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Olympic Thought Police Target Graffiti Writers (interview)

Reported by JontySkrufff on July 23, 2012

Street Art portal theLondonVandal.com said scores of long retired graffiti artists were rounded up in a series of police raids in London this week, before being interrogated and having their laptops and mobiles seized then released under draconian conditions.

“They were told that they were to be bailed until November on the condition that they did not use any form of railway in London (overground, tube or tram), carry spray paint (or other graffiti tools, presumably) at any time, or travel within a mile of any Olympic area,” theLondonVandal.com reported. (http://bit.ly/OfmTJK )

Missing from the raids, however, was once infamous London graffiti pioneer turned underground house guru Richard Sen, who as Coma, was one of England’s most prolific street artists in the late 80s.

Chatting to Skrufff in 2002, Richard spoke candidly about his experiences, which included serving two stints in jail for his art.

Skrufff: You were one of London’s first serious graffiti artists, were you painting tube trains?

Richard Sen: “Yeah, London Underground trains, from 1984 until 1987. I went to New York in 1985, saw all the graffiti on the trains so came back and wanted to copy it here. I was about 17 then. I remember going to the Fresh festival in New York back then with Run DMC, LL Cool J and Houdini playing but they weren’t that famous then. New York was totally different then and was really exciting, people were breaking (break dancing) in the streets, and playing music with ghetto blasters, it was wicked. I got into graffiti first then the music afterwards, also all that punk-meets-hip hop stuff.”

Skrufff: Were you spraying on your own or with a group of friends?

Richard Sen: “I started on my own then met up with other graffiti artists. I used to live in Wembley and there was a writers’ bench in Harrow where everyone used to meet up. Once you started doing it, you got to know everyone else, it was a big community with all different races and classes. That was one of the great things about it, anyone could do it.”

Skrufff: How did you start painting?

Richard Sen: “Initially by copying American stuff, there’s a book called Subway Art which was like a Bible and I’d start by taking different letters. It’s really hard, it took me almost 3 years to get good but by then I’d been caught and had almost grown out of it.” (Buy Subway Art- the book- http://amzn.to/Nk2LIz )

Skrufff: Did you come close to being electrocuted or run down?

Richard Sen: “I got a little touch from British Rail once, but the rails are different between British Rail and the Underground. On the Underground you have to touch two rails at the same time to get electrocuted. A few people died while doing graffiti but it might have been from messing around; people used to ride on top of trains, for example (chuckling).”

Skrufff: Did you go to prison?

Richard Sen: “Twice! I was 18 the first time, I’d been caught before and got a two year conditional discharge, then I got caught again so got punished for the one before and I was sent to detention centre (DC), which was like a borstal. They had that short, sharp, shock regime. It was Hollesley Bay, which was the only open DC and people used to call it Holiday Centre because it was the easiest one. I served six weeks the first time. It was intense, they treat you like you’re in the army, all that discipline.”

Skrufff: Borstals are infamous from that film Scum (in which a boy is raped in the greenhouse . . .

Richard Sen: “Everyone said beforehand, do watch out for the green houses, but I didn’t see anything happen. DC sentences were so short and hard, I think, it was people with longer sentences who were at greater risk of being raped but I didn’t see any of that- not even any fights, in DC. The PE (physical education) was so extreme. I saw big geezers weeping and puking up from the exercise but no violence.”

Skrufff: Did it make you think about stopping doing graffiti?

Richard Sen: “For about a week. But I was so fit when I came out I was even worse (laughing). But it made me more angry and more bitter.”

Skrufff: Was the graffiti thing then more of a Fuck You thing?

Richard Sen: “Looking back I was fucked up and rebelling, it was a way to express myself as well as being a part of a group. It was the most exciting time of my life. After that sentence, I came out and seriously developed a reputation for being one of the top graffiti artists. I was in trouble with the police for three years solid but never went to prison then in ‘88 there was a massive clampdown with a specialist police squad set up. 

They raided my house and at home I had sketchbooks and paint and I ended up being done for my tag. It was Coma. I got prosecuted for everything, they took photos of all my work. I’d actually stopped painting by then anyway and started going to acid house parties instead. When the court case came up it was 1989, I pleaded guilty and got 6 months youth custody. 

The first week was in Brixton, though, a proper men’s prison. Which wasn’t too bad apart from being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day, with two other people. Then I was in Feltham (Young Offenders) for a week while they were allocating where I went. Again, I didn’t really see much trouble. Then I went to another place in Oxford that was more like a strict boarding school. There was a guy I used to go to school with there.”

This Ain’t Chicago 1 hour promo mix on Soundcloud; http://bit.ly/MttjY3 

Richard Sen’s This ain’t Chicago new compilation (comprising underground British house tunes from the beginning of acid house) is out now on Strut Recordings.

http://www.richard-sen.com/ 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YQ_J1JYHWg

Jonty Skrufff: http://listn.to/JontySkrufff