by Thomas Chambers
From Dunfermline to Birmingham, Sheffield to Norwich, people are taking to the walls to let it be known that “Boris is a coked-up pervert."
It was in the run up to last year's general election that a steady drip of anti-Boris Johnson graffiti turned into a deluge on social media.
From Dunfermline to Birmingham, Sheffield to Norwich, people were taking to the walls to let it be known that “Boris is a coked up pervert”.
What was nice about it all was that, during an election in which so much of the public's input was carefully choreographed and filtered through the media, the graffiti option was open to all. An organised group projected a giant “Boris is a Wasteman” on his former public boy's school of Eton, while Glasgow’s viral “Boris is still a pure fanny” campaign was done in the finest spirit of inebriated vandalism! However, the Prime Minister in waiting seemed to have reserved himself an extra special reception on the walls of London, where he was formerly Mayor. The city’s graffiti artists joined the rest of the country with a particular relish. Anti-Boris slogans popped up all over the capital, with a noticeably imposing ‘Fuck Boris’ lean-over off Maydew House on Southwark’s Abbeyfield Estate. The culmination of all this activity was a #FckBoris graffiti jam that took place in the Leake Street tunnel the weekend before the election.
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Since the election, the anti-Boris graffiti has calmed down a bit across the rest of the UK.
But in London it appears to still be going strong, so-much-so that two months after he became Prime Minister the LDN Graffiti blog announced #BorisJohnson as a new searchable keyword to its archive. So why do the capital's graffiti writers harbour so much venom for Boris Johnson in particular?
Well, aside from being a posh Tory, part of the answer may lie in his time as London Mayor. Perhaps best known for his buses, he was also the mastermind behind failed schemes to build the 'Garden Bridge' and the megalomaniacal ‘Boris Island’ in the Thames. As Mayor, Johnson clearly wanted to make a visible mark on the city. In his aptly named book, Nincompoopolis, Douglas Murphy discusses the many flops of Johnson's term, from bad architecture to disastrous housing policy. While his legacy includes several pointless eyesores, such as ‘The Crystal’ building in East London, he also left a trail of demolished council estates and historic buildings, usually replaced by high density luxury flats, in his wake. Johnson also introduced a new London Housing Design Guide that aimed to create its own ‘London vernacular’. It goes without saying that the city’s particular graffiti vernacular was not what was meant.
Perhaps, drawing on his oft-cited love of the classics, Johnson’s contribution to the Olympic site - in the form of the ‘Orbit’ - was architecture with ‘Ruin Value’, as Albert Speer would have called it, in mind. Useless in the present, but an archeological Parthenon of its age for future historians.
Johnson’s London, however, was for the tourists and its rich residents.
The much vaunted 2012 Games was no exception. The clamp down on graffiti in the run up to the Olympics, came on the back of a series of high profile London graffiti writers receiving harsh prison sentences in preceding years. While he littered London with his vanity projects, he oversaw its walls becoming a blank canvass devoid of life.
Once-brightly coloured tracksides were painted over in Network Rail’s preferred red/brown hue, while the immediate area around the Olympic Park became a sterile corporate wasteland. The rounding up of graffiti artists in the run up to the big event did eventually cause a bit of a media stir.
Even the Guardian’s obnoxious art critic Jonathan Jones, despite believing that “graffiti is ugly, stupid and vaguely threatening”, wrote in defence of those who had made London “a filthy fleapit palace of avant garde energy” and were now battling for its very identity! An identity represented in the logo of the 2012 games itself, apparently partly inspired by graffiti, which the designers asserted would “bring the Olympics off the pedestal and on to the street”.
Absurdly, as the Olympics committee were so desperate to cloak itself in a patina of urban chic, they also commissioned international street-artists to repaint the once vibrant walls around the Olympic site in Hackney. These ‘legacy murals’ painted, as they were, over impressive art by locals seemed almost vindictive in their placement.
While street-art is now deeply entwined within the aesthetics of gentrification in London, it still needs to be sanctioned to be considered legitimate. Illegal graffiti, from tagged shutters to imposing roller pieces, doesn’t sit well with the bland public art so beloved by the developers. Street-art in London today is for the tourists day-tripping to Brick Lane to pose in front of, or to serve as the the gritty urban backdrop for the canal side jog of Hackney’s influx of rich new residents on their weekends.
This is the London Murphy describes as a place “whereby no available surface, no potential view, no possible opportunity for some kind of commercial ‘experience’ is left unexploited.” While graffiti may have recovered since Johnson’s time as Mayor, you still don’t need to look too hard to find a ‘Fuck Boris’ dripping off a wall!