The graffiti artists making their mark on the city

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Most people think of it as vandalism. But for the covert 'street bombers' on these pages, it's all about making their mark on the city

It was 19 March, 2003, the night before the US-led invasion of Iraq. As thousands of British troops prepared to launch their attack on Baghdad, four men back on home ground crept through the streets of west London, towards one of the biggest train yards in the city. Here, they planned to paint a tube train – or "whole car" – signed off with the words "We Made Love Not War", as a bold protest against the allied invasion. "It was that hour when the dark of night is surrendering to the day with hints of blue breaking through the sky," recalls Fuel, who led the charge that night. "Everything is still and calm; the roads and the tracks are devoid of traffic. London's still sleeping."

Fuel is one of the British graffiti scene's biggest and most respected players, widely considered a legend by his peers. Now in his late thirties, he has been targeting the city's streets since he was just a boy and the lure of the train yard, he says, is still too strong to resist. "For 16 years I've been painting this same yard," he says. "Now I bring my own son here, to watch the trains as they sleep."

On this particular night, six years ago, Fuel and his men followed the Westway by foot until they reached their final destination: a small enclave above the track from which they could properly survey the scene. Before setting to work, first lowering themselves down towards the stationary trains by rope, the men paused, taking a moment to drink in their surroundings. This quiet interlude, the "calm before the storm", was a time for reflection, a space in which to gather their senses. Carefully drawing a mental map of their intended route, the men accounted for the potentially lethal live third rail, any hidden surveillance equipment and an emergency exit to where their getaway car was stashed, should the alarm be raised. There was no space for miscalculation; nothing could be left to chance.

In recent years, with increased forensic analysis, covert surveillance and targeting of known suspects, the government forces in charge of combating "serious vandals" have mounted a series of operations to tackle these crimes. If caught, illegal graffers – whose work is easily identifiable by the signature or "tag" every writer signs next to his (or occasionally her) piece – face heavy penalties, as confirmed by another high-profile writer who wishes to remain anonymous: "Right now I have five friends in jail and two on bail for 'bombing' [a term for spray-painting] trains and I think every 'writer' in London has had their door kicked in by the graff squad recently," he says.

The increased Government offensive against those who vandalise Britain's trains is a move that has been met, in the main, with public approval. After all, whether you like the end result or not, it will be removed, and this process results in no small cost for the taxpayer. London Underground suggests that repairing the damage caused by graffiti to tube trains alone costs a minimum of £10m each year. Yet, while it would seem that their crackdown has, to some degree at least, been a successful deterrent – with statistics for 2008 to 2009 showing that reports for this type of vandalism to the train network is down by 22 per cent from the previous year, to just 3,328 – there is a considerable pool of "writers" who are prepared to take their chances. The thrill of painting a train, they believe, is worth taking the risk. For the sensation that comes from a successful night in the yard, Fuel explains, is unrivalled by any other. After signing off his piece that night in 2003, as the first signs of morning sun strained through the horizon, Fuel recalls, he feels a rush of pure, unadulterated euphoria: "The train's pulsing, alive with colour," he says. "On nights like these we defy conformity and fear and dance in the flicker of hope."

The private motivations of the graffiti artist and the world he inhabits is one that, according to the photographer Will Robson-Scott, has – until now – lacked proper exploration. And so, for the past four years, Robson-Scott has spent countless nights shadowing some of Britain's most prolific writers as they scale the rooftops and undergrounds of our cityscapes. His images, along with a series of exclusive interviews, are showcased in a new book called Crack & Shine, which offers an alternative view of the capital city through the eye of its "street bombers".

These men, Robson-Scott observes, would not consider themselves street artists like Banksy or Blek Le Rat. They are not interested in the democratisation of art; they don't seek public approval. "The majority of the people featured in this book don't respect people like Banksy," he says. "They see street art as a bandwagon thing, aimed at making money and getting famous." This sort of commercial selling out, he says, goes against the very essence of illegal bombing, which operates outside the constraints of conventional society.

For the street bomber, Robson-Scott continues, the rewards are less tangible; the gratification is – in part at least – derived simply from existing in their own private universe, removed from the mainstream: "Being a writer informs the way you see the world," he says. "It's more than writing on walls. Spaces and landscapes takes on a new meaning, almost every aspect of your life is influenced." Exactly what draws these men to this way of life is hard to put into words, he says: "Some of these guys have been writing for 20 years, but if you asked them why they do it, they probably couldn't give a straightforward answer." In an attempt to communicate the indefinable sense of personal freedom and quiet exhilaration that sucks them in, Robson-Scott seeks to capture the experience of "the unknown city within the city".

"I'm interested in presenting people with experiences they wouldn't otherwise have in their life, showing them how others view the world, offering a new perspective," Robson-Scott explains. "In this case, it is the quiet moments of apprehension that occur before a writer strikes that I want to convey: the feeling that comes while lurking in the shadows, waiting for a guard to pass, or feeling a rush of air as a train flies past two inches from where you're crouched." These are the sensations, he says, that can't be put into words.

'Crack & Shine' is published by FFF London, £30, and can be ordered from the website

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk