Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Trackside Tales

Jim Carey was part of a SQUALL production team filming the graffiti artist Banksy on some of his recent nocturnal graffiti forays in the capital...

June 2002

It was unexpectedly relaxing watching Banksy painting a wall. As a legally defined act of criminal damage, perpetrated in one of the most public places in central London, there was plenty of cause for apprehension. Whereas other criminals leave accidental traces via fingerprints or DNA, graffiti writers brazenly sign their name. Should Banksy be caught tagging a piece of wall art, then several hundred previous 'crimes' will be taken into immediate consideration.......

There's the time he broke into the penguin and elephant enclosures at London zoo and painted 'We're bored of fish' and 'Keeper stinks' on the wall. Or the time he sprayed 'Mind the crap' on every step leading up the Tate Gallery the night before the Turner prize. The list is extensive.

For the ol bill then, Banksy is an elusive prize. And, of course, his freedom to pursue his urban artistry depends to a large extent on keeping it this way.

It can take quite a while and a lot of bravado to build up a word of mouth reputation in the world of graffiti. It takes just a moment to arrest it. If they catch you, they know who you are and where you live. Your mark is marked. A few years ago a Sheffield graffiti artist received a four year stretch from a ludicrously zealous judge.

So who in their right mind would ride this gamut by spending twenty minutes completing a piece of graffiti in broad daylight just off Leicester Square? And who in their right mind would allow three camera operators to dart about conspicuously attempting to capture the illicit moment.

Si Mitchell, Jez Tucker and myself were filming Banksy with a camera each, attempting to remain surreptitious but drawing the inevitable attention which tele camera's always solicit in public places. Would we be the conduit for Banksy's arrest? We'd have been gutted were it so.

But the subject of our film has mastered the ancient art of apparent invisibility. Dressed in overalls, Banksy whistled his way through his criminal act; apparently oblivious to his own illegality and surrounded by a self-perpetuated atmosphere of total legitimacy. After whitewashing the wall, he threw a stencil up and sprayed for forty seconds, then withdrew to leave a stunning image of Mona Lisa holding a bazooka and wearing a radio headset. Next to the image he wrote: 'Boom and Bust'. Throughout the whole process he was thoroughly ignored.

We attempted to film the faces of the general public as they walked past, intending to capture reaction to the audacity at work in their midst..... but no-one obliged. Either they remained preoccupied with their own thoughts or they turned to look at the camera.

So any lingering apprehensions dissipated. Watching paint dry was cool.

The monkey business by the railway line was a tad more problematic. The British Transport Police are notoriously quick off the mark in their determination to catch graffiti writers paint-handed. Typically, the location chosen by Banksy for his trackside chimpanzee was right outside Paddington Station, one of the major British Transport Police bases. Although the railway line immediately adjacent to the wall was rusty and apparently unused, the other eight sets of tracks belonged to the regular Great Western train to the West Country, the underground lines to west London, and the Heathrow Xpress..........busy busy busy. Train drivers are instructed to keep an eye out and inform the Transport Police immediately should they spot a graffiti artist up to some good. So, whenever the rails whistled in anticipation of an oncoming train, we all hit the deck rapid.

Around 3.30am - an hour into the painting session - a figure crossed the tracks about 100 yards up the line. We stared long and hard through the night-time gloom. Were they just a late night raver wondering onto the tracks in search of nature?

No. The figure came back and stood stock still on the line staring right at us. The orange bib and the flash of torchlight confirmed we'd been rumbled and it was time to chip. Paints in bag, bag over shoulder, up the ladder, out and away........just in time.

We returned a couple of nights later......hoping any heightened alertness had abated. After reconnoitring the area, Banksy began to clamber down from the foot bridge onto the tracks. Just as he was doing so there was a loud rumble. He froze and so did we, perched precariously on the fence filming. Below us a huge cargo train pulled up slowly on the rusty tracks we'd assumed hadn't been used for years. The leviathan heaved to a halt right underneath us and a railway worker jumped out to fiddle with the trackside points. With Banksy still crouched on the ladder, the train chuntered forward a few yards before shuddering to halt again. And there it stood, its engines panting heavily. Had the railway worker seen us? Banksy thought so. We scarpered.

As we pulled out on the main road, a police van drove past. All our eyes fixed intently on the rear view mirror. The van stopped behind us at traffic lights....then...suddenly swung a U-turn. We shot down a side street jabbed the lights off and sat tight for fifteen minutes. Our breathing misted up the windscreen and, except for the gentle vapour of rain evaporating off the bonnet, the car must have looked convincingly unoccupied.

We adjourned to a west London warehouse where Banksy kept some of his materials and, over acrid cup of cheap instant coffee, we discussed whether it was too risky to return that night. But, everyone was keen to get on with it, so we took a risk and returned to the trackside. When we arrived the cargo train was gone and it was all was quiet on the Great Western front. So once again Banksy lowered himself onto the tracks and went about his bizniss as mists of rain drifted down and droplets of water gobbed from the Westway flyover overhead. A couple of trackside sparrows kicked up a chorus line which told us morning was on its way.

It's not easy freehand-painting a huge monkey face on a rough brick surface in the rain with nothing but a paint roller. That was one thing that struck me as we filmed Banksy continually step away from the wall to assess if the 20 ft high chimp was staying in proportion. As daylight seeped in and the frequency of the trains began to increase, Banksy finished up and expressed a determination to come back at a later date to add more to the picture. .......Our return to the area, though, was sooner than we thought. For as we arrived back at the warehouse, Banksy was wearing one of those 'oh shit' looks. "Come on mate stop fucking about," we said as he padded the pockets of his paint splattered boiler suit. But no he wasn't fucking about. Having used his keys to open a paint lid, he'd left them lying on a railway sleeper on the mainline out of Paddington Station. Yikes. Once again we crept back through the early morning sidestreets hoping not to give the inquisitive police van a second chance.

Four blokes cruising London at night with a ladder.....splattered in paint and scuff marks....the criminal and the camera crew both bang to rights. But the streets stayed silent for us and, mercifully, Banksy found the set of keys instantly. We finally got back to the warehouse as the sun rose and the first vestiges of rush hour began.....

......with a grumble of rail commuters on their monotonous ways to work, gazing out of train windows onto a landscape which had changed overnight.

A three and half minute version of the subsequent film was shown in 'Alt World' on Channel Four, Friday 31 August 2001.

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METAPHYSICAL GRAFFITI - An art activist from Bristol has been causing a right ol' stir with his brazen approach to conscious graffiti - 2000