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Are UK Police Cracking Down on Graffiti Artists Ahead of Olympics?

by Hrag Vartanian on July 18, 2012

Some London graffiti critical of the 2012 Olympics that was painted in 2008. (via flickr.com/nicohogg)

The British blogs and media are buzzing with reports that UK police are visiting the homes of graffiti writers in what appears to be an attempt to scare artists from leaving their mark during the city’s Olympic spotlight. Four alleged graffiti artists have been arrested and they have been placed on bail conditions that would prohibit them from creating any graffiti (even sanctioned work) affiliated with the Olympics, traveling within a mile of any Olympic venue, associate with any individual also on bail or using any train, subway or other rail service for leisure purposes.

The story broke when The London Vandal received phone calls from individuals they identify as ex-graffiti writers whose homes were raided by police. The blog explains the context for the arrests [emphasis theirs]:

Some of the people who were arrested had stopped painting graffiti without prior permission over a decade ago, and now paint commissioned artwork for corporate clients, while others haven’t touched a spray can at all in many years. For both types of ex-graffiti enthusiast, a knock on the door from the British Transport Police was the last thing they were expecting.

After being taken into custody, the artists were questioned about petty vandalism matters from the 1990s, according to London Vandal. Since then, and through the reporting of The New Statesman, more facts of the arrests have emerged and some of the statements on The London Vandal, which initially reported 30 artists were arrested, have been proven false. The London Vandal has since corrected their post.

More anti-Olympics graffiti in London, 2010 (via flickr.com/strangefrontier)

The New Statesmen explain that the bail conditions are not usual for the UK, though they do sound severe by North American standards. The publication goes on to point out that the Olympic-related condition is unusual.The London Police wrote in their statement to The New Statesman:

The men were taken to a police custody suite in Victoria for further questioning before being released on bail until November, with the following bail conditions:

  • Not to enter any railway system, including Tubes and trams, or be in any train, tram or Tube station or in or on any other railway property not open to the public unless to attend a written appointment with a solicitor, to attend court, for a legitimate business or educational purpose; one direct journey each way
  • Not to be in possession of any spray paint, marker pens, any grout pen, etching equipment, or unset paint
  • Not to associate or communicate with the other persons arrested and on bail for this investigation
  • Not to be at or within one mile of any Olympic venue in London or elsewhere in England

There are many issues in the arrests that should raise the eyebrows of those concerned with freedom of expression. The Guardian spoke to one of the arrested artists, Darren Cullen, 38, who has been running a legitimate business that provides “spraycan artwork and branding to major international companies” including Adidas, Microsoft and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The newspaper asked Cullen about his arrest:

… he said, he was asked about a website he had set up two years ago on behalf of a client, frontline-magazine.co.uk. The website was “all about the history of graffiti”, Cullen said, but did not promote it. “I don’t condone or promote illegal graffiti,” he said. “I always say to young people: ‘Don’t do it. It’s no good for you.'”

Some anti-Olympic graffiti in London, 2009 (via flickr.com/blahflowers)

Critics of the UK police are saying this is only the latest attempt by the authorities to clean up its image for the Olympics. Surprisingly the UK authorities seem oblivious to the fact that the global UK brand is nowadays strongly affiliated with graffiti and street art.

This isn’t the first time street art and the Olympics have caused headlines and media attention. It’s worth nothing that James Powderly of Graffiti Research Lab (GRL) was arrested for planning to project “laser graffiti” during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

In 2010, the city of Vancouver was hosting the Winter Games and the Canadian city worked hard to ensure that anti-Olympic graffiti and street art was promptly removed.

This year in London, Street art watchers are eagerly waiting for Banksy to react to the Olympic situation. Last May, the mysterious street artist created a work critical of the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee but no signs yet of an Olympic work.

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