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Tuesday, 5 November, 2002, 12:11 GMT
The plan to 'legalise' graffiti
Alice in Stockwell
Graffiti as art: A dedicated graffiti wall in south London

Tony Blair has proposed tough new laws to stamp out graffiti. But London and other cities could "legalise" it with plans for giant graffiti murals.
Art is no stranger to controversy - just witness the latest furore over this year's Turner Prize. But there's one art form that is guaranteed to provoke even more of an outcry that a pickled sheep.

Graffiti is illegal art and it's everywhere in 21st Century Britain - on park benches and street signs, bus shelters and phone boxes, in car parks and train stations.

Turner Prize entry
Writing on the wall, Turner Prize style
Councils spend millions of pounds cleaning up after graffiti vandals and Tony Blair has lumped graffiti with drugs and mindless violence as "bad symptoms" of modern society.

In a hard hitting speech at last week's Urban Summit, Mr Blair announced plans to ban the sale of spray paints to under-18s.

But at the same summit, delegates heard an entirely different view. Instead of dismissing graffiti as vandalism, we should learn to embrace it, they were told by Kurt Iveson, an expert on urban issues.

Open in new window : Alice in Stockwell
Images of a graffiti mural in London

We need to "legalise" graffiti by funding giant murals in prominent inner-city sites, he suggested.

"Programmes to clean up graffiti tend to be successful only in pushing graffiti writers to go elsewhere. It doesn't get rid of the problem," Dr Iveson told BBC News Online.

Graffiti in advertising
Graffiti imagery is widely used to appeal to young people
Microsoft used graffiti stickers to promote its Microsoft Network
IBM & Gossard have used chalk graffiti

That lesson was learned in New York in the 1980s when city authorities began to target graffiti on subway trains, he says. The result was it just sprang up elsewhere.

Dr Iveson wants to see authorised graffiti walls, which are set up and run as ongoing-projects, for artists to exhibit their work. London could be first city in Britain to host such schemes.

The idea has the backing of Andrew Pelling, a Conservative member of the London Assembly who chaired the graffiti investigative committee earlier this year.

"Companies use graffiti imagery all the time to promote things to young people," says Mr Pelling. "We have to accept that graffiti is part of their lives. So, I think graffiti walls are needed and, if they are going to mean anything, they need to be in prominent places."

Tagging is now part of the urban landscape
The plan will be considered as part of the capital's youth services provision.

But the idea is controversial. Many people find graffiti intimidating and some say the fact it is illegal is what gives graffiti artists a buzz.

Paul Nicholas, assistant chief constable of the British Transport Police, believes graffiti walls "legitimise" graffiti and serve as a "practising ground" for graffiti writers who go on to scrawl illegally.

Graffiti walls are not a new idea - a handful already exist around the country. But too often they are badly conceived, do little for the community and quickly become neglected.

Clean-up man
Cleaning up costs millions of pounds a year
To work they need to be well planned and looked after, says Sonia Blair, who organises large-scale graffiti murals as public art projects.

"Graffiti projects are not like other community art. If you just march into an area and start painting over walls and tags [graffiti writers' signatures] a lot of people are going to be unhappy."

Her company also organises mentoring, so young graffiti writers can develop under more experienced artists.

Bridge building

Graffiti walls will not solve the vandalism problem in the short-term, says Ms Blair. But over time they would build bridges between young vandals and the wider community.

Broken window
Graffiti artists often don't see it as vandalism
Birmingham-based graffiti artist Chu has seen the only two projects in his area fail - a graffiti wall in Walsall was sold to developers while one in Selly Oak has become neglected, he says.

He believes organised graffiti projects would be successful, but they wouldn't stop him and others practising elsewhere.

"From a very young age, it's a thrill ride," he says.

And like other graffiti artists, he sees his work as a public service - "free, bright art for the people" - rather than a selfish act.

It's certainly means more to young people than much of the art embraced by the establishment, says Sonia Blair.

"This is art that can inspire young people to be creative. It certainly means more to them than the sort of stuff you see in the Turner Prize."

Do you want to see more graffiti around town? Would you welcome graffiti walls?

In the past ten years graffiti seems to have become more about leaving your mark, and less about art or political statement. Most of it is unreadable anyway. I say make it illegal to not say anything of interest!
Jonathan Talbot, UK

Graffiti as a public service! Oh please - the majority of graffiti in you see is not art, but tags scribbled on someone else's property - trains, walls, tubes or buildings.
Victoria, UK

I am a mural artist and have also been involved with graffiti art, but not as an 'outlaw artist'. Most of my graffiti-style work has been done on large temporary canvases in my town centre. Spray paint is the most exhilarating medium because it is fast, rustic, colourful, loud and brash. Another bonus is the work gets widespread exposure. I would like to suggest a 2-pronged approach: a) target vandalism (especially taggers); b) provide gallery space and public places for graffiti artists and encourage current offenders to participate by providing materials and mentoring.
Phil Petty, UK

There has been a council sponsored graffiti wall in Walton-on-Thames for many years. This looked fantastic, until the local kids started to "tag" it. Now the original, and quite frankly brilliant, art is covered in nasty, pointless little scribbles. I would love to see graffiti walls where the best artists can be free, but whilst these taggers continue then this will not work.
Justin Thomas, England

I used to live in London where the graffiti simply made the already grubby city look worse. Designated sites for grafitti artists may help and foster talent but I doubt it will stop the general rot. I now live in Valencia, Spain and here too there is graffiti. However, it is far less of a problem becuase the authorities are very quick to clean it up.
Dan Ashworth, Spain

If walls were set up throughout Britain, and everyone was encouraged to use them (all ages, classes, etc) then graffiti could become a democratic and egalitarian form of cultural expression that need not intimidate anyone. It would be cheap public art.
Jody, UK

Properly done graffiti is absolutely amazing! And if you think of how the end product looks, and how fast these guys work, with nothing else but their own inspiration. There should be a graffiti wall in every town and city.
Matt Compton, UK

To ban spray paint for under-18s is ill conceived. Firstly they use spray paint for activities other than graffiti: art, model making, bike repairs and a whole host of other valid pursuits. Secondly "racking" or stealing paint is part of graffiti culture and will only increase if under-18s have no option but to take it. And spray paint is not the only material - ink pens, emulsion etc have been used. Lastly a clamp down could well lead to more graffiti. Avoiding the police and getting up in places you shouldn't is why most people do it!
Tom, UK

So Tony Blair thinks that graffiti is a modern problem? Perhaps he should look inside the Egyptian pyramids, where many workers left their "tags" thousands of years ago.
Fraser, Scotland

We should encourage art in whatever form as an enrichment of our culture, and clamp down on taggers. A fine and 6 weeks service cleaning trains or public toilets should do the trick.
Mike, UK

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