As they start a prison sentence, pictures of their work are to be exhibited in a New York art gallery. So are they vandals or frustrated artists?
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Petition to present at appeal to try and get reduced sentences here http://www.gopetition.co.uk/petitions/graffiti-artists.html
brightening up dull trains
EIGHT men were sentenced on Friday11th June in what was one of the biggest prosecutions for graffiti the UK has ever seen.
All admitted conspiracy to cause criminal damage as part of a graffiti crew called DPM that tagged and painted trains and stations costing rail networks an estimated £1 million.
Detective Sergeant Michael Field, who led the inquiry described it as a “major crime on a vast scale”.
“Graffiti is an attack on the community and the environment,” he said. “It is anti-social and destructive and it’s a crime we take very seriously.”
Indeed, the courts took it just as seriously, with the two year investigation culminating in sentencing five members of the group to a total of eight years in prison.
On the day that the court opened its case against DPM, London’s Tate Modern was installing massive pieces of street art on the outside of their South Bank gallery to celebrate artists who made their names by ‘decorating’ streets and buildings in much the same kind of illegal activity.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors have already filed past the installations, admiring work by Blu, an Italian graffiti artist who uses buildings as “sheets of paper”, JR who illegally painted his initials around the streets of Paris and Brazilian Nunca who started tagging at the age of 12.
One member of the Tate’s audience was Ziggy Grudzinskas, a 25-year-old art student and member of DPM who alongside his friends admitted the conspiracy charge between 2004 and 2006.
“I stood there completely baffled for about an hour outside of the Tate to tell you the truth,” he said before he was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment at Southwark Crown Court.
“I quite like it but it really confused me a lot. I know that half, if not all of the graffiti that is on the Tate Modern building is done by people who do illegal graffiti or have done illegal graffiti and have made their name doing that.
“It is like they’re saying ‘yeah we’re on the edge of the law yet we’re being shown by one of the biggest galleries in London.’ And it’s sponsored by Nissan!”
According to Andrew Gillman, the 25-year-old so-called ‘main mover’ of DPM who was jailed for two years, the exhibition just highlights the mixed messages surrounding graffiti.
He said: “If you can make money from illegal graff or a gallery does it off your back, then it’s okay.
“It’s in advertising and fashion as well. There is graffiti on trainers, hoodies, hats, t-shirts, everything you can think of. People want to wear illegal graffiti that is on the trains and the street.
“How come you can wear it and buy it, use it in advertising, marketing, music and every album cover and as soon as you do it you’re f***ed, so where’s the message? If they don’t want people to be involved, don’t popularise it.”
Graffiti is so popular in fact that not only has it made its way onto the catwalk but it is now been propelled from the street into (or onto) galleries.
The Tate’s Street Art exhibition is the first major display of its kind and since its launch last month has been accompanied by street tours, workshops and even talks with professional street artists like Rough and Blek Le Rat.
One, on August 15, entitled Graffiti – Utopia or a bit boring? will see critics Ossian War and Ben Lewis debating whether graffiti is “glorified vandalism or a legitimate cultural movement”.
Curator of the Street Art exhibition, Cedar Lewinsohn said: “I hope that we are there to challenge what people think about street art.”
Despite the widening debate on the value of urban art, courts are still cracking down on the artists, branding them malicious vandals.
Just weeks before DPM was sentenced, Gary ‘Daze’ Shields was given leave to appeal after being sentenced to 28 months behind bars.
On his interim release, he told the Glasgow Evening Times: “I totally understand what I did was vandalism, but I like the artistic side of it.”
Lewinsohn said: “There may be some mixed messages in society. I think the main thing is that it’s a real culture difference. In some countries it is legal and street art is more accepted. Brazil for instance is more relaxed about it. But in parts of Australia, they are like the UK and people really hate graffiti and tags on vans and trains. But in Melbourne, van drivers compete with each other as to whose is more decorated.”
Lewinsohn’s book, Street Art – The Graffiti Revolution, that accompanies his exhibition, charts the history of urban art from New York subway graffiti in the 1980s to today’s mainstream artists like Banksy, whose work is now auctioned for thousands of pounds.
Lewisohn said: “Every artist in the Street Art exhibition has made that leap into galleries, but it’s not a big leap. Although their art is available to see in the street, they also do a lot of studio practise beforehand, that is one of the main differences between street art and graffiti. Most of the artists have a studio and have gone to art school and have had their work in an exhibition.”
DPM, it seems have already made that leap despite their conviction.
An exhibition is to be launched a week after their sentence on July 19 in Soho, New York hosted by artist Elura Emerald and Hip Hop promotional company End Of The Weak.
Called DPM – Exhibit A the exhibition in the loft space in 440 Broadway in Grand Street will display large photographs of their work plus copies of their charge sheets questioning whether the young men are criminals or, in fact, artists.
Emerald said: “The exhibition in NYC is to give the recognition to the artists that I believe they deserve and to accentuate the fact that they are not at all criminals, and do not at all deserve to be put in jail for their creative force.
“I want to give them a platform to exhibit their art on a "legal" basis, and to spread the message that artists who paint on the street are merely expressing themselves through an artistic channel, it is not hurting anyone.
“I do not believe the creators of art should be punished, but appreciated and celebrated.”
End of the Weak’s Padraic Mccroudi, who last summer hosted an event in association with the Tate Modern called the Art of Freestyle, said: “Jailing artists for criminal damage, although it may seem to be a deterrent, does in fact only serve to gain kudos and notoriety for the artist.
“This in turn means that the criminal justice system in this case is fundamentally flawed and counter productive.
“It's important that the criminal justice system, the courts, the judges, the police and the greater community understand this and that if they ever really want address graffiti as an issue then we all need to explore avenues together, avenues other than jail time.”
Many local authorities are already exploring these avenues funding street art workshops to connect with young people.
In fact, Greenwich council and Tower Hamlets commissioned DPM’s Grudzinskas and Jack Binnie, who was handed a 12 month suspended sentence, to lead summer workshops as Street Art Tutors for young and vulnerable people.
According to the references each council sent to the court to support Binney and Grudzinskas, their work with young people was “positive” and “inspirational”.
A source at Greenwich council said: “They showed the young people who aren’t able to do reading or writing that they can use artistic ways to express themselves.
“Their skills are obviously needed, it doesn’t make sense to send him down, we should use it.”
Matthew Pease, 24, and Paul Stewart, 26, also of DPM who were sentenced to 18 months and 15 months respectively, took part in a five-day workshop in the Czech Republic to work with disadvantaged youths as part of an event organised by music and art organisation Community Music (CM).
Pease said: “For the first day we got them sketching to see what they could do and tried to teach them a few different things about how to go about building up a piece.
“Gradually, through the week, we were getting them painting. By the end of the week, every single person in the class had a quite sizeable piece and a finished product.”
One member of DPM in particular made the headlines when he was hired by the BBC to tag the set of the country’s best loved soap while he was on bail.
Gillman, who worked full-time at his family-run funeral service, was commissioned to tag Tanya Branning’s ‘Booty’ nail salon in EastEnders and other parts of Albert Square.
He said: “They knew I was a writer. I said to them, the tags I am putting up, are the tags I see in London so it’s realistic. And they said ‘great, realistic tags, just what we want.’
“And they said ‘maybe you could come up with three tags for EastEnders, you know, three writers that are just around the square, you could put up East 13 crew, one could be Rocky!’ They were getting really into it.”
But DPM have vowed never to pick up a spray can again since their conviction but their friendship will clearly remain.
“It was more about friendship than graffiti,” Gillman said. “We knew what we were doing was wrong but when you are painting a piece, all your worries just fall away.
"Trains were like a moving canvass, it goes underground it goes over bridges. And if you’re standing there amongst the crowd and you see everyone looking at it, it gives you a huge feeling of gratification.
“We tried to create something that was artistic, made people look, something that’s thought provoking, makes commuters look up from their paper.
“But I don’t think I could call myself an artist, I’m a vandal, I’ve admitted that.”
DPM’s “brains of the group”, Slav Zinoviev, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison had a different opinion.
The 25-year-old, who recently graduated with a Masters in Information Technology, said: “People are not really educated on the whole graffiti thing. But now that Banksy has come around, people see it as one of the purest art forms, which it essentially is. And so to that extent I would say that I was an artist.
“To train writers, tags are actually much more valuable to the graffiti community than a Banksy painting is.
“We were all brought together by some sort of passion and this is one of the things that has created stronger bonds between us, and perhaps given us richer memories than the average person possesses.”
Sentencing, Judge Christopher Hardy said he had to acknowledge that some of the graffiti written by DPM showed “considerable talent”.
He added: “It seems to be on the way to being recognised as a valued form of art.
“But in this case, it has been sprayed all over property without their permission, that’s simply vandalism.”
Gillman, 25, of St John’s Hill, Battersea was jailed for two years; Zinoviev, of the same address, Grudzinskas, 25, and Stewart of Manor Lane, Lewisham received 18 months in jail; Pease of Manor Lane, Lewisham was jailed for 15 months.
As they were led to the cells, members of a packed public gallery shouted, ‘We love you boys, stay strong’ and applauded them until they were out of sight.
Other members of DPM, Matthew Tanti, 23, of Holmsbury Court, Upper Tooting Road, SW11 and Jack Binnie, 26, of Adelaide Avenue, Ladywell, were each sentenced to 12 months suspended for 12 months.
Alex McClelland, 24, of Croxted Road, West Dulwich was sentenced to nine months suspended for 12 months.
Outside court, Ziggy’s father Professor Gedis Grudzinskas said: “Ziggy has been sent to prison for 18 months having pleaded guilty to a crime not involving violence, terrorism, knives or drugs but vandalising public property.
“British Transport Police declined to arrest him and others when they knew they were breaking the law, presumably to develop their case for this show trial costing the tax payer thousands and thousands of pounds unnecessarily.
“Now they have sent him to jail instead of getting him to do community service for example to clean and help restore the trains and stations.
“This is not justice is it?”