‘Own the game!’ London art takes its Olympiad to the streets

Banksy Javelin thrower wall stencil

Don’t be fooled by the mattress: Banksy’s not taking it lying down. While the police round up graffiti artists – even those who only paint legally  – and ban them from public transport, bar them from within a mile of all Olympic venues, and make possession of spray paint illegal, there are hopes that we’re about to be treated to a proper campaign by the most powerful street artist of them all.

Banksy has issued his homage to the Great Event, in the form of two new Olympic-themed stencils, now on his website. So we all know they’re there. But where are they? The closer to Stratford the better. It’s too bad Wild-Goose-Chasing isn’t an official Olympic event, because London’s local authorities, having sworn to wash or paint off any graffiti during this period, must now be desperately looking for these murals now – I’ve read two newspaper articles this morning, speculating wildly as to where they might be. (Are they in Hackney??) Long may they stand.

All this talk about security, and we’re expected to believe that a significant threat is people who might express visually compelling opinions in a public place.

Clown Town, by Mau Mau

‘Clown Town’, painted in Ealing by Mau Mau, has already been painted over. It lasted less than a week, even though (like Stoke Newington Church Street’s Banksy royal family) it was painted on the wall of a privately owned building whose owner had given permission. It was legal. Apparently the rights of major corporations to conduct their affairs in public as they choose are sacrosanct, especially when their plans involve our money. But the authorities will not respect private property-owners’ rights over their own own property.

Or put it like this: if I painted a pot with a flower in it on the front of my house or shop, that would be cute. If some council jobsworth or chief exec decided  it looked like ‘street art’, they could feel free to come and deface my house or shop.

But still – every reason to ‘celebrate’ ‘London’s vibrant cultural mix’, right? It’s a sort of London Branding exercise. After all, it’s what we’re known for innit. And once you ‘brand’ something, you can make it how you want it to be. There’s a VIP reception venue in Shoreditch, so foreign media types can come and feel cool  and watch hipsters, while they drink free corporate drinks, maybe only 500 yards from an actual pop-up bar [sic].

Even the execrable London 2012 logo was designed in line with this apparent Branding Value – London as a world graffiti centre – so you’d think the Olympics committee would be really pleased.

And by the way, speaking of the Olympics logo: there’s a street artist called Dock, from Zagreb, and you might be interested in this bit of First Great Western graffiti:

Graffiti on First Great Western Railway: DOCK

Art imitating – well, life, but not quite life imitating art. Be that as it may. The thing is, all this stuff is really powerful and obviously a way to prise the pounds from the pockets of the young people. So last year, Olympic sponsor Adidas celebrated the launch of its new football boot by asking Darren Cullen, a professional graffiti artist who runs a company called Graffiti Kings, to make a mural for it.

His website even bears this very interesting seal of approval:

That makes Darren one of the gang, right? One of the boys? Wrong. Darren has been arrested along with three other people, and banned from so much as owning a felt pen or travelling on the tube until November (even though not charged with anything).

David Allen Green, blogging for the New Statesman, elucidates:

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

Of course, according to the Transport Police, the arrests (without charge, but with draconian ‘bail’ conditions that just happen to coincide with the Olympic period) are said to be in relation to an ‘a live and ongoing criminal investigation into linked incidents of criminal damage committed between January 2007 and July 2012’.

According to the Guardian:

Cullen, who says he has never painted illegally and whose firm Graffiti Kings has worked with major blue chip firms including Microsoft and NPower and the Royal Shakespeare Company, said he was not questioned over any alleged incidents of criminal damage.

Instead, 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.'”

The arrests come as the Metropolitan police’s strategy of halting potential disruptive action in advance of major public events was given high court endorsement. The tactic is a key plank of police planning to ensure the Games are not disrupted.

‘Plank’ is right. It’s possible that, after all this is over, Darren Cullen will win a massive lawsuit for loss of earnings.

Meanwhile, the Olympic Village features a giant official wall painting by a street artist called K-Guy, who said:

A while back I was asked to paint a mural in the Olympic Village, with the high security there was no way of popping something up without permission so I went for it.

He’s clearly not very politicised, which is nice. He’s just a painter, and wants to make his pictures. So he’s made this giant stencil painting of the emblem featured on the gold and silver Olympic medals. It should make Adidas happy: it’s Nike, the Goddess of Victory. (It’s hard not to wish that K-Guy had said, instead, something like: ‘… so I decided to – just do it’.) Have a look at more, plus a nice video of K-Guy making the mural.

K-guy painting, Nike Goddes of Victory

Never fear, though. If, after several weeks of this shenanigans, you decide you want to experience some real street art, you can do it in comfort, in the Home of Banksy (surely the Olympiad people can make him a ‘banksable’ commodity somehow; maybe a Bristol-based theme park?), at the ‘See No Evil 2012 Urban Festival’ [again, sic].

I know I had my doubts about Poetry Parnassus before it happened, and then it turned out to be a wondrous, life-changing, inspiring event. Perhaps this was partly because it was off to one side of the main ‘Cultural Olympiad’; they don’t get poetry, but it seems harmless and there’s no money in it, so they leave it alone and let the poets get on with it. Except for the tantalising prospect of all the money the graffiti art tourists might spend on commodified graffiti, this Bristol festival may well be the same. I bet it will be a showcase, as Parnassus was, for really inspiring people who live on pittances and really want to make the world a better place. There is a crucial difference, though. In this case, the Olympic committee and their brand, transport, and military heavies are using the celebration itself to kill the very thing they claim to be celebrating.

ridiculous Official Cultural Olympiad street art festival, Bristol

Now, this really sums up what Jonathan Jones wrote about last week, this horribly dysfunctional relationship the so-called ‘authorities’ have with the city they are attempting to sell to the world. On the one hand, they know tourists love the graffiti, and come here to spend their money, and that people think London is ‘cool’. (I believe they’ve heard this word.) But on the other hand, corporations don’t like it, because how can you control your brand if you let other people do their thing, too, which might not favour your thing? Isn’t it easier just to stop them altogether? Isn’t it easier, really, just to use the due process of law in a slightly ‘creative’ way, and make a lot of noise with your big sticks, and stop them from doing their thing until after you’ve had your fun and got everybody’s money?

In his really beautiful article, Jones writes:

The Olympic suppression of graffiti and street art is a chilling sign that instead of magnifying or rekindling the reputation London now has for outrageous art and irrepressible creativity, this corporate behemoth is cancelling out the capital’s attractions and drawing attention to its weaknesses.

Rightly pointing out that ‘The prince of street art is our most famous contemporary artist, however much the moneyed art world would like to believe otherwise’, Jones says:

This is not just about the freedom of a few artists to mess up the pristine Olympic bubble. It is about the identity of London.

You can see the ancestors of today’s street artists in the works of William Hogarth. In his picture of a Covent Garden brothel in Marriage a-la-Mode, a Georgian Banksy has decorated the walls. […]

In Regency London, people stood outside print shops looking at the latest obscenities by Gillray in the windows – a cartoon shows them slipping in the mud as they enjoy their street art. This wasn’t just about commerce, but politics, too.

The emergence of political debate in 17th century London is probably the origin of this city’s appetite for graffiti. In his diary in 1660 as the Rump Parliament collapses, Samuel Pepys records “a picture hung up in the Exchange, of a great pair of buttocks shitting of a turd into Lawson’s mouth, and over it was writ: ‘The thanks of the House.’ Boys do now cry ‘Kiss my Parliament‘ instead of ‘Kiss my arse’ …”.

Boris Johnson, at least, is educated enough to know all this history. Even people like him love Hogarth and Gillray. So he knows that, in fact, this is what London is. Londoners, true Londoners, were never going to stand for it. He knows where he and his mates and cronies fit into this little history.

I hope Banksy does come out next week and save us.

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