(ANTIMEDIA) United Kingdom — While Banksy makes millions from his artwork, London’s young graffiti artists are being demonised and imprisoned for expressing themselves in the exact same way as the famed street artist. The trend in sentencing graffiti artists and taggers to heavy-handed custodial sentences began over a decade ago and has been subject to fierce criticism.
While most would agree there is a vast difference between mindless scrawl and a beautiful or thought-provoking piece of artwork, contradictory attitudes are regularly displayed towards the platform. Some consider graffiti a vital urban art form, while others remain convinced it is nothing more than criminal damage. These mixed views are complicated by the cultural popularity of graffiti; Banksy’s work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars while news items with strategically positioned journalists in front of ‘cool’ spray-painted backdrops air on television. Even McDonalds has commandeered the use of fake graffiti tags in its attempt to be edgy.
One man’s art is another man’s vandalism
The majority of prolific graffiti writers tend to target publicly owned or corporate property. Generally a non-violent and victimless crime (except when targeting private property), some see street art as brightening up dull and lifeless concrete expanses — often in opposition to the mass corporate advertising screaming from every available blank space. What is certain is that the subversive messages often contained in graffiti highlight the authorities’ lack of control.
More Hate Than Fear is a short documentary that follows several artists on their trips doing ‘graf’ in central London. Up all night and creeping through holes in fences to decorate the capital’s urban landscape, they are persecuted and tracked by authorities — often for years. The film opens an intimate window into the motivations and lifestyles of young men in a city crippled by gentrification that offers shrinking opportunities for young people.
Harry Conway, also known as the infamous “Zerx,” was one of London’s most prolific artists. Conway says he has been dubbed the “million pound vandal,” but is adamant there is no way he caused that amount of damage. Accused of 13 counts of criminal damage in 2012, he was sentenced to 12 months in prison. Reflecting on his time in Wormwood Scrubs, where he was sometimes locked up for 23 hours a day, Conway was unrepentant:
“I’m not robbing a bank, I’m not killing anyone, I’m not committing serious GBH, to me it seems like madness. I would be on the same educational courses as people that had murdered their wives and were doing 28 years in jail.”
“It made me think f*** this, I’m nothing to do with these people. That was a Category B jail, which is for high risk people. Being on D-Wing, the most high risk wing was a bit of a mindf*ck.”
A number of taggers and artists followed in the documentary had also been subject to custodial prison sentences. Despite the fact they’ve been tracked, had their phones and computers seized, and that authorities have raided the homes of their extended families, they have no plans to give up what they love:
“For me it is an escape from reality because my real life has its ups and downs. When it has its downs I tend to do more graf. I do it because it’s a release,” one of the graffiti writers said.
Another admitted he had learned more life skills from painting than he ever had at school: “I don’t want to get drunk tonight, I’d rather go out painting. I don’t want to get into fights with idiots, I don’t wanna do just other sh*t that is probably worse for you in the long run than painting graf,” he added.
You are not Banksy, you will not get away with it
Oliver Conway, Harry’s brother, was less than impressed about his brother’s sentence and the accompanying one-sided media narrative it generated: “What upset me about what he was doing was that he was in a unique place. He had an opportunity to spray paint things on a wall which could make people think a bit more. I think that’s what’s missing from graffiti today.
“You can use graffiti in a loving way. Paint the statistics for youth unemployment on every f***king wall, you know. Tell people to wake up and see the fact that we are heading towards a really dark future,” he said.
Meanwhile, Harry believes the U.K. government and society as a whole value money over human life: “If a graffiti writer can get more time for painting walls, painting trains or just doing criminal damage in general than someone who has raped or abused someone sexually, especially a minor (or anyone for that matter) then I don’t really need to say that is f*cked up,” he exclaimed.
Harry’s father, Russell Conway, said, “Our judicial system does sometimes have a prediciliation for guarding property as opposed to the person.”
Russell, an attorney, added:
“In my mind you can’t have people like Banksy making millions from their artworks and people like Harry being demonised and sent to prison. Going to prison is a very unpleasant thing and should be a sanction of last resort. Sending people to prison for creating an artwork, in my mind is just ridiculous.”