In a bid to “clean-up” Hackney prior to the Olympics, the council has announced plans to remove much of the borough’s most remarkable street art. This hard-line stance has angered both artists and residents who believe graffiti is an essential part of Hackney’s unique identity. Catherine Wylie and Lucy Osborne investigate.
“We’re a city. We should embrace things,” says Hackney-based graffiti artist, Andy Seize. But one thing the council is not prepared to embrace is graffiti. With just over a year to go before the world’s eyes zoom in on the 2012 Olypic Games, the council is determined to make a good impression, to the detriment of the borough’s graffiti culture.
The council’s 2011/12 budget reveals plans to employ four additional graffiti cleaning teams in the build up to and during the London Olympics.
The council’s website states: “Graffiti has a major impact on people’s perceptions of crime levels in a community. It is illegal, anti-social and diminishes the local environment.”
Andy, who has been a graffiti artist for 25 years, disagrees.
“I’ve been in Hackney all my life and I have done quite a bit of street art work in Shoreditch, but that’s disappeared over the last three or four years.
“It’s a shame some people don’t see the positive side of things. All of my work is legal; if I want to paint on a private wall, I’ll get permission from the landlord. It’s sad because they’re saying that everyone doing graffiti is wrong.”
Making people smile
Francis McKeown, who manages Cremer Garage in Old Street, gave a graffiti artist permission to paint a mural on the wall of his business. He agrees that street art enhances the overall feel of the borough.
“It brings a lot of people to the area and makes people smile,” he explains. “People come to me all the time asking who painted it, which brings in customers.
“Why would the council remove it? It’s not offensive, it’s not racist or rude and there’s nothing to be misconstrued.”
Andy, who makes his living from street art, holds lessons for aspiring graffiti artists in Waterloo. After working on creative projects with Disney, Vogue and ITV, he says he wanted to pass on his experience and passion for the art by teaching others.
“I teach six-year-olds and they love it. They love street art,” he says.
Earlier this month Boris Johnson launched a smartphone app aimed at encouraging Londoners to report vandalism, littering and graffiti to their local council.
Andy believes that the Mayor’s attempts to eradicate graffiti will fail and that councils should spend money on more useful projects.
“Why not have artists working with disadvantaged young people?” he says. “Cleaning up is not getting rid of the problem. It’s just pushing it somewhere else. I wish councils would do their research. I want people to understand the other side of it rather than believing Boris and the council’s interpretation.
“Hackney Council makes me laugh. It’s the borough with the most artists living in it and it has loads of kids on the street too. Why doesn’t the council fund urban projects for them? It’s not like they can go horse riding or play golf. We’re surrounded by concrete.”
In December 2010, the council’s threat to paint over American-based artist ROA’s famous rabbit mural on Hackney Road sparked outrage among residents. More than 2000 people signed an online petition, saving the 12-foot-tall painting on the wall of The Premises Studios and Cafe.
In an interview last year, ROA singled out authorities in London as some of the most graffiti-intolerant in the world.
Julia Craik, director of The Premises Studios Ltd, said: “There was an overwhelmingly positive response to this piece of art. It brings nature into the urban environment and it’s part of Hackney’s identity. Street art brings in huge amounts of tourism, trade and international interest. We feel that a council has no right to determine what constitutes art.”
Creative hub for street art
Another Hackney-based graffiti artist, who goes by the name of Drax, acknowledges that the general public may perceive certain graffiti as vandalism, particularly ‘tags’ or artists’ signatures. But he points out that the council should not be able pick and choose what they remove based on what they deem to be offensive.
“The council will go around and clean tags, but then leave political commentary on walls,” he says. “Some people might find that offensive but then others might be offended by Banksy’s kissing policemen.”
Drax explains that councils often remove graffiti despite the artists having gained permission to paint it. Although he respects the council’s right to remove street-art that has been drawn illegally, he believes that if they remove a permitted artwork then they should be prosecuted.
The graffiti artist thinks that the council is worried about how dignitaries and officials will view Hackney during the Olympics, but firmly believes that graffiti adds to its overall appeal.
“The council could spend its money a lot better,” he says. “It’s a waste and will go straight into the pockets of cleaning firms. It’s all about control and giving the impression that they are in control. But graffiti doesn’t denote a loss of control – that’s just a myth.”
Wayne Anthony, one of the founders of London Street Design magazine, believes that the freedom to do street art is a civil right.
“Hackney has become a creative hub of street art graffiti artists who in the not so distant future will be regarded in much the same way as the great classics of our time,” he says.
“The borough is home to more artists per square inch than anywhere else in London and losing that sight will be detrimental to the quality of street art in London.”
The graffiti enthusiast believes that the art form will never go away but will instead continue to thrive and change.
Hackney Council declined to comment.