Graffiti artist's sentence brings no joy to persecutor

`I hate to think of him rotting in prison,' says the man who hunted vandal. Graham Ball reports
Click to follow
FIVE years in prison may seem a long time for writing on walls with a spray can and a marker pen, the sentence imposed last week on Simon Sunderland, agraffiti artist from Yorkshire aged 23. Remarkably, it even seems too long to the man who led the long hunt to catch him.

No one suffered more during the five-year graffiti onslaught Sunderland wrought on the streets of Sheffield than councillor Francis Butler. For 30 years the Liberal Democrat representative, a retired lecturer aged 54, has worked hard to improve the quality of life within the city's sprawling estates and neighbourhood communities, but the sheer scale of the problem created by the rebel graffiti artist who daubed his name, Fisto, in lurid letters that covered entire walls, brought him to the edge of despair.

"I don't mind admitting it - he had me beat. I publicly acknowledged it: I was on the point of giving up," Mr Butler said.

"No one living outside of Sheffield can imagine the chaos he caused over the years. He painted on everything: walls, private houses, public buildings, street signs, even a bus that had broken down. The trouble was that as soon as we cleared it off, more would appear. We just didn't have the resources, neither human nor financial, to cope. It was an epidemic."

Eventually a virtual state of war existed between the graffiti artists led by Fista and local community activists led by Mr Butler.

"Things were very bad. Volunteers were giving up and losing heart. This terrible flood of graffiti was having a depressing effect. In the end I took a decision: I said `this menace is not going to beat us'. I put it to the local people in the press and on radio, I said either we stop trying to enhance and improve our environment, or someone out there must grass on him.

"The result was dramatic. I received a series of calls and letters identifying this one man. I passed that information on to the police, and they mounted an operation to catch him."

On Tuesday the law finally caught up with Fisto, when Sunderland admitted 14 specimen charges of criminal damage at Sheffield Crown Court, and was sentenced to five years.

It was a decision that pleased many in South Yorkshire and was endorsed by the Sheffield Star, which said it would act as a deterrent to others. The chair of the city's environmental services committee, councillor Pat Midgeley, agreed. "This sentence should stop people in their tracks. It shows what people are beginning to think about public order offences."

But Mr Butler could find nothing to celebrate. "I have not endorsed any cheers for this sentence; in fact I hate to think of him rotting in prison," he said. "My own personal view is that I imagine he had already learnt his lesson by the time he came to court."

Next week Sunderland, who has already spent five months on remand, is to appeal against the sentence. The court was told it cost pounds 7,000 to clean up Sunderland's aerosol artwork and that Sheffield spent pounds 500,000 a year purging graffiti from the city.

Sunderland always `tagged' his name, Fisto or Fista, to his work. Examples of his graffiti have been identified in the north Midlands and as far south as the London Underground. One of the most vivid examples of Fisto's work is a 100-yard-long mural along a wall behind a Barnsley supermarket, featuring his "tag" in letters 6ft high.

Yet Mr Butler feels only compassion for the man who made his life a misery.

"I've tried hard to comprehend what it was that motivated him to do the things he did. I would seriously like to know if he's contrite, if he feels any remorse for the damage and upset that he's caused. I'm aware that we're not a listening society and that there are no conventional outlets for people who are disadvantaged to express themselves artistically.

"I don't think that I would have survived for 30 years in every level of local government without some compassion. Even now I haven't given up all hope of something good coming out of all this. Perhaps he will struggle on and become a successful artist in his own right ... it would make up for a lot and be good for the community."

This weekend, as he begins his long sentence, Simon Sunderland will have time to reflect on the capricious nature of life as an artist. While he serves time in HM Prison Doncaster, Madonna is sponsoring an exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery in homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who began as a graffiti artist in New York.

Basquiat's quirky aphorisms and stick-people pictures were first discovered by Greenwich Village trendies. What followed was an Eighties success story.

By 21, Basquiat was a star. An affair with Madonna and a friendship with Andy Warhol secured his cult status, but by 27 he had died from a $1,000-a- week heroin habit. Today his pictures are worth tens of thousands of pounds and carry the stamp of his graffiti roots.

Despite his anti-social behaviour Simon Sunderland also wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. At the trial his barrister, David McGonigal, said: "No bad language, political messages or racial or sexual abuse were used. He saw himself as an artist and is keen to improve himself and broaden his horizons and is planning to take a course in fine art."

In his own defence, Sunderland told an underground magazine: "This is a blind society. Every day, everywhere we go we're bombarded with these big adverts making money, selling lies. And people believe them. They're brainwashed, even if they say they're not. But when someone is individual or real, they think it's some big crime. I don't feel part of this system or society."

Shortly before his arrest Sunderland wrote on a Sheffield wall: "In a society based on image, greed and selfishness we are the few who have broken the chains by exposing our art by any means necessary."