-snobs from Beverly Hills whose closest programmed feeling adjacent to joy comes from harnessing #socialmedia. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter if you’re coming here or not. The LA Times and LA Weekly have already written hopeful articles about your supposed return, and, as a boy who is paid to comment on happenings, that’s enough to warrant this “barfticle.” Plus, it gives me a chance to not-so-subtly cash in on the current trend of nobodies writing open letters to newsmakers. Personally, I find the present bonanza of open letters to be, at best, a lazy sausage of cultural criticism wrapped up in a pancake of link-bait, (a click-in-a-blanket, if you will.) But, hey man, them’s the breaks.
The thing is, after your most recent wildly profitable and critically successful stop in my hometown in 2011, you can kinda get away with whatever the hell you want. That’s great for you and all, but the recent criticism coupled with heat from Jonathan Lawsurrounding your New York residency might have you re-thinking some shit. I believe everyone needs to take a step back and shake things up. If we’ve learned anything from Michael Jackson, Madonna, and That Dude Who Used To Be Hootie, it’s that great artists need to reinvent themselves every so often to maintain relevance in this tweet-a-day world.
Why Closing Southbank Skate Park Would Suck for London
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to London, but if there’s one thing this city is lacking it’s coffee and sandwich shops. Many’s the time I’ve found myself approaching people in the street, saying, “Hey, you know what this city needs? More cafes.” Because there just really, genuinely aren’t enough. I mean, take supposedly gastro-friendly Spitalfields Market, for instance; there are only four Prets, three EATs and two branches of POD in a five-minute radius. And as for fusion taco stalls and Evisu stores? Don’t even get me started. Honestly, it’s like living in Brezhnev’s Russia sometimes.
It seems the good people at the Southbank Centre share my opinion, as they’d apparently like Londoners to forget about that world famous unofficial skate park next to the Royal Festival Hall and instead associate the area with places where you can spend an hour’s pay on a sandwich. The planning committee has announcedplans to “refurbish” the area and move in high-rent retail units, shunting the skaters from the brutalist, graffiti-splattered enclave of banks, ledges, and stairsets they carved out themselves, to a new council-built spot beneath nearby Hungerford Bridge.
A video shot at Southbank and other nearby spots in 1991.
It’s an expensive development, coming in at a reported $183 million. There are a lot of fierce opinions flying around, as well as a petition addressed to Lambeth Council, the Southbank Centre, London Mayor Boris Johnson, and the Arts Council. Naturally, the skate community and anyone who has a vested interest in London not becoming a massive shopping center on the outskirts of Guildford are up in arms about it. We went down to Southbank to gauge what the local heads were thinking and find out what the future holds for the site, the skaters, and London as a whole.
Lev Tanju, from our film Skate World: London.
Since I was too busy listening to Cypress Hill on my Discman outside a nearby chain music shop to get involved in the early Southbank scene, I thought I’d speak to somebody who knew what they were talking about. Lev Tanju, founder of Palace Skateboards, is someone who’s been skating Southbank for 15 years.
I asked Lev about the first time he ever skated Southbank, when he was young and “proper shit” (his words, not mine). He painted a picture of a lost time, the days before South Bank looked like a Richard Curtis set.
"It was kind of at its most legendary then, because it was before South Bank was redeveloped. There were no shops or cafes, it was like a no man’s land. The only people there on the regular were homeless people and skateboarders, and the skaters there at that time policed the place and wouldn’t take shit from anyone. There was a feeling that you had to know someone to skate there."
Why I Hate Graffiti
Have you noticed how lame graffiti in New York has become in 2013? Especially the one-liners you see more and more of, with their pseudo philosophy and visual impairment. Where exactly is the art? And what’s the message? The vast majority of the graffiti that’s out there pales in comparison to the classic Wild Style of the late 70s/early 80s, though how could it be any other way? Is it the same in other cities? Or is the increasing irrelevancy of graffiti related to just how deadly boring and commercial New York feels right now? And to how overly policed it’s become? If so, couldn’t it feed off of that? Why isn’t graffiti commenting on the shitty sad state of things? On its co-option? On being chased inside? Graffiti can be, or at least once was, an expedient way of inserting social, political, and cultural comment into public view. One of the best examples, a huge wall painting on a building alongside the BQE, visible to every passing motorist, ridiculing CON$ervative GovernMENt as nothing more than CON MEN.
As far back as the “talking statues” of ancient Rome, whose pedestals were inscribed with anonymous barbs aimed at the church and state, graffiti has been another way of spreading the news, sharing caustic opinions and cranky dissent for all to see. But nowadays, apart from the tags that kids still write, and probably always will, graffiti seems like an advertisement for itself, or for an overeducated, underemployed class that wants to use the street as a springboard to careers in art, advertising, and fashion. Or it’s a vivid backdrop for an otherwise forgettable product. You see a tag in the street and look it up. Within seconds you’re delivered to a gallery, a shop window, a clothing or skateboard line. You come face to face with the fact that the whole world is infinitely more professional and commodified than ever before, and it can only get worse. “Hip” will either go willingly or be taken forcibly, which translates as: You can sell it to us… or be ripped off. So don’t feel that you’ve sold out before you’ve been bought. That’s the writing on the wall, and it’s been there for some time now. I really don’t hate graffiti. I only despise what it, and almost everything else in this town, has become—a shadow of the shadow of its former self.
At the risk of waxing nostalgic for the supposedly good old days of graffiti covering every available surface, it’s worth recalling how it felt to enter a subway train that was totally bombed inside. For some, it was nothing less than an assault. It was visceral and it was violent, and it was hard to think of it as an expression of art or joy, especially if its acidy vibe was encountered at 7 AM on your way to work. (This was the era of “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”) For others, it was something wondrous to behold, to see a giant painting glide through a subway station, or along the tracks above the street. Whichever side you were on, it seemed as if there was no Escape From New York.
Koch: I wanted to get rid of New York’s graffiti problem, but I wasn’t in charge of the subways, the MTA was. I called the MTA into City Hall and told them they had to get rid of the graffiti. I presented them with a plan to do it: Kids were spray-painting train cars in the yards at night because there weren’t any fences. I told them, just put up a fence and put some dogs inside. They got scared, worried that the dogs would bite people, so I said, “OK, if you don’t want any chance of dogs biting people, get wolves.” That’s the problem with the new Liam Neeson movie, The Grey. There’s no recorded case of a wild wolf ever having bitten or attacked a single human being in North America.
I don’t believe that.
Well, it’s true. The next day Clyde Haberman of the New York Times came to me and told me he’d checked my statement and that there are records of domesticated wolves biting humans. I said, “I know that! I’m not talking about a domesticated wolf. I’m talking about wild wolves. Let’s have wild wolves protect the trains. If the wild wolves become tame, replace them with more wild ones.”
So you recommended that the MTA fight graffiti with wild wolves?
—Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch has died at 88. We spoke with him in 2012.
THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL
ANTI-REGIME ACTIVIST TAREK ALGORHANI TALKS ABOUT FIGHTING GUNS WITH CANS AND TAGS
An anonymous activist who participates in the graffiti movement.
When Tarek Algorhani walked out of a Syrian prison in June 2011, he had no idea that a revolution had erupted in his country—or that it had ignited over a cause he had been thrown in jail nearly six years for championing: inalienable human rights.
In November 2005, Tarek and eight other bloggers founded Al Domary, a political site that used cartoons and other drawings to criticize the Syrian government and demand an end to the Assad regime. It quickly became one of the most popular anti-regime sites in the country. The Al Domary crew successfully used masked IP addresses and pseudonyms to evade the Syrian secret police until, three months after the site’s launch, one of their bloggers was arrested, tortured, and forced to give up the location and identities of his comrades. The authorities shut down the site, confiscated their computers, and destroyed all files related to the operation. In February 2006, the bloggers were convicted of treason and each sentenced to five years, except for Tarek, who received nine because the authorities considered him to be the site’s mastermind.
Tarek was sent to Sednaya, a political prison 14 miles north of Damascus, where his jailers subjected him to marathon torture sessions. They stuffed him inside a tire, spun him around for hours, and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. “We had prisoners who were moved from Abu Ghraib to Sednaya. They would cry at night, saying, ‘I want to go back to Abu Ghraib,’” he said.
The dark prison cells were filthy, and some of the inmates’ wounds became so infected that their legs had to be amputated. Escape was impossible; even if someone managed to sneak out, the surrounding desert was seeded with land mines.
Five and a half years into his sentence, Tarek was pardoned for reasons he still doesn’t understand. He returned to Damascus and discovered that a series of anti-regime demonstrations had begun. The thought of going back to prison didn’t stop him from joining the movement, and he returned to agitation in no time, teaching activists how to shoot videos and upload them to YouTube. He kept detailed lists of the missing and killed to send to human rights groups, and established contacts to get first aid to anyone injured.
Barely six months passed before Tarek once again became a wanted man—his name had been flagged at security checkpoints, and he was listed as an enemy of the state on official records. In January, he fled to Tunisia and began another human-rights internet project—this one centered around tagging anti-regime graffiti throughout the streets of Syria. In mid-October I called him up to ask how the fight was going.
A paper stencil against a wall in Syria that reads: “The Martyr Ahmed Asham.”
VICE: What prompted you to use graffiti to push back against the regime?
Tarek Alghorani: The revolution in Syria started because of graffiti. A small group of boys from Daraa watched the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution on TV, and they spray-painted the slogan “the people want the regime to fall.” The Mukhabarat, the secret police, arrested them, tortured them, ripped out their fingernails, and that’s when the rest of the country broke out in protests. At the beginning of the revolution, whenever people assembled, there were only a few of them. The police and security forces could easily split them up with no trace left behind. That’s where the idea of drawings came in. Even if the police came in and dispersed people, anyone walking by later would know, “There was a protest here, revolutionaries were here.” It’s a stamp, a mark. And it’s difficult for the police, because they get tired. Every time they would clean up a wall, something else would appear.
What role do you play in this graffiti movement?
In the beginning, activists would just quickly spray the walls with words and phrases like “freedom” or “down with the regime,” like the kids from Daraa, but it was rushed. I wanted to introduce an element of art to it, something to commemorate the martyrs we have lost in the revolution. Our goal is to use art to voice our concerns. In April, I started uploading videos on YouTube of how to spray-paint walls and put stencil drawings on Facebook for graffiti artists to use.