Outcry over graffiti artists' jailing gathers pace online

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Hundreds of people have joined an online campaign to protest against the lengthy sentences meted out to two graffiti artists.

Thomas "TJ" Dolan, 20, and Thomas Whittaker, 18, were sentenced for 15 months and 12 months respectively at Manchester Crown Court last month for vandalising railway property. Since then, more than 1,600 people have signed an online petition calling for the sentences to be reduced. An appeal has been lodged and the men are waiting to find out if it will be granted.

The pair spray painted murals on trains, stations and other railway property across Greater Manchester. Dolan used the tag, or name, Krek, illustrated by a cartoon cat called Kreky, while Whittaker used the tag Mers. Between them, the men, from Macclesfield in Cheshire, caused £13,000 worth of damage. They were caught when British Transport Police found images of their work on websites which they used to trace their email addresses.

Friends and supporters have rallied to condemn the length of the sentences, which they insist are unfair compared to lesser punishments handed out to sex offenders and dangerous drivers. More than 1,600 people have joined the Facebook group Free Krek and Mers, while many more have posted messages of support on MySpace.

On Saturday, about 200 people gathered in central Manchester for a skate and graffiti jam to raise awareness of the case. A music gig, at which Dolan's brother Danny and his band, The Virgin Marys, will play, is planned at some point over the next couple of weeks and T-shirts bearing the legend Free Krek and Mers have been selling quickly.

Danny Dolan said: "Every time we see him in prison we're shocked. The campaign... keeps everybody going. Fifteen months is a complete joke." Earlier this month, the Manchester Evening News reprinted a letter which Dolan sent to his family from Deerbolt Prison in County Durham, where the pair is being held. In the letter, he said he was "very worried" about Whittaker, adding "I am really concerned about how he will be coping as he won't tell anyone how he feels."

Philip Heathcote, who is leading the campaign, said: "I don't see how you can jail a graffiti artist before a rapist. TJ has held his hands up – they both have – and said they've done wrong. They've tried to put it right."

The judge who sentenced the pair admitted they were "decent" but insisted their behaviour should be punished as a deterrent. Judge Anthony Ensor said: "You are decent people who have a talent, but those who scar railways and other people's property have to be deterred. This kind of behaviour is carried out for self-indulgent gratification."

Dolan and Whittaker have applied to prison bosses to help run art workshops at the jail and teach reading and writing to fellow prisoners.