Decades on from the first graffiti exhibitions in the 80s, street art remains a divisive subject. It’s not hard to see why; for every beautifully intricate piece of work, there are five “tags” that make you wonder why the person bothered to buy a can of paint. So, why do they do it? We asked graffiti artist Shaquille Keith, 21, what all the fuss is about.
Reporter: Yasmin Jeffery | Sub-Editor: James Brookes
Whether painstakingly sprayed to perfection or scrawled with a moment’s haste, graffiti remains very much illegal in the UK. The proof lies in the clean-up bill – we spend a cool £1billion a year removing “drawings, scribbles, messages or ‘tags’ that are painted, written or carved on walls and other surfaces”.
Despite the government’s best efforts, graffiti artists aren’t put off by local council “cleansing departments” or threats of up to 10 years behind bars. So, why do they do it? I tracked down street artist Shaquille to give me the answer to the age-old question and the low-down on the graffiti scene in London.
Voice of London: How do you feel when you’re working on a piece and exposed?
Shaquille Keith: I’ve been interested in graffiti for years, but I only got into it in the last two. From the get-go the adrenaline was crazy. Some of the pieces I’ve done were literally on Oxford Street itself, and I’ve done some on Bond Street as well. When I’m there at like 2am with my bike and spray cans on a weekend, there’s a lot of police patrolling for all the drunkards milling around.
You have this fear of getting caught constantly on your mind, but it’s worth it because you just feel so alive. The feeling of having a spray can is definitely different to holding a paintbrush; it’s a surreal, beautiful thing, and the best part about it is when people recognise your stuff and talk to you about it. The thrill you get from that makes it so exciting, but the whole entire experience is beautiful.
What do you want people to see when they look at your work?
I want to be able to visually communicate how I’m feeling when I do a piece. So, the ones that I’m doing right now and putting up everywhere are based on traditional African art. For me it’s all about connecting with my roots, especially in times such as now when racism is crazy and Black Lives Matter exists. I think people need to be reminded of how strong our culture really is and what we’re actually standing up for.
It’s not just about trying to get attention; we have a very rich history and a very rich culture, and I want to be able to help the world see what my race is trying to talk about by visually communicating the fact that we’re here, this is where we’re from, and this is what everything’s about.
I just want the respect; you might look at my piece and think it’s shit. I can’t lie; sometimes I look at my piece and think it’s shit as well, especially when I’m rushing things. But as long as you see it and understand it, that’s good enough for me. It’s all about everything being a statement; not everything has to be pretty or aesthetically pleasing.
How old were you when you first picked up the can, and what made you want to?
I was 19 when I started. I’m actually an artist, so I paint, I animate, and do a lot of things, so graffiti was like the last medium for me. I’d always been afraid of it because my sister… I can’t really say what she does, but she’s really high up in the government, and my mum used to be a magistrate in a court.
I knew if I ever got in trouble for doing graffiti it would really affect my family, which is why I waited so long to pick up a graffiti can. I eventually realised you can do graffiti on semi-permanent structures, which I feel more comfortable with. But the first time I painted something – I’m not going to say where I did it – it was in a public place so I could just get that fear out of my head because once I’d done that, nothing else would seem as scary.
What’s the difference between graffiti and tagging for someone with no clue?
Graffiti art can be murals, but tagging is just someone’s name. So, there’s a guy in England called Goss and I see his tag everywhere. Taggers literally just spray paint their graffiti name everywhere and that’s it, whereas graffiti art is artwork with graffiti spray cans.
I’ve only tagged once – right after I did my first piece – and it was because somebody went over it and literally just destroyed all my artwork, so I went back, destroyed his and left my tag all over his piece. That’s the only time though, I swear.
The word “graffiti” comes with such negative connotations — what do you wish people knew about your art form?
One thing a friend of mine once said to me is that my artwork doesn’t really flow – so all my work has different meanings. I don’t care about that; if I want to create something, I’m going to create it and I’m doing it for me. So, one thing I do wish people knew is that it all comes from the same source, which is why I put my signature on everything.
Another thing is, I wish people just respected it more. I feel like sometimes my work gets overlooked and, like I said, you don’t have to like me or know me, you just have to respect me and whatever it is that I put out there.
Respect is so important to me because it’s hard to come by as an artist, and for me it’s all about doing it from the heart rather than doing it for a couple of hundred likes on Instagram.
If you ever got caught would you carry on with graffiti?
If I got caught I don’t think I could carry on because of my family’s line of work. If my situation were different, I would definitely continue if I got a slap on the wrist – if it were a serious prison sentence, I’d have to say no.
Where do you get your inspiration?
It sounds really corny and cliché, but Basquiat and Banksy. Everyone knows who Banksy is; his stuff is beautiful and it’s a statement. He even does his work on public property, which is breaking the rules of graffiti but no one cares because he’s Banksy. Property that he’s tagged even goes up in value. How could that not inspire you?
How does the street art scene in London make you feel at the moment?
The current scene is very small, but then again I don’t go around with a lot of artists, to be fair. I don’t feel like the graffiti scene is as big as it could be; if you go to places like South Bank you’ll see people there, but overall it’s very reserved and you have to earn your spot to be rated and respected.
How have people reacted to your artwork?
I don’t want to sound conceited, but I get a lot of good feedback. Obviously, if people think your work’s shit they’re not going to go out of their way to mention that to you, but people always tell me they really love my stuff.
I did a piece somewhere once and wrote the question, “Where is Africa?” A guy responded to it and spray painted the continent next to it, and made an arrow saying, “it’s over here”.
I had no idea for a whole year who this guy was, and then he saw me on the street one day and approached me and was like, “man, you’re Shaq, right? Oh my god, I think your artwork is amazing.” Moments like that really make me appreciate what I do.
If you could share a message with the next generation of graffiti artists, what would it be?
I would really encourage street artists to get out of their comfort zones. There’s this one street artist who does graffiti in Oxford Street, on every single corner. I rate her; I think she’s brave. Bearing that in mind, I think it’s also important that artists know when to stop.
Don’t go overboard; don’t spray paint on public or historic buildings. I also want people to boost each other up; when that guy crossed out all my artwork when I first started, he was breaking graffiti rules.
It would be cool if artists could support each other and even do collaborative pieces. Above all though, if you have a message, stand by it and stand strong. That’s the deepest thing.
Want to hear the conversation? Click play to listen to the full interview in all its glory.