Vandals or artists? Those who graffiti Scotland's public spaces risk imprisonment and death
It is caught at the top of a ladder by Akme, a graffiti writer, who uses it to apply a bold purple outline to his painting. 'Writer' is the word this tribe use to refer to themselves.
Some call them artists, others vandals. To most of us they are just names on a wall. Akme. Estum. Ejek. Vues. These tags, which together have a liturgical air, are a sort of murmured incantation, part of the ambient noise of city life.
Graffiti is everywhere in Glasgow – on rooftops and road signs, bridges and tunnels, and by the side of the railway tracks.
There is a graffiti culture in other Scottish cities, notably Dundee, as well as Edinburgh and Aberdeen, but Glasgow is the epicentre. The city is home to the Easy Riderz, Scotland's most prominent and prolific crew.
"To me," says Akme, a 30-year-old who has been on the scene for more than half his life, "graffiti is art in its purest form. It's spontaneous and you are doing it just for yourself."
Estum, who is in his early twenties, nods. "You are doing all this planning and risking jail just for five minutes' work and a photo that pure immortalises it."
Both men have criminal convictions for graffiti. "House raids are the worst," says Akme. "Cops kicking your door in at the crack of dawn. Shit like that makes me think, 'F*** them, I'm not going to stop.'"
The usual charges are vandalism and malicious mischief. From time to time, a graffiti writer is sent to prison. In 2008, a member of the Easy Riderz crew – Gary Shields, known as Daze – was given 28 months, sending shock waves through the graffiti community. He served two months in Barlinnie before the sentence was quashed and replaced by community service and a £4,000 compensation order.
Given the high stakes, graffiti writers do everything they can to avoid being caught. Some even place magnets on the bottoms of their spray-cans, holding the ball-bearings inside in place, so they do not rattle and alert police or security guards.
Naturally, they are suspicious of the media. However, a number of members of the Easy Riderz agreed to talk to Scotland On Sunday on the understanding their tags, rather than real names, would be used in print. "Anyway," says Akme, "that really is who I am. Graffiti is my life. It consumes you."
That's an interesting point. The Easy Riderz have a range of occupations – student, barman, graphic designer, tattoo artist, shop assistant, call centre worker – but those tend not to define who they are. Graffiti gives them an identity and a purpose.
Engagement with the press is, therefore, a risk they are willing to take in order to communicate to the mainstream their feelings about graffiti – their passion for it, and their belief that it is misunderstood.
To be taken into their confidence is to be shown an underground world, sometimes literally so, a hidden Glasgow beneath street level. It is to be shown The Tunnels.
The headquarters of Glasgow's graffiti scene is a network of tunnels in the south-west of the city. The Easy Riderz call The Tunnels a "hall of fame". Beneath a motorway flyover and a couple of bridges is a large area of wilderness, popular with deer, foxes, bats and young men wearing baseball caps and respirators.
Squeeze through a gap in the diamond-mesh fence, pick your way carefully down a steep slope choked with brambles and nettles, and you're there. You can't see it properly from the road; few if any of the thousands of motorists driving overhead each day realise their cars are passing over what amounts to a gigantic art gallery.
Putting aside the rights and wrongs of graffiti, this place is astonishing. Every concrete surface, each pock-marked pillar is a riot of colour.
There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of different tags, each painted in a distinctive style, originality being highly prized in graffiti culture. More striking, though, are the huge wall paintings and how these blend in with the environment down here. Bush babies stare out from behind barbed wire. Estum's weirdly luminous organic abstracts appear to have sprouted from the marshy ground.
Within one flooded tunnel, in which lurk the rusting hulks of half-submerged shopping trolleys, there is a 50-foot-long painting of a skull, a chimp and Benedict XVI, the Pope's profile reflected in the fetid water. The meaning of the piece is unclear, but it could not be more different from the scrawled FTPs and FTQs that dominate much of the graffiti seen above ground in Glasgow.
Unlike other Scottish cities and elsewhere in Europe, there is nowhere in Glasgow in which it is legal to paint in public space. Glasgow Community and Safety Services spends £1 million removing graffiti each year.
"The majority of the citizens don't like graffiti," says Darren Lambie of Glasgow Community and Safety Services.
"It is a signal crime. It brings areas down. It's a culture that we need to break down. We can't allow people to run about, putting stuff on other people's property. The same people who are doing some nice stuff with their peers are then going out, with the hood up, and doing damage."
Given the zero-tolerance approach of the city authorities, writers wishing to create complex, time-consuming work must seek out desolate spots such as The Tunnels.
They like it down there, but would rather their work was seen by large numbers of people. Rogue-One, who has painted an enormous photorealist portrait of a shaven-headed child with his hands balled into fists, says: "It's very sad for me that I have to remain underground and my work is hidden. The public walking around up there have no idea that this exists, but I am sure they would love it."
On an overcast Monday in late June, Akme, Estum and Vues have assembled at The Tunnels to paint a 'production', their term for a large colour piece, on to a triangular section of wall by the side of a bridge.
The painting consists of the tag Easy Riderz, a dragon and a woman in a short purple dress. It is slow going as they only have one ladder between them. They begin at about 3pm, first emulsioning over the graffiti that was there, and are still painting as midnight approaches, working by the lights of the motorway. The air smells of marijuana and the equally heady chemical stink of the paint.
Between hip hop tracks, it is possible to make out the hiss of the spray and the discussions between the three regarding how the picture should develop.
They work in near silence with great intensity, painting with confident flicks and flourishes of the cans. Watching them work is like listening to a jazz trio – each man filling space with improvised lines and motifs.
"I love the motion of spray-painting," says Akme. "When I've got paint going on to a wall or a train, it's a rush. It's instant satisfaction."
Vues, the oldest of the three, is in his mid-thirties. He is wearing a blue Nike T-shirt with 'Vandal' written on the front.
"If somebody was to call me a vandal I wouldn't take offence," he says. "Vandalism is part and parcel of it. It's how you start out – tagging, trying to get a bit of style and flow, until you are good enough to start doing pieces like this."
The graffiti writers are at ease in The Tunnels. It is unlikely the police will bother them here. But as Vues suggests, there is another practice within the culture – the so-called tagging or bombing, painting your name in a highly visible spot.
Three huge Akme tags on buildings in Tradeston – including one down the middle of a fire-escape, four-storeys high – are unmissable from trains pulling into Glasgow Central. "It's nice being high up above the city, away from people, in your own space," he muses. "You're like Spider-Man. You see the city in a different way from everyone else."
The more prominent the tag, and the more risk incurred by the writer in putting it there, the more respect – 'props' – he will receive from his peers. There are ethics – "No churches, no cars, no houses, no historic buildings," says Akme – but in general the idea is to paint your name where it will be seen by as many people as possible.
That is why graffiti on trains or at the side of railway tracks is so crucial. Writers risk life and liberty to paint them, usually in the middle of the night. It is rife. Between Muirend in the south of the city and Central Station, a journey that takes a quarter of an hour, there are around 300 separate pieces of trackside graffiti. The writers also break into depots in order to paint the carriages.
"These freight trains go up and down the country, and the guys love painting them," says Gary MacKay, known as GazMac, who at 42 is a sort of elder statesman of the scene, though not involved in illegal work; he undertakes private commissions and gives workshops in graffiti. "The boys are cutting through barbed-wire fences three-fold to get to these holding yards."
Estum gets a dreamy look in his eye when he talks about the trains. "There's a great atmosphere on the track at night," he says.
"It's so quiet and no one else is there. It's about wall-spots that people will see the next day and know you've gone to the effort to get there."
Akme nods. "Graffiti started in New York on the trains. So it's an ongoing tradition. It's a battle to keep that going. You don't want the big boys to win. We want to stay on top. And why not? It looks fresh, it looks good, it's our way of communicating. We're not going to just shut down."
The big boys in question are Network Rail and the British Transport Police. Network Rail in Scotland spends at least £330,000 each year on cleaning graffiti from its property. The BTP uses sophisticated methods in its attempts to catch and prosecute graffiti writers. It seeks DNA and fingerprint evidence from crime scenes, stakes out train depots and employs a graphologist to identify whether different pieces of graffiti were created by the same person using different tags.
Constable Stephen Hughes, a field intelligence officer with the British Transport Police in Scotland, maintains a database of tens of thousands of photographs of tags amassed over the five years he has been responsible for investigating graffiti crime. An amiable 42-year-old, he has studied the work so closely he is now able to make aesthetic judgments.
"I have two Banksy prints on my living-room wall," he says. "I think, personally, graffiti is good but has to be channelled in the right direction. A lot of the kids are very bright and articulate. They are not wee neds.
"You see some getting better, some dropping out of the scene, and others as young as 13, 14 coming through. This is not going to go away. We'll have the Commonwealth Games here in three years, and the eyes of the world will be upon us. Do we really want them to see a city strewn with graffiti vandalism? Ultimately, what we want is a reduction in crime, and we don't want anyone getting killed on the railway."
For Hughes, the way forward is engagement with the writers. The BTP is supporting a scheme by Mark Henderson, community safety manager at Network Rail in Scotland, which would see members of the Easy Riderz crew invited to create a mural on the side of the Cotterell Light Centre, off Scotland Street.
It faces on to the railway line and has become a graffiti hot spot as a result of its proximity to the Shields depot. The writers will also be allowed to use two adjacent walls belonging to Network Rail.
"We're hoping they will take this olive branch," says Henderson. It is a diversionary tactic. The railway authority hopes to see a marked reduction in tagging within Shields depot. If so, the plan is to roll the scheme out across Scotland, providing authorised trackside walls around Dundee, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and in the environs of Glasgow Central.
The graffiti writers seem willing to give this a go, though some have concerns that they are being asked to create pre-agreed content and will not be allowed to write their tags. More problematic is the fact that illegal tagging is an article of faith within graffiti orthodoxy.
The idea of being an urban outlaw runs deep. "I feel that I can't really identify myself as a graffiti artist if I don't paint illegally," says Estum.
While he, Akme and Vues are painting, a couple of young women walk through The Tunnels – one blonde, one dark haired.
They are 17-year-old shopgirls finished work for the day, effortlessly negotiating the marshy, uneven ground in high-heeled boots. "We're the only two female writers in Glasgow," says the petite and brassy blonde, who calls herself Wasp. "It's male-dominated, so I thought I'd prove that we can do it too."
Wasp and her friend Know have been on the scene for 18 months. "We paint in heels," she says. "It's a good way of not getting caught. If you've just done a spot and are walking through the town in trainers and a dirty tracky then there's more chance of the polis knowing what you've been doing."
What about the risk of getting hit by a train? Does that not frighten her? Wasp shrugs. "You just do it, don't you? The adrenalin overbeats the fear."
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Tunnels is its longevity. This has been the place to come for more than a decade. Each wall is thick with layer upon layer of designs. It is Glasgow's Lascaux. The graffiti scene in Glasgow dates back to around 1983, emerging from the breakdancing scene which was itself inspired by the hip hop music and movies coming over from America.
"The MCs were talking about ghettos, and we associated with that," says Gary MacKay. "We were living in housing schemes that were shitholes. You could relate to the idea of kids putting their name up because they wanted to be more than a number. You were either getting into something good, like graffiti, or into something naughty. Six or seven of my mates from school became junkies."
This is, perhaps, the key point about the most prominent Glaswegian writers – they see what they are doing as a force for good, both in their own lives, and with regard to how it makes Glasgow look and feel. In their view, graffiti is anti-authoritarian and utopian, an expression of individual creativity which stands against the creeping commodification and homogenisation of society.
Just listen to Gary Shields. As Daze, he was found guilty of causing £12,000 worth of damage to railway property. Now 24 and working as a draughtsman with an engineering firm, he regrets the pain his actions and imprisonment caused his family, and is glad he was caught because it has meant he is no longer addicted to going out a breaking the law. But he does not believe what he did was morally wrong.
"No," he says. "If you didn't have graffiti, the whole city would just be covered in advertising. The people should have a say in the way our environment looks. In cities like Barcelona, graffiti is embraced and it adds a lot of colour and culture.
"Graffiti," he adds, "gives Glasgow a voice.