Graffiti is a crime but can it be an art form?

It certainly is a problem for residents, businesses and councils in Banbury, Witney, Kidlington and Oxford. What’s the way forward?

Each year Oxford City Council spends £100,000 removing graffiti.

The council’s Streetscene team started cataloguing ‘tags’ or signatures and other graffiti and found over one thousand incidents on private property.

Residents or businesses do not want to pay to have the graffiti removed and the council charges £27 per hour plus £15 per square metre to remove it.

Last year the owner of the Walton Street Post Office in Jericho spent thousands of pounds repairing and repainting his property. Within two weeks graffiti artists attacked again.

Shop owner Shahzada Ahmed’s response was typical: “I can’t understand why I should have to pay for it. It’s criminal damage. The council have said I have to pay but I’ve already spent lots of money on it and I pay my council tax. If I have it done someone else will just come along and do it again. I’m leaving it as it is.”

Mr Ahmed’s shop has been attacked several times in the 11 years he’s been in Oxford.

The policy of the city council is clear. It will not pay for private removal.

But not all towns and villages in Oxfordshire have the same policy.

Kidlington is generally a graffiti-free zone but after a three-day graffiti blitz a few months ago, Kidlington Parish Council took a different view.

Parish clerk Trish Redpath told me: “If any resident owns land that adjoins property owned by the council and their fences, walls or houses are targeted, we will give these neighbours graffiti remover for them to clean it off. This happened over the summer at the ‘Orchard Rec’ in Evans Lane.”

Lee Hancox, open spaces manager for Kidlington Parish Council, said: “I believe if it is left, then vandals will keep coming back, but when we clean it straight away they are not that interested in coming back.”

Witney is a target. In a four-month period 45 tags were sprayed around the market town. Former mayor Chrissie Curry said: “It is horrendous. It makes Witney look so grubby.”

Thames Valley Police is pouring time and money into a crackdown and got their first result this summer when they prosecuted Charlie Silver, who splashed his distinctive ‘Soak’ tag across Oxford city centre and North Oxford. He admitted eight counts of criminal damage costing an estimated £1,610.

The courts gave him a 10-week prison sentence, but he is already in prison for 28 months for drug dealing and the 10 weeks run concurrently with the 28-month sentence. So Charlie Silver is no worse off because of this court case and sentence.

His mother wrote to the Oxford Mail and said: “My son is an amazing artist and simply sees graffiti for what it is – street art.”

Does she have a point?

Art historian Dr Richard Clay of Birmingham University thinks so. He asks: “Where does vandalism become graffiti? When does graffiti become street art? And when does street art become art?”

He traces a common thread of pride and protest in graffiti through history from the earliest cave paintings to the counter-cultural visual explosions of late 20th century New York. Dr Clay points out that authority figures brandishing the twin clubs of ‘order’ and ‘control’ have fought subversion and freedom of expression for thousands of years. His conclusion? Graffiti should be treated as art.

Oxford Mail:

  •  The canal towpath to Jericho is another targeted area

This idea has already caught on around the world. Areas as diverse as Shoreditch in London, El Born in Barcelona and Wynwood in Miami are magnets for tourists partly because of the sheer volume of street art.

The ‘Graffiti Grannies’ of Lisbon are a group of 11 people aged between 59 and 90 who paint walls supplied by Lisbon City Council’s Galeria de Arte Urbana. Each year a street art festival runs a two-day workshop that begins with a brief history of graffiti from ‘tagging’ to the stencil-based work of Banksy.

One of the Graffiti Grannies, Olinda Rodrigues, 66, says: “The more I paint, the more I want to paint. I didn’t really like street art that much before this. I always thought it was just kids making a mess of the walls. But now I understand the history behind it and the way of thinking and I appreciate the artists more.”

The Central St Martin’s School of Art is currently working on a project for communities to be given responsibility for deciding the fate of graffiti in their particular area.

They hope this will encourage a more democratic control and a stronger connection between residents and their environment.

Professor Lorraine Gamman is part of the Central St Martin’s project and she puts the case for a change in perspective about graffiti: “At a time when local government is struggling to find essential services, escalating the range of graffiti crimes and demanding the criminal justice system responds is daft.

“We can do better than this. We should be experimenting with new ways of making it possible to open up walls in public spaces so people can paint with permission – not trying to put more people in jail.”