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 crackandshine.com

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing