The Olympic Police's War on Graffiti
Darren spraying shit.
Have your Olympic dreams already been soured by the roof-mounted rockets, VIP traffic lanes and wandering gangs of "brand police"? Well yesterday, the British Transport Police raided a number of homes and made a bunch of arrests, seemingly as part of a pre-emptive operation to crack down on graffiti in the capital during the 2012 Olympic Games.
One of the people arrested was Darren Cullen. Darren, who is also known by his graffiti tag “Ser”, has been involved in the graffiti and street art scene since 1983. But in truth, he's kinda legit – over the past 20 years, he's worked with local councils, companies like Microsoft, Red Bull and Adidas, disadvantaged kids and, hilariously, Team fucking GB itself. He's also turned spraying paint on stuff into his own company, called Graffiti Kings.
I spoke to Darren about his arrest, and why he thinks the British Transport Police went after him.
VICE: Hi Darren. So, you were arrested yesterday?
Darren Cullen: Yeah, the British Transport Police knocked on the door of my mum's address, but of course I don't live there any more. She told them where I lived and they came to mine 20 minutes later, at about seven o'clock in the morning. They said they had a warrant for my arrest, which was a massive shock to me. I'm a law-abiding member of the community, a business owner – I wasn't expecting to see police at my front door!
They said that I was being charged with committing criminal damage between 1997 and the present day and they began to search my house. It was mad, there were five police officers going through my property. They started bagging up my graffiti magazines, photographs and spray paint as evidence. Everything I use in my job. They even took my phone and laptop.
And you think this had something to do with the Olympics?
I asked one of the officers if it had something to do with the Olympics, because I'd noticed that a lot of the street art around the capital had been removed recently. It's all suddenly being cleaned off in the past few weeks, even stuff that no one had been bothered by for years. The officer didn't confirm that my arrest was to do with the Olympics, but he smiled. My partner asked another officer if it was to do with the Olympics, and he said it was.
It's ironic that they would arrest me of all people while trying to stop people painting graffiti during the Olympics – Graffiti Kings was actually approached by Team GB to paint part of the Athlete’s Village, and ITN news had us paint some art work on a black taxi for use in a programme where they interview people about the Olympics.
Darren with a fish.
Did the police say why they picked you, specifically?
Apparently they got my name from a web domain that I had registered some time ago. As part of my business, I help people set up websites which they use to share their creative work. I created a website for some young guys, and registered the domain for them. Apparently these guys posted photos of illegal graffiti, which the police said could entice people to go and do illegal graffiti themselves. Because I had registered the domain, the police came to me. Considering the amount of websites that post photos of graffiti and all of the videos on YouTube, I was surprised they bothered me over something as small as having registered a web domain.
Sounds like they're being pretty thorough and dystopian about the whole thing. Posting photos online isn't even a crime, is it? So what happened when you got to the police station?
There were about 30 people there, all arrested in similar circumstances. I recognised a lot of faces from keeping up with the graffiti community, but no one that I knew personally. It was weird, I wondered what I was doing in a police station being questioned alongside these people I'd never met. People who I have no connection with.
That's when it became clear that the police were arresting people with some affiliation to the graffiti scene, wholesale. I'm sure it was all about keeping the city under control during the Olympics. I don't know, I guess they are trying to look like they are doing a lot in preparation for the Games. Making sure their arrest statistics in the run up to the events look impressive. All I could think was, “There is no reason why I'm here.”
Just before the police let me go, they told me what my bail conditions are. I'm not allowed to carry any spray paint or other graffiti tools, which obviously I need for my work. I'm not allowed to ride any railway service, the underground, the Tube or the DLR, and I'm not allowed within a mile of any Olympic venue. All of this, until November.
What?! Where does all this leave you?
I'm astounded by the whole thing. I've spent 15 years building up Graffiti Kings to be a positive way to use my skills and make a career for myself, and now I can't even carry spray paint. How am I supposed to work for my clients if I can't even pick up a spray can?
It's going to cost me a fortune getting around town now that I can't ride the train. I'm going to have to drive to all my meetings and pay congestion charge each time. And of course, they have my laptop and phone, which contain everything I need to make a living.
It's just crazy. People from the graffiti community are encouraged to find legal and productive ways to use their skills, which is exactly what I've spent a decade and a half doing, but I'm still being harassed by the police in this way. It just isn't right.
No, it certainly isn't. I'm sorry Darren.
UPDATE: In light of an article posted by the New Statesman's legal correspondent David Allen Green, which suggests that the police station Darren was taken to can only hold five arrestees at any one time, I spoke to Darren to ask him if he was sure there were 30 people at the station. He said yes. He has also since confirmed this to some newspapers.
I wasn't there, so I can't say this is a fact, but it's his story and he is sticking to it. I looked at some private graffiti forums, and people were linking to this, which suggests there is in fact space for more than five arrestees.
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