This is birmingham. An insiders view of the birth of post graffiti that is deliberately vague to protect the guilty.


I am aware that my own story is somewhat atypical & there have been a number of convergencies that led me to my own left hand path.

Firstly, I am the product of 19th century nouveau riche & downright Brummie scum.
By the time that my parents arrived the money from the northern mills on my mothers side had run out but thanks to some shrewd investment on the part of my great grandfather there were many valuable artworks & objects within the family so my early childhood was a magical place filled with bronzes, paintings, books & art nouveau utilities. It left me with expensive tastes but no means of satisfying them.

A school of Rembrandt deposition that terrified me hung next to a decorated grandfather clock at the top of the stairs in my grandparents house & whenever I went to the toilet at their house I had to to run past it to avoid the dead eyes of the christ that hung lifeless but accusatory & the misery of the hands that drew him down from his lonely wooden tower as the clock ticked a countdown on my own corporeality with warm tones.
I took those stairs down three at a time in terror sometimes vaulting over the bannister to land heavily near the nursery steps to the irritation of my grandparents.
Fear has always played a key role in my memory since before I was conscious of it, as a defense I made an active decision to remember everything that I experienced in detail as if that would give me the key to all that I found disturbing in life.
The wrinkled hands of my dying great grandmother which were cold & filled with a feeble love that could not overcome her appalling suffering whilst she lay bedridden in a closed devotional room, Saint Anthony around her in numerous forms. Many times I was left alone among antique clocks & decorated sideboards as the rest of the family attended her stifled cries of pain unechoed by the sad eyed beauties in the picture frames or those selfish lovers who continued their ageless courtship on vases that I could not touch or on porcelain miniatures that I could not touch or on decorated panels around a priceless gilded carriage clock that I could not touch.
She took a long time to die & much of it I spent gazing at a picture of a tempestous sea crashing over rocks as black as my own spiteful wish that she would just be quiet.
That picture hangs in my studio now, I wish that I also had the book "The Cruel Sea" that was on the bookcase fifth from the left, second shelf up, navy blue cover, gold writing on the spine that I mistakenly tried to read to understand the painting.
My grandmother painted.
In those moments that I spent with her & her box of watercolours we shared the joy of creating.
Me at work on dinosaurs whose names I memorised in latin, she on quick sketches of me with my brow furrowed in concentration or of her grey muzzled dog Lucky who brushed our legs under the kitchen table while we worked.
She spoke often of suicide in reaction to the protracted illness of her mother, "...when I get ill I just want a little pill so that I will not be a burden on my family" was an often heard phrase.
She need not have worried because she died very quickly after a short illness, too quick for me to complete a drawing of Winnie the Pooh & Piglet walking into the sunset asking "I wonder if anything interesting will happen tomorrow?"

I painted.
On the flysheets of books, on furniture, on paper that was given to me to scribble on & in the borders of the american comics that I had become fascinated with. I totally devalued a first edition of Fantastic Four number one with my scrawl.
Swamp thing, Man Thing, Spiderman, Iron Man, Vampirella, EC comics, Last Gasp of San Francisco & later Justice League of America, The Airtight Garage, 2000AD, Heavy Metal.
I consumed them all, read every word & marvelled at Hostess Twinkie adverts & X-Ray specs & kit versions of the Universal Monsters.
It was all out of date & out of reach & I remained in my own fantasy world. The lettering & title pages fascinated me the most & I often made cryptographs with figures in them. An art teacher painted the words out of a detailed picture of a raised Schmiesser pistol that I had submitted as homework. He also gave me an F for a raven made from the word Nevermore.

Poe had scared me beyond sleeping after I had read a biographical account of his obsessive nature & miserable death. It had resonance with all of my own selfish fears of mortality & suffering & death.
As a result my parents removed all of my comics & books & would not allow me to watch Monty Python or Spike Milligans Q series. I remember "The Ying Tong Song" being shut off as I was enjoying it too much. "It'll give him nightmares." Thus removing any point of reference that I had for understanding why I was frozen with fear in the company of other children or dogs or adults.
As a result I raided libraries for Psycho, A Stone for Danny Fisher, Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Pomegranate Tree or anything tragic or obsessive hardly understanding much but seeking out those passages that had significance to me.
The beginning of Crime & Punishmet where a horse is flogged beyond death convinced me that everyone who used the phrase had read the novel & I was frustrated that I could only jigsaw sections of it together.
My classmates liked football, I couldn't move.
I was frozen to the spot trying to understand why they were chasing a ball & became a target for their cruelty.
I stared at them puzzled whilst they took turns to hit me to see if they could provoke a reaction & I finally identified with that pale corpse that watched from the top of my grandparents staircase.

My tastes metamorphosed into science fiction as I tried to control my fears by becoming like the robots that destroyed human weakness. I found Kraftwerk & the irony passed me by entirely. I listened to radio during the sleepless nights & found that there was a whole world that existed outside of my mothers much loved 60's vinyl. I searched record shops for albums that contained a dogma that would allow me to become an electric unfeeling monster, there were none but I discovered album covers that looked like my pictures filled with words & images combined.

"I wish I could draw like you!"
My first wall painting was a composite of 2 Tone reords covers in 1980 & it gave me a reputation around where I lived as it could be seen on my bedroom wall when I had my curtains open.
At the time there were still youth tribes so although there was a lot of positive reaction I also became a target for rockers who smelled of petuli & racist skinheads & teds.
I was chased a lot as a nigger lover & after I was beaten once & had to walk several miles home I met the brother of an irish classmate who had recently returned from Canada via New York.
He helped me past a gang from the wrong side of the estate & back to his house where he let me wash my bruises & showed me some photographs of his trip & talked about the "Rotten Apple" & how awful it was & the graffiti, the place on the photos was like a bomb site & covered with tags but mixed in there were shots of wall paintings like the titles from comic books.
I was shaking still but could not be sure if it was from the beating or from seeing an echo of what I was doing from so far away.
It was not until a few years later that I discovered the paintings were made with aerosol paints like the ones my father kept in with his tools to cover the rust on a series of old cars. Prior to that I had tried to emulate the method by mixing paint in windowlene bottles & made a terrible mess.
I had so many drawings in a similar vein that I had to destroy them on a weekly basis keeping only those that I could not bear to part with.
When Subway Art came out later I was already interested in the music we then called electro as it was a continuation of the futurist robot music I so wanted to be a part of as a child.
I was using aerosol paint from my fathers tool box on walls & paper & everything else that would stay still but never like they had in this book.
It had changed so much from the scrawl I had seen in 1980 & was huge & beautiful & there were hundreds of them.
A friend told me he was going out to do "a piece" & showed me a drawing that he had done & was planning to go out with some paint he had stolen from the bus depot.
"I've got some of these" I said & we went to my house where I showed him one of the folders that I had filled to bursting with letters & figures & cartoons.
He looked at them for a long time & became more & more excited.
"We have to do THIS one!"
It was a piece saying "WEIRD" which was an insult that I got a lot & we arranged to go the following night to a place he knew. I drew a buck toothed cartoon superhero for the left side that night & we met after school:he brought the paint & I brought the drawings which he laughed at he liked them so much.
We boarded a bus & we went into the city both shaky with anticipation.

Radcliff (hereafter Ratcliff) subway was a service tunnel for the Queensway subway & had sat unnoticed since its completion & had gone into disrepair.
It was littered with empty bottles & trash & some of the doorways had been boarded up & then partially broken open by the derelicts who used it as somewhere to drink, piss & sleep.
We found a spot near the end from where it would be easy to run into the Queensway if spotted & we began to paint together in a runny jelly chrome & green outine, decided that this looked shit & reversed the scheme till we had the letters & the cartoon complete.
It looked a bit like what we had seen but was rough & horrible.
We caught a bus after sneaking out of the subway covered in paint & convinced that we would be arrested on sight. On the way back we met a classmate & H told him,"We've just done a piece!", he didn't know what we were talking about.

I was dissatisfied by what we had done & the following day after school I went to a garage near where I lived that had a bucket of spray paint & spent my dinner money on a couple of cans of blue paint & went back to try again putting an outline on our piece & a cloud around it like it said in the book.
There was no one else around. Only the rumble from the Queensway & the stench of diesel & spray paint. I returned to that place several times to try & make good on what we had started.
There was nothing else down there in terms of grafitti & after a while I started to accumulate paint from garages, bargain bins & H would shoplift where he thought was easy pickings.
I was too much of a pussy to steal & was never very good at running.

After a while I was the only person who would go into Ratcliff & I spent time down there with a bag of paint & drawings instead of going to school; adjusting the paintings that I had made, starting new ones when I had become bored with those down there & trying different paints.
I was hardly ever bothered & would rabbit into the Queensway tunnel when I heard anything till the spot had become safe.
My little brother & I used to spend saturday afternoons in the dark dripping effects onto concrete till we had run out of paint & then checked out potential stockists on the way home, we found a bin full of old stock behind a car parts shop in Harborne & went bezerk filling every pocket & bag with cans till we rattled with every step.

Even I lost interest as the paint stock dried up & for months I did not return till a youth club asked my friend to grafitti one of the walls & he lost his nerve, asked me to do it & then hung around taking the credit while I did the work.
I took the cans that they had supplied home & my thoughts turned back to the tunnel with new ideas that had festered in the drought. They were spiky & complicated due to the lay off, filled with many outlines repeated on top of each other to increase the unreadability. I learned this from reading about William Burroughs experiments with cut ups & mistakenly reading the Futurist Manifesto when I was looking for Gary Numan references in the art department of the library.

I became friends with some guys who did breakdancing at school so that I could be excused from PE classes to practice breaking.
They got to play mix tapes of the best electro & the girls would gather to watch on their way back to the changing rooms & they thought that I could join them so they could get me to paint up old tracksuits for them.
We called ourselves "The Knights of Chaos" after some figures in fantasy role playing books. I sometimes talked to their girlfriends as equals which had never happened before & I tried to impress them by using their eye liner to do portraits.
I did another youth club painting & kept the paint again so that we could go out as a crew & try to make something new.
This time there was a bubble letter Villa Youth outline near the top of the main wall. Someone else had been into my subway & marked it.
The style was useless & I was annoyed that someone else would bother to put up such rubbish.
As a point of honour we thought we should abandon the quiet of the lower section & stay forward of the door to the second part to show the Villa Youth how to really paint grafitti. With one rather unenthusiastic lookout we began to hammer out the Knights piece & with four painting it took hardly any time to look finished. After we had done & were exiting someone said,"it looks just like Subway Art".

A few little tags had started to appear on buses & around the youth clubs where kids were having breakdance battles. The tags were usually territorial.
I didn't go as I was a crap dancer but I began to get a reputation in absentia from doing Tshirts & track suits.
At one of these the Knights bumped into Juice 126 whose tags I had been seeing on the backs of bus seats, when he appeared at a youth club I was painting he dropped a tag on the wall & I said "So that's you!".
I was very anti tagging because I thought that it detracted from the pieces, took up painting space & was surprised that he would mark up a spot I had painted without doing something better than I had claimed it with. To me it was like dogs pissing up a tree.
We got talking & went with the rest of the crew & some paint to show him why "....this is nothing, you should see our pieces in town!".
His eyes nearly dropped out when he saw the piece & he went mad with a can of white trying to fade out the highlights & the other guys were pissed off but I could see what he was thinking & was impressed by how he seemed to know everyone from going to all day events around the midlands.
After we had spent some time painting we exited the subway & wandered with him to where there was another piece. A Rossi outline with arrows on it. We bumped into some guys who he knew & he told them about our piece. They seemed to be impressed.
On our way back he & I talked a lot about grafitti & he told me about real grafitti artists from america who would be coming over to paint in birmingham on saturday & how he would introduce me to Brim.
This was so surprising that I agreed to go along forgetting about my usual shyness.
The other guys took the piss.
"What if Brim thinks your style is basic?"
I didn't care as I thought that I had a style that could beat anything that I seen & was holding it in reserve.

That weekend I met Brim, Bio, 3D, Mode 2 & Pride, Goldie, Sweetske & Jimi Hendrixs' old girlfriend asked if they could film us talking about the grafitti after they had spoken to local muralist Steve Field.
As things began to wind down into a morass of people showing off later in the day I spoke with Bio. He showed me some outlines that I quite liked & gave me some paint. He said something to me that made me realise that Birmingham was a little town compared to New York.
At that point I knew that I couldn't follow what the New York grafitti writers were doing much as I had previously thought I wanted to. I had spoken with Mode & seen what they had done in Paris with Bando which was astounding.
I took some of the left over paint that was lying around & went down to Ratcliff as angry as hell at how shit my work was to put pussy pink details over everything I had done before.
Now the subway began to get tagged & outlines appeared.
One was "The Deviious Fresh" by the Fresh Team which was opposite the Knights piece.
It stayed unfilled for a while but when it was filled in a couple of times it took form.
Top to bottom blockbuster letters & characters. I was threatened by it because although it had no style or complexity it was big & impressive & more TFT pieces started to appear.
A loose writers meeting had started to happen in Ratcliff & pieces started to appear every few days.
I went once & talked with Atiske who had done the Rossi piece & his brother Bitz & Astro who was then in their crew UBA. Some of TFT may have been there & sketchbooks were shown & tags swapped.
It was the end of the first era.

I no longer held the sole claim to the best site in the city & would often be disturbed by other writers who would try to make a name for themselves by tagging up in Ratcliff. They rarely did any pieces & were certainly not experimenting but only emulating that which had been published. I could not understand why they didn't go out & find their own sites so that there would be a network of secret galleries around the city.

After this tags began to appear all over the walls making it hard to paint straight onto the concrete & we had to roller out a block of emulsion to do the Five Wild Artists piece. By now the police had started to take an interest & whilst we were painting FWA, they came down into the tunnel. Paul was on my shoulders & the lookout was hanging around & moaning when we heard them & rabbitted out of there leaving Paul in mid air. It wasn't until I was at the doorway that I remembered that my schoolbag containing all of my paint, outlines & schoolbooks with my real name on was still in front of the painting along with a disgruntled Paul. I had to run back up & slid to the bag in a frenzy as the police rounded the corner. I grabbed the handle & sprinted back the way I had come, past the door trying to jam it shut & down the second part of the tunnel leaping the steps & straight out across the Queensway with traffic all around, horns sounding as I ran up to the mail office & then back into the city.
That night was over but the following one we returned & I completed the painting while the rest of the guys talked with other writers & squabbled about something or other.
A little while later I met Jade from TFT & we talked. I was hardly painting in public due to all of the attention that Ratcliff was getting & increasingly frustrated at being unable to locate a better regular spot to play with.
He took me out to some single hit sites around the city that TFT had pieced but I was disappointed at the long term prospects of them becoming separate cauldrons of creativity.
We agreed to meet & discussed the idea of hooking up together. He had heard that the Knights were "bubbling", I told him that we were doing almost nothing & that I wanted to get out & paint as much as possible & invited him to the library on tuesdays where Juice & I had started to go through the art section to find stuff from New York in the pages of Artforum & also to trawl through architectural digests like Domus & other publications.
We kept the photocopier humming & then went to scope out new spots to paint. Jade never got into the library visits as he was more settled on the graffiti path & pickings were thin back then.
I had signed a contract with the Knights as a grafitti crew to work with an agency on events & modelling shows where I did all the design & painting & we split the profits five ways so they could buy tracksuits. After a while no one else showed up & I did everything alone. They were threatened by my talking to Jade & Juice.
At one of our meetings Jade & I decided to form a new crew.
I would be the brain, he would be the heart & Juice would be the mouthpiece.
We sealed the deal at his place with a bottle of Thunderbird which I had never touched before & never will again. Juice came along later & we pooled ideas for a style that had been in my mind since talking with Bio. Different from New York style because we had no underground transport system & heavily influenced by what I was finding in the library on Lucio Fontana, Pat Adams, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, Wassily Kandinski, Franz Marc, Arnulf Rainer, H.R.Giger,etc.
We threw ourselves into experimenting by swapping ideas & outlines.
As I wanted to introduce robot logic I said we should call our crew "Robotechs", Jade shortened it to R-Techs & then Art-X. It struck me like a bolt & we had our philosophy & modus operandi in that instant. Each of us working on different aspects of the whole. We pooled our resources both physically & ideologically & were insatiable in our thirst for new methods of working. It became a formula of Jade on the straight letters, me on the complex letters & characters & Juice on the backgrounds & letterfills but very quickly developed into something different.
Juice was obsessed with a Futura record cover with wiped paint on it & I was playing with automatic marks made from throwing paint like the early Max Ernst abstractions.
We stalked the art shops after our library sessions to check out the books & wait for the supply reps to hit the art shops with free samples which we would take as soon as they touched the shelves, then ask the assistants if they had any samples & do it again. When we split into individuals we would net four times as many samples than if we did it together. We followed the Badger rep around Birmingham from Spectrum to the Midland Ed to Everymans taking every free board, marker, transfer lettering sheet, brush, catalogue or anything else that we could lay our hands on.
Every day was spent trying different techniques. Pooling, marblising, wiping, spilling, spitting paint to obtain effects that we had seen in paintings by Therese Oulton, Una Bryce, Myffanwy Johns.
Dripping came as a direct reaction against what Chalfant had recorded in Subway Art that drips were considered inept & Bio talking to me about "the wack" writers & how you could never be a king if you had drips.
If they hated drips we would fill our paintings with drips to create a new authenticity.
This was Birmingham, not New York.
We bulldozed our history every few years & made it all again.
If they did not accept us then we would not accept them or their rules.
To live in a ghetto is unfortunate but to recreate someone elses is stupidity.

I had seen Bridget Riley & Richard Davis. I had spent time with shit paint dribbling down my pieces & actually liked the effects sometimes. Gestural & splash painting became the order of the day & Order (later Loc) joined us with a love of art nouveau & Georges Matthieu. His outlines were as individual in application as they were echoing of natural forms.
When we put these aspects together with Juices love of Neville Brody letters that were so cut down that he used King Tubby records to achieve the circles & Jades mercurial ability to absorb these styles & feed them out as graff we sparked something that was our own entirely. When other writers said that we couldn't do it & it wasn't grafitti we did it more & took it further out. Mocking their ignorance. It isn't graff unless the Yanks do it first. Our aim was to transgress the limitations of New York grafitti style. We encountered resistance & hostility from everyone who we considered to be an authority. The americans were particularly annoyed whenever our paths met & became protectionist. When we joined some of TAT for the Rocking the City exhibition some time later threats were made & antagonism was the order of the day. I deeply regret being very rude to Vulcan who was trying to placate the situation & build bridges. My decision had been made & I would never follow anything that the americans did because they were so limited in their logic & application. Their paintings were no more than territorial markings in my view & concerned only with obtaining notoriety which I considered crass. I developed a philosophy of antagonism against the prevailing partisan notion of what grafitti could be & went out of my way to be ugly & obstuctionist & via my readings & experiences at colleges & universities & galleries with John Salt, Bridget Riley, Kenneth Anger & Michael Aquino & The Process became more & more interested in satanism & abstraction. I considered any affecting of american styles to be retrogressive & ignorant. In order to evolve each area & each artist must depict that which is specific to them, to copy was to stagnate. Trompe l'oeil space was negated & theoretical abstraction of form, shape, colour, thematic or organised symmetrical space was investigated. Paint was not a medium of depiction but a physical presence in itself. Georges Matthieu considered his action paintings to be useless as soon as they were finished. Only when they were being made were they of interest. I came to hate that which I had loved due to its approximation by imbecilic copyist notions that could not deconstruct a letterform or understand the cryptograghic nature of symbols or ciphers or the linguistic constructs that necessitated them. I began to destroy letterforms back into component linguistic sigils & invented new methods that stripped out all attempts to combine them into refinements that related to aural equivalents. To take letters into their phonetic base & start again with no embellishment. Most writers had no idea what a serif was. Still don't. From here they started to question notions of time & sequence & possibility. I took my impulses into these forms & compressed them together to reform lettering that could be subjected to multiple processes simultaneously to keep time from moving. The sword of perception was beginning to form.

The tagging was getting out of control & bringing heat down onto spots which were hard to come by. The transport network was being destroyed & as we had to endure constant questioning into our other activities I suggested that we devise a no tagging policy among our expanding affiliates. It was practically unenforceable even among our own & a huge police operation to clean up the city made it dangerous to be involved with other writers just as we were beginning to aquire interest in our activities. It was the old story of jealousies & betrayals. Any attempt to secure a legitimate spot was hampered by people who had no idea of how long it took & how much effort had to be put into securing a site. How frustrating to have spent months negotiating a site only to have it destroyed immediately by other writers sometimes within our own group who could not keep their hands to themselves. I also ran foul of many a person in authority who would not accept our ideas & was branded as difficut & cut out of negotiations. Juice was more patient & had better success. He also fit their racist preconceptions of what a graffiti artist should be better than I. Many a journalist or PR liason waited until he was around to ask him what I was doing. Echoes magazine waited for at least an hour to interview him about my work. An amusing reversal of usual practice.
I started to dissassociate myself from the movement & only work in places that I knew I was totally in control of. I would do the design work & planning & outlines but would not appear in a public space or event or job. More & more I detested the opinions of other writers, the attention of the press & their idiotic questions, worse still the television coverage that always followed the same writing on the wall reform cliches, even the word for word espousal of my own doctrines from my associates & I became reclusive & uncommunicative delving further into 9th degree experimentation & satanic theory. I sought education & was thwarted by jobsworths or dilettantes. I developed a library, practiced perceptual magic & moved into photographic chemistry. Always painting, always changing. Whenever I found a style or method that worked I would reject it so that I was constantly battling to achieve anything. My lecturers despaired & said that my logic was perverse but in my view necessity is the mother of invention & the will to power was the only thing that mattered, even more than the resultant power itself. Make it. Destroy it. Make it again. Only I had the power to create my work & if I had to destroy it in sacrifice to a greater purpose then so much the better. My ideal was to be utterly forgotten. To make something beautiful in isolation away from other writers or public influence just like in those first days in Ratcliff. Me against the wall, nowhere to go, just beating physically against the wreckage of the city to be creative. From here the paintings started to question notions of time & sequence & possibility. I took my impulses into these forms & compressed them together to reform lettering that could be subjected to multiple processes simultaneously to keep time from moving. The sword of perception was beginning to form.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read. As a teenager I never had the bottle to go from scrapbook too walls. Of the places to view graffiti in Brum at the time Ratcliff stood out for raw atmosphere, a tunnel too nowhere lost in the bowels of the city. At the time I could only imagine what giants of men had the courage to create such pieces. Now you look back and it was just kids the same as me.

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