Terry Prone: Graffiti artists don't care about anyone — and that's what makes them fascinating

The rest of the world has opinions, most of them hostile, about everything, but the letter-graffitists, seem opinion-free
Terry Prone: Graffiti artists don't care about anyone — and that's what makes them fascinating

Banksy spray painted his name on a London Tube with a rat holding sanitiser in July 2020.  

The train journey to Ballinasloe was a joy. Nobody beside me. Nobody bellowing into a mobile phone. No cows in the toilets. Yes, cows. 

The train to Cork has its lavatory walls covered in murals of cows and although most of them, they being cows, have their heads down doing lawn mowing, it’s still disturbing to have to do one’s business in front of a herd of black and white cattle.

Cows don’t figure in the loo of the Ballinasloe train, though. Indeed, apart from practically slipping a disc trying to find where to plug in my computer and the lack of a trolley service, it was a pretty perfect trip. 

When we were nearly there, I packed away the computer and, as I did, noticed the two people seated across the aisle were smiling at me.

I did a “What?” gesture, and they laughed. “Never saw anybody work so hard on a train,” the man said.

The two of them — from Texas — headed for a day in Galway were so pleased with their short visit to Ireland that they’d decided to come back next year. We exchanged names and the man gave me his card.

“Oh, you’re a spin doctor,” the woman said, googling me. 

I was gobsmacked at being googled face-to-face and wanted to fight the spin doctor insult, but the train was already stopped in Ballinasloe, so fighting over definitions didn’t seem like a good idea.

It did put me off my stroke, though. I first tried to get out on the track side of the train, and then, having opted for the door on the other side and found myself safely on the platform, took a cute lift up to a bridge I didn’t need to cross and had to re-traverse, convincing the only other person around, a man in a high-viz vest, that I was nuts. It also caused me to miss my taxi.

Going back was much easier. Work done. Free to watch fields and hedgerows and occasional graffiti. 

One of the great pleasures of a train journey, at least in this country, is seeing huge graffiti on walls abutting the tracks. 

They are a particular kind, the calligraphy visible only to the train traveller, clustered, as they tend to be, on walls close to the bigger stations.

They’re not like the low-class stuff you encounter in the streets of any city. You know the kind: Scribbled messages denigrating the sexual availability of named acquaintances of the graffitist, not just on walls but on the dust of unclean vans. 

What you see on the walls near railway stations is a quite different kind of contribution, made in fat formulaic letters overlapped at their spines. 

Letters compelling in two ways. The first is their eerie resemblance to letters on walls of stations in London and Manhattan. 

They are as similar and subtly varied as the English spoken in the two cities. The cultural artifact has been shared, who knows how.

John, from London, taking part in the Noho Hip Hop Festival Graffiti display in White Street car park. Picture: Richard Mills.
John, from London, taking part in the Noho Hip Hop Festival Graffiti display in White Street car park. Picture: Richard Mills.

The other compelling factor is their raucous secrecy. Even if the train, dawdling, provides the traveller with the opportunity to study them at length, it’s rarely possible to make out whether they’re names, acronyms, or some form of lettered logo. 

They presumably yield up their meaning to those already in the know, but who are they, the community of people around the anonymous graffitists?

Because there has to be a community. Absent an audience, the skill of the spray-painters of the great fat letters would be the ultimate artistic futility: a craftily conceived message understood by nobody and viewed only by those coming into a railway station suffering that headachy exhaustion an end-of-day train journey delivers when you can’t get bad coffee from a trolley.

Nobody films them, these letters spooning each other on inaccessible sites. 

Nobody writes about them. They’re not viewed as meritorious. Not to be spoken of in the same breath as Banksy, whose work is accepted — nay, expensively celebrated. And yet they are great statements of something, these works. 

They require their makers to climb high and sneak low. They demand the painter probably break the law to create a visual that can be vividly colourful or threateningly monochrome, shouting across the tracks or the canal in a language that the stranger does not know.

Some kinds of graffiti have dug their own history trail, like the “Ripley was here” thread going back, it is believed, to the Second World War. 

Apocrypha suggests that Ripley, a member of the US armed services, got so royally maddened by being repeatedly asked to check the mechanical health of tanks he had already passed as serviceable that he began to write “Ripley was here” as a kind of on-location certification of his work. 

At some point, Ripley was memorialised in a line drawing of a guy with a big nose looking over a wall.

Graffiti, particularly of the kind found on the back of toilet doors and similar canvasses, tend to take the form of scabrous wit unlikely to find a forum elsewhere (this having originated before the internet, the ultimate toilet door vanity publishing opportunity).

Alternatively, they take the form of a perverse dating site with telephone numbers attached, or as a way to harass unfortunates by supplying their phone number to a world of strangers together with descriptions of acrobatic sexual services allegedly available from the phone owners. 

An artwork by Banksy in 2016, depicting the girl from Les Misérables affected by tear gas, opposite the French embassy in Knightsbridge, London. Picture: Yui Mok/PA
An artwork by Banksy in 2016, depicting the girl from Les Misérables affected by tear gas, opposite the French embassy in Knightsbridge, London. Picture: Yui Mok/PA

The big letter graffiti observable from trains (and also on high gable-ends in big cities) have neither the desperation to prove existential presence implicit in the Ripley genre nor the squalor of the toilet door variety.

These big letters hurt nobody other than purists who prefer their concrete block walls to remain as naked as the day they were cemented in place. 

It should be acknowledged, here, that Dublin City Council has been acrimoniously engaged with an “art collective” named Subset because — although the owner of a building can agree to have someone paint a mural on its gable end, the local authority has to give planning permission for such work.

Graffitists are impulsive offenders who are never going to apply for planning permission. 

They’re not looking for anything from us. Not selling us anything. Not telling us how to behave or vote. 

The rest of the world has opinions, most of them hostile, about everything, but the letter-graffitists, here or in the US, seem opinion-free.

Their creators may care about a gang to which they signify membership, but about the rest of us, they care not. They are neutral towards us and that, in and of itself, makes them fascinating.

They are neutral, secretive, and anonymous. And that’s mystifying.

Because what artist does not want a dialogue with those viewing their work? What artist doesn’t want to be seen as an artist? 

Do they not want to be known as the person who invested in the paint can, endangered themselves climbing onto railway tracks or up on a roof to create a public visual?

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