Graffiti and the brutal conformity of the gang

Picture of a water treatment works with the tag "LGANG" sprayed on a large round building, with three tower blocks in the background and a lake, with swans swimming, in the foregroundLaurie Penny has an article in the latest New Statesman (not online yet) in which she bemoans the lack of graffiti on the trains and buses in London, which she says is ubiquitous on public transport and buildings in other cities such as New York and Berlin. She puts this down to the huge concentration of CCTVs in London and people’s willingness to accept them, and in the context of the revelations about the American National Security Agency’s data snooping operations, represents a “gradual chilling effect” of people getting used to constant surveillance. I’m not so sure.

For starters, the better “art” is painted when a train is still for long periods (or on static buildings). Putting a CCTV in a station will not make a difference there because a train is not stopped for long enough to do serious art. What stops the more artful graffiti is better security at depots, not just CCTV but fences and alarms. The graffiti in London was attacked as a matter of policy some years ago and CCTV is only one aspect of this. It was attacked because it’s unsightly, because it costs the council money and time to clean it off (and even more if it’s scratched into the windows or paintwork) and because much of it is not “art” at all but gang tags, and the same people who spray gang tags on trains also do it in schools, including primary schools; they also use catapults to smash windows, and they steal. In some places, they do far more.

A year or so ago, I had a brief discussion with a particularly clueless Australian feminist named Ginny Brown (who I had come across in my ME activism, but is linked to the same clique of radical feminists who put the RadFem conferences on), after I answered an article by Cathy Brennan putting the murder of Trayvon Martin down to “male violence” rather than racism. When I mentioned that the police have guns because criminals have them, she responded:

As one example, when pushed to consider ‘the weapons males choose’, Smith immediately identified with the US police force. Not with an oppressed social sector fighting back, much less with a nationally oppressed people fighting for independence. He immediately associated himself with an authority force. This is part of how this macho culture works; it socialises males to see themselves as dominant and aligned with those in power, to like that idea, and to work to perpetuate that status.

The reality is that gangs are not “fighting back” against oppression but are in fact oppressors. A few of them may have emerged out of a need for self-defence by a community, or may sell themselves to that community on that basis, but in reality they are conformist entities that terrorise the communities they claim to be serving. Rather than conform to the norms of society generally, people are expected to conform to the gang’s demands and codes and they are often no less oppressive than any other power’s codes and often much more so. This is true of outright criminal gangs that exist in poor parts of western cities as well as many self-styled liberation movements such as the IRA or “Shining Path”, and self-styled “defence” groups such as the Protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. It’s also true of communities where there is an “outlaw” mentality, where authority is regarded with suspicion (often with some justification) but the more powerful people in the community (particularly an institution, such as a boarding school or a prison) exploit this to maintain their own power, punishing “grasses” or “snitches” with summary beatings, or worse, even if the matter reported on was a serious assault or other criminal matter.

Tagging is how these thugs show the rest of us they are there, and intimidate members of other gangs (or people from districts associated with them, whether they want to be or not). It is basically tom-cat territory-marking. It may give a city “edge” for middle-class people like Laurie Penny who want occasional walks on the wild side and don’t have to live with those people on a day-to-day basis, but for anyone else, it’s just a blight. Of course, getting rid of graffiti will not get rid of the gangs, but let’s not pretend it’s art or that it represents freedom or fighting oppression. It is merely the calling card of another type of oppressor, and it is no surprise that people would rather not be confronted with it every time they go about their business or travel round their own city.

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