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Cartrain: tagged on to Banksy?

By Andrew Stevens.

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“THE name is plastered all over Leytonstone, but a local residents’ association would like to know just who graffiti artist Cartrain is.”
— ‘The hunt is on for graffiti artists’, Waltham Forest Guardian, 13 April 2007

The text reads with an almost sinister inference – should the residents’ association ever discover the identity of ‘Cartrain’ then it surely spells doom, possibly under a moonlit sky amid an encircling torch-lit procession of baying and snarling Leytonstonians?

Journalism on local papers in East London, and elsewhere for that matter, has always been reliably over-egged but the graffiti menace remains a stock topic for them to cook up, as evidenced by the coverage devoted to the local tagger Cartrain.

What we have witnessed in the very recent past is a transformation in attitudes to graffiti, with the ‘existencilism’ spearheaded by the infamous (and now highly bankable) Banksy, firmly etched in the liberal consciousness of the media and design communities, and accepted as wholly legitimate art, while ‘suburban’ tagging remains tagged as an anti-social menace. It’s a distinction I bought into myself for a while, bemoaning what I saw as the sheer unimaginative style of most taggers versus the embellished craft of Banksy’s random and at first glance political (yet laboured), thought-provoking, street-scene adornments. It wasn’t until I moved further up the Central Line that I was able to see through this false distinction, which was no fault other than my own, I concede.

Banksy has arrived, his future secure on the basis of recent sales to the Hollywood A-list and commissions alone (though his much-adored pranking of Paris Hilton CDs in HMV would have been more amusing were it not for the presence of one of his own designs further up the album section on the cover of Blur’s Think Tank, paid for by EMI).

As befits his elevation to celebrity, Banksy is not short of detractors either, ironic given how the otherwise ‘enviro-crime’ conscious new establishment has warmed to his reputation and cachet. How long before he’s commissioned by the Department for Media, Culture and Sport to design an Olympics mural in Stratford? Yet criticising Banksy, who may or may not be known to his family as Robert Banks, has now become as predictable and routine as his own creations. Which is why it’s more interesting to examine what has followed since.

Is Cartain, Leytonstone’s own, the new Banksy? Amid the faux-outrage of residents’ associations documented by the local press, is his own admission that he’d certainly like to be.

After the residents’ association figure was reported as saying, “I guess the main motivation is vanity, the desire for a type of recognition,” a month later the paper carried another story, ‘A teen with plenty to spray for himself’, in which Cartrain explained he had already outgrown his home turf:

“I don’t do any more work in Leytonstone because no one pays any attention. I have since moved into Brick Lane and Hackney, where there have been a lot of websites talking about me.”

In fairness, Cartrain, who claims to have adopted his random moniker before his 13th birthday, is identified as being only 15 and can hardly be subjected to any form of meaningful critique. And being able to produce art which subsequently accrues value higher than the property it’s presented on (as happened to the house featuring a Banksy piece in his native Bristol, snapped up by a gallery from an estate agency) is appropriate ambition for any talented teenager. The local paper would probably laud him then.

Yet, Cartrain’s pieces, which feature on most play areas in E11, are seemingly devoid of any actual statement – Bush, Blair, some fighter planes, yes, but how does this provide any form of artistic statement? Cartrain may find a receptive audience in Hoxton and Shoreditch, where (fictional but entirely representative) Nathan Barley’s refrain, “fucking with your head, yeah?”, still sums up cod radicalism. This makes it harder still to defend Cartain’s practices against the ‘cleaner, safer, greener’ government and town hall mindset of viewing all street art as either raising the ‘fear of crime’ or lowering property prices (or at least preventing them from going much higher).

Across Hackney Marshes, local writer and authority Iain Sinclair sought to place tagging within a political narrative in his ‘What is London?’ essay commissioned by the London Assembly in 2004:

“Hackney has a fabulous anthology of graffiti from anarchists, Kurdish political groups, Marxists, and just ‘taggers’ — often middle-class kids.”

Tagging in Leytonstone however, as in any community with a poor ACORN score, is a fact of life representative of an unquestioning street culture that never looks back at itself nor seeks to rationalise its behaviour. The death of two taggers on London Underground property in Barking earlier this year demonstrates how seriously taggers take their art. Municipalist responses – mural spaces, attempts to provide alternatives to graffiti through traditional arts – remain as unimaginative and doomed to wasting resources as ever (such as that of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham in response to the deaths).

As Baudrillard argued in a rare moment of clarity, graffiti artists impose their own “territorial order” on a locality, which as a study in power relations goes some way in demonstrating why all political parties attach so much importance to the issue.

This article originally appeared in Rising East 7.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 10th, 2007.