Earlier this year there was an interview with a noted graffiti artist who explained why he does the sort of thing the general traveling public, TfL, other transport operators and the law frowns upon. Its a highly noted person given the huge proliferation of his work which can be seen on the roads, the railways, the canals and even the high street. Some of the undertaken work is highly risky and this includes the tube – and of course one can see the artist’s tag at various locations including for example Farringdon. The artist, whose tag is 10Foot, seems to have come at a time when another known had been making the rounds. (This was Helch who appeared quite frequently in media reports and two articles on were featured on this blog featured quite sometime ago). While Helch achieved quite substantial notoriety with a signature which can still be seen on parts of London’s Underground and National Rail system, 10Foot’s signature is undoubtedly far more widespread and there must be few who cannot be aware of this particular tag. As the news article says 10Foot is ‘easily the most prolific graffiti writer in London and one of the most productive globally.’
The extent to which his work has spread is immense. Instead of just one tag many of the locations affected have a long string of his tags, For example the approaches to Clapham Junction and to Liverpool Street. 10Foot’s signature might not be as decorative as others work but nevertheless he has quantified it en masse. In some rare cases there’s a more substantial effort to at least diversify by way of adding colours and more decorative text. 10Foot has been featured in quite a number of news articles this year following that item in the Financial Times.
Of the previous attempts of his, those at King’s Cross have occurred even though tagging and graffiti on the railways (or other locations) is considered a highly illegal and unlawful activity. King’s Cross St. Pancras was tagged quite liberally at the weekend (10 September 2023), and while that may not be as substantial as another station makeover in Xmas 2020 its not the first attempt to be made at the King’s Cross station either. At first glance one might wonder how this could even have been achieved given the location and the fact there are electrified tracks. The answer to that is perhaps most simple and that is having the necessary knowledge on matters such as when the tracks would be turned off and so on.
Earlier job by 10Foot seen at King’s Cross. This was April 2022. Twitter.
According to the interview in the Financial Times the artist (and the collective he is with known as DDS) says they know every inch of TfL and have apparently all the necessary keys and other stuff in order to be able to gain access to the London Underground system. Interestingly even if one doesn’t have ‘the keys’ to parts of the underground there’s no doubt with the right knowledge one could still gain access – especially the tube’s sub-surface tracks (or the Thameslink lines which too have had problems as various sources indicate) and evidentially King’s Cross is a weak point in the system – much like there are weak spots elsewhere too. Some of that weakness is no doubt due to the ageing infrastructure and in respects London’s underground railway system is ‘paying the price’ because it is the of course oldest in existence – the 1860s built infrastructure isn’t in any way suited to the needs of modern surveillance. As the Financial Times pointed out, 10Foot and his associates know more about ‘trackside security than most British transport workers’.
In terms of ‘paying the price’ its of course the commuters, the day trippers, the ad hoc travellers, who pay for the cleaning of graffiti through rail fares, through taxes, through the Mayor’s portion of Council Tax and so on. Of course its not just London, the problem is everywhere but the major UK cities take a particular hit whilst not forgetting the problem exists sometimes far worse, in Europe and other countries. Even new rolling stock destined for the UK has for example acquired a makeover whilst stabled on the tracks of a famous Swiss mountain railway line. That was of course the Class 555’s unauthorised paint job at Arth Goldau. No matter where, graffiti is endemic and on some European railways (Greece being one example) practically every bit of the system’s available passenger rolling stock has been hit.
The graffiti on the westbound seen from the eastbound platform area. 13 September 2023. One can discern the previous job area (April 2022) which has been painted over.
Why does graffiti happen? As 10Foot implies its because the railways are there. Evidently its like a mountain, if its there people will want to climb it. And the world’s tallest buildings, people want to climb these because they’re there. In respects one could also say that there are people who like railways and take photographs and write articles because the railways are there! There’s no doubt those who think trains and stations look better with unauthorised colours or tags. However London’s underground (the tube) is considered more of a challenge than just the national railway system and this is why one sees a huge increase in 10Foot’s work about the tube system. As 10Foot points out, its because the tube locations elevate the status of a graffiti artist in far more ways the tracks of the Great Western or the Southern could.
Those who support graffiti and those who oppose it couldn’t be in more different and opposing camps and its evidently a question of personal preference. The mistake however was to just let graffiti artists do practically what they wanted, because after all one could claim the aluminium bodied trains of the 1970s, 1980s, London and New York systems were being painted for free. In a sense it was the vagaries of the various transit systems – especially both those locations with their unpainted railway stock that caused an explosion in graffiti. The NY Subway soon found things got out of hand and it was of course bringing a considerable risk to the subway’ system’s safety too. It was through no easy means the transit authority managed to rid each and every subway stock it had from that infernal graffiti by 1989 – but not before the craze had spread far and wide including London.
Of course safety is a huge consideration when it comes to graffiti. Equipment gets tagged too and that can compromise safety also because labels, important signs get obscured and the electrics gets compromised. One cannot have a railway where people walk across or along the tracks as they please – although again this is down to what one could call a preference of sorts. Even railway enthusiasts have been known to flout the laws on trespass as this video shows. In some countries people walk everywhere on the railways, on the tracks and on and off the platforms, for example India and South Africa – and in a lot of countries railways have little or no continuous lineside fencing. Its difficult therefore at times to even impress upon others ‘this is a railway its private and no-one must venture upon its tracks,’ and its why there is a thing such as trespass. Its something that’s been a feature of the UK railways ever since early days. The problem then wasn’t graffiti (because spray paint didn’t exist) but rather tampering with equipment which of course compromised the safety of the travelling public. Some notices referred to the tampering of warning bells or signals, station areas and railway yards. Eventually railway notices by large settled on the overall concept of trespass and that is because any persons that shouldn’t be there have absolutely no right to be where they are – and this is why trespass on the railways is taken very seriously. People have to understand the railways are meant to be a safe environment in every aspect – and if they can’t grasp the concept of that well then it becomes a matter for the police and the courts.
This just a few days ago! Guy sitting on the platform edge at Gatwick. Twitter.
The other problem is undoubtedly there’s no doubt practically everyone envisages railway stations to be public places (even though they are by large private spaces and any access granted is in fact permissive) and while most of us have the sense to not do silly things or conduct affairs that could be dangerous, others think its a public space so they can walk along or across the tracks or sit on the edges of the platforms. When it comes to graffiti there’s an even harder road ahead because the risks are even greater. No doubt its the danger element and the thrill of venturing into places the public shouldn’t be seen. Nevertheless the effect on the traveling public can have a considerable impact. As Nathan Glazer wrote back in 1979, ‘the subway rider is assaulted… by the inescapable knowledge that the environment that he must endure… is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and that anyone can invade it and do whatever damage and mischief the mind suggests.’ (How New York City Graffiti went from ‘Getting Up” to “Getting Over’.)
When a railway or an underground system gets tagged, defaced, or painted over en masse, there is the foreboding sense that the system isn’t quite as safe as its made out to be. Passengers do want to know they are in what can be deemed a safe and convivial environment – because they are after all paying for it – and the fact trains have been tagged or platforms defaced completely does make one wonder if such spaces are so easily violated in order to achieve these tasks, there is the worry there could be people who have far worse intent than just painting trains – for example an intent to derail or to cause explosions. Its evident the railways and the tube need to get on top of this problem and stay in control. With COVID and Brexit and other economic restraints (energy costs, wages, rising prices etc) that have in turn led to staffing reductions etc, its clear graffiti on both the tube and National Rail has gained renewed elevation. This in turn pushes up the costs of rectifying the damage and that’s not good because cuts would have to be made in other areas to focus more on this particular issue or alternatively fares would have to rise far more considerably than they already are.
The line diagrams and station name boards were defaced. 13 September 2023.
In a philosophical sense, whether its the railways, buses, transport depots, airports, plane hangars, ship yards, passenger ferries, the factories where these various transport elements are built – there’s always those who want to enthuse about trains, to spot unusual things, to catch a glimpse of something new, to note or even photograph an unusual train or a locomotive, whatever. Its in a way its pretty much how graffiti artists see the railways too however the objectives are very different – being that trains and stations should be adorned with eye catching tags and/or wild psychedelic colours. Evidently each collective group has very different ideas of what is right and what is wrong. Its about acquiring friends, belonging to groups and also how ideas are shared and efforts get collaborated. This of course means new ideas can begin and its also how, among many things, transport museums and preserved railways start up too. Sadly these too become the target of vandals and graffiti artists – and there’s little doubt society – even the railways – will always have such extremes to contend with.
Once an idea takes hold it can be hard to challenge – no matter what the legality or even the illegality of it happens to be and graffiti is no exception. It is made much harder by those such as Banksy because his celebrated status blurs the boundaries of right and wrong. Not unsurprisingly his graffiti attempt on the tube in July 2020 generated such concern the underground wasn’t safe because of the ease which he had been able to access the trains and depots – and this heightened concern that the system’s security was indeed very weak.
The graffiti extended almost the full length of the westbound platform at King’s Cross. 13 Sept 2023.
10Foot indicates part of the quest for his tagging comes from ‘boringification’. London’s becoming a boring place because of gentrification. Everything is the same bland repetition. The city’s high streets and its commerce all looks much the same. However there’s also a strange love-hate relationship with that commerce too! ‘Consumer capitalism has an odd love/hate relationship with graffiti’ because often examples of the reviled and illegal work gets to be used as eye candy by businesses in order to draw the consumer’s eye towards perhaps, for example, new trainers or some other sort of new stylish street cred clothing or perhaps on a music album or a poster or something of the sort. In other words anything that contradicts the norm has a plus point in terms of commerce! We’ve seen this happen with Banksy and in fact 10Foot has ‘been repeatedly approached by fashion brands, music labels and TV showrunners with offers to collaborate…’ even though 10Foot says most of that has been turned down. Evidently graffiti has benefits for the main economic drivers of society too – thus it becomes very complex in terms of these relations. And it becomes more and more difficult to nip graffiti in the bud.
Note: TfL are cleaning the station walls however their order of priority as in previous cases is to treat information signs/line diagrams as a top priority for cleaning and then the rest to follow with painting likely over the weekend.