True Gripes: Graffiti gangsters: The mess makes people feel unsafe

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Last week PC Michael Woods went home with holes in his fingers. He fell on a live rail while chasing graffiti sprayers along the District Line at Gunnersbury. Luckily his police boots insulated him and the charge went through one arm and out the other. Talk about (nearly) dying for art.

According to the British Transport Police there were 402 reported graffiti offences in 1993. More like 402 a week, I'd have thought. London Underground say they spend pounds 2m a year trying to clean up graffiti, money needed for other priorities. But the fight is considered important because graffiti makes people feel unsafe and increases their fear of crime.

These days the mess is everywhere, on tubes and buses, on station platforms and along the tracks, on traffic signs, shop fronts and shutters, and on pillars and posts. It's almost always distressing to behold.

There are the set-pieces with artistic pretensions, often in huge fluorescent colours, and there are scribbled 'tags', usually moronic names or initials, or the names of rock bands. REM is a group that makes good melodic sounds; their often repeated initials along the railway tracks instil nothing but depression.

Art is subjective and one person's art is another's daubings. For the thousands who have packed the Tate's just closed Picasso exhibition, millions have stayed away, perhaps putting Picasso's work in the same category as those free (and unregulated) graffiti displays.

Certainly, to my taste, the work of the late former graffiti-ist Keith Haring is as much to do with art as anything by, say, Pollock or De Kooning. But while I'm happy to see this art form on postcards or T-shirts or gallery walls, on a Tube train or in an alley, I find it . . . well . . . ugly.

London is not the only city to have been infected by the graffiti virus: you can see it elsewhere in Britain and, selectively, in Europe. Berlin is overrun with it, whereas Amsterdam (an obvious candidate) is comparatively free of it. And, of course, it's an American import. It started in New York, where the kids got into the marshalling yards at night to 'decorate' subway trains. In recent years, through increased security and huge expenditure, the problem has been reduced there.

New subway trains in New York have 'graffiti-proof' stainless steel interiors. That doesn't entirely cure the disease because now the handiwork is gouged deep into the metal and the glass windows. Cities are social and depend on an attempt at order. Graffiti rudely disturbs that attempt. Walk along any street and see how spray paint and marker pens have turned order to chaos.

Look out of the window of your tube train and see how Victorian brickwork viaducts have been sullied with the inane scribble of mindless vandals. Look at the mess and think that it will probably still be there in 50 or 100 years' time.

Where I live, in Turnham Green, the vandals are starting on churches now. Si Monumentum Requiris, Circumspice. Meanwhile, in Singapore, there's no graffiti to be seen . . .