If you happen to be a street artist tagging in the city of London, know that Big Brother is watching. As of July, the British Transit Police (BTP) have initiated a draconian attack on graffiti art of London in an attempt to “cleanup” the city for the Olympic games. Banksy, London’s most trendy contemporary tagger, has spoken out about the BTP’s threats to erase his, and many other’s, Olympic themed work. The police plan to remove his two newest pieces once they are located, and have already painted over a sociopolitical mural by a similar artist, MauMau. In order for the city to look its best for the influx of tourists following the trail of the Olympic torch, the BTP feel that it is appropriate and necessary to “sanitize” the city and remove what they see as unwanted, illegal, vandalism. Many citizens agree. Bloggers have responded to an article covering the events written by Jonathan Jones, writer for The Guardian. They say, “graffiti writers getting monitored during the Olympics is fantastic. Make them understand that it is illegal and making peoples neighborhoods look ugly pays a price.” Another British blogger added, “Large parts of the rail network are covered in this lazy gibberish. Any effort to wipe it out can only be a good thing.”
Clearly, plenty welcome the ousting of “gibberish” in the London area; however, many find the elimination of art work -rubbish or not- atrocious; especially when this elimination begets the suspension of civil liberties for the artists responsible. Darren Cullen, owner of a popular street art website, Graffiti Kings, has been painting for 30 years. Early on, Cullen was involved in graffiti work. However, for the last 20 years he has been engaged in completely legal artistic endeavors, working on advertisements for major cooperations and donating pieces to nonprofit organizations for underprivileged children. Because of this, Cullen was served with a court warrant for his arrest for committing criminal vandalism between 1997 and the present. Cullen’s home was raided, and his computer, phone, photographs, and other business essentials confiscated. He is now under stringent bail conditions preventing him from carrying any spray paint, riding any rail service, or coming within a mile of any olympic venue until November.
In less extreme measures, an organization called Keep Britain Tidy has created a counsel for painting over art they deem as unwanted. Helen Bingham, the organization’s campaigns manager, said, “There’s a difference between low grade tagging and the work people like Banksy do.” The council claims that it takes considerable time in deciding whether a painting should be removed. Yet, Olympic organizers say that there are not any official guidelines on removing graffiti. Apparently, the elimination of art is purely at the discretion of those who find it offensive.
In all, the current attack on graffiti work in London surrounding the Olympic Games is a multilayered issue. The situation is complex because it highlights the precarious relationship between censorship, corporate institutions, over-zealous government police forces. It is true that much of the street art that adorns London is illegal– however the fact that pieces that have been displayed for decades or murals criticizing the Olympic agenda are being destroyed seems, to the observing eye, unfair. Former taggers turned family men who have not picked up a Krink pen in years are having their personal property confiscated, and restrictions put on their roaming privileges, making it hard for them to continue to run their businesses or ride the train to work. Meanwhile, the gargantuan cooperate entity that is The Olympics continues to create controversy and tension for London citizens and artists alike. While some feel that the police are using the Olympics games as an excuse to execute a preplanned whitewashing of all graffiti art, many feel that it is the fiscal interests of the Olympic Counsel that drive the backlash against “unwanted” art. “It’s all about money. I bet if MauMau used the the profits from this art sales to pay off the Olympic Counsel, he could spray paint as much as he wants all up and the down the UK,” one blogger noted. Big Brother may or may not be pursing a monetary agenda, but, as of now, he certainly is keeping a strict eye on the art that goes on and off the walls of London. George Orwell must be turning in his grave.
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