“. . . you could cut off one of my hands, and then the other one, but I would still continue to paint . . .” HERS
I have met artists like ‘HERS’ before. Painters that are compelled to paint, and in doing so, signal powerful messages to themselves and others that they are alive and part of a movement. In this world, “Hers” is an outsider . . . and yet very much an insider. He is passionate about both his work and his city, and stands strong with his commitments to social justice and the well-being of his community. He is Birmingham’s son, somewhere between a Noam Chomsky and a Curt Cobain.
And his city is breaking out; in large part it is due to London’s Goliath lack of affordability and its considerable wealth moving northward. With these spoils ‘Brum’ is redesigning itself. The one thing that appears to have been sidelined is the fostering of an active urban art scene. Many of its murals have withstood the tag-and-buff test of time, which suggests that there isn’t very much turnover.
Around the world, street art is no longer considered a blight, it is recognized as a major tourist commodity and is being sought after by cities in need of rejuvenation and tourism.
This win-win situation results in artists being left to work in peace, the development of new talent, and cities anticipating young, camera-ready tour groups swarming through their previously derelict districts. Perhaps they will enjoy a latte? Maybe score a photo of some fresh graffiti painted by their latest urban arts hero? Or maybe they will even spot a £250,000 Banksy hidden on a side-street behind a protective plexiglass sheet.
“People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish… but that’s only if it’s done properly.” – Banksy, Wall and Piece
Meeting HERS was purely coincidental.
During my regular hunt for street art, this time in the “Custard Factory”, a central urban arts district located in Brums’ Digbeth neighbourhood, I rounded a corner and bumped into an enormous night club cum-18-hole-mini-golf course dubbed, “Ghetto Golf”.
The exterior was completely covered by a black and white mural, and the warehouse-sized interior comfortably housed the restaurant, bar, and 18 individually themed mini-golf holes. It easily dwarfed the major feature of hole #4, a graffiti-swathed, full-sized city bus. Even at 11 a.m., every square inch of this immersive street art experience vibrated with sound and colour.
“Who did the artwork?” I asked. The ‘reservations recommended’ desk clerk who took my card, smiled, and said, “The artist will “probably” contact you”.
He did. For security’s sake he used a nondescript email address, and once we met, he didn’t correct me when I called him by what I thought was his first name. Eventually we settled on ‘HERS’, the street tag painted on the floors, walls and ceiling of ‘Ghetto Golf’.
Therefore, between a failed tape-recorder, a roaring vacuum cleaner, and a busy coffee grinder, the obvious first question had to be:
Q: How do you manage to connect with the public and still retain your anonymity?
H: I have no website. I don’t want people to find me through the internet. I don’t care about ‘likes’ on Instagram.
I am never going to meet that person, they are never going to see my stuff in the flesh… so what is the point? People think that I am mad, but I like to keep it old school, keep it quiet and organic. It has always worked for me – so why should I change all of that? This has been my thought until now . . .
Q: How long have you been doing graffiti?
H: Since I was 10 years old. I did it with grandad in shelters where tramps used to live. Then after I saw cartoon characters in primary school and secondary school I began tagging for 7-8 years, then bombing; in total I have been doing it for 13 years.
Q: How long did it take to do this mammoth job of coordinating and painting a monster this size?
H: I did it with one other artist. Working 16 hours a day, it took us 2 months. Eventually we had to use random names just because it was pretty boring if it was just our tags everywhere…. we had to random stuff up…It had to be good. I would have been violating myself if it was shitty. And . . . we often finished off the day with a round of golf… I got good.
Q: Your art practice includes both street graffiti and commissioned work. This leaves you in the grey zone between legal and illegal work. Would you ever consider an alternative media?
H: No. I have no interest or connection with drawing. Spraying is my way into some sort of connection and you have to have your own unique twist. If you do too many things people get lost in what you are doing. That is why so many people remain focused on one style. I do stencils, too, but only about once a year. This is where I’ve pushed my name into the press. Every stencil that I have done has always gotten quite a bit of… well, I have been on BBC and Itv.
Q: As I prepared for this, I thought that you would consider it uncool, or too commercial or mainstream to discuss Banksy’s success and his place in the cannon of art . . . well?
H: In general, people aren’t interested unless they think that it might be a Banksy. And people truly don’t know if the work that I do . . . is a Banksy. That is why I use it – to push for change. Banksy’s art is the only legal illegal street art, and he is the only person allowed to do it. It is not for the work’s artistic merit – but solely for its financial value. It is worth so much now. The message or the quality of the work are irrelevant. The objective is to know if you should just rip it off the wall and sell it. That is why I produce similar work; to pose the questions – Who did it? Is it worth anything? And is it legal?
If I do a tag, it is there illegally, and I am a criminal.
And if he does one?
So where do you draw the line?
Q: Do you know if Banksy has ever been in jail?
H: No, he has never done time for graffiti. He gets permission these days.
Q: So what do street artists aim for? Wealth? Fame? Commercial work?
H: People are gaining wealth. There are a lot of street artists that are now millionaires from spraying walls, especially if you have a big name. People will approach you because you have a style and a certain way you paint. They will want your stuff on their building and will pay for it. So give it 5 years – and you won’t be doing too badly for yourself.
Q: One can argue that the Birmingham canal system walls, except for the historic blue bricks are legal. Personally I find those pathways very dodgy but how about painting there?
H: Hey, I am over 6’ and even I am not comfortable wandering down there!
Q: The fact that you cannot reveal your identify, or discuss specific images without fear of repercussions sounds very Draconian – is graffiti still really considered such a serious crime?
H: Digbeth is starting to accept graffiti. Everything you see around there is painted illegally. The police have come in, but there are no resources to deal with it. So, so far there is no issue. . . so why do you want to start one.
Q: In that case, you have never been arrested.
H: Yes, I have! Twelve times.
Q: Holy sh*t! Really?!?
H: Usually you stay in for a couple of days. After a long interview process you are released while they gather evidence to use against you in court. This includes photos of your work, forensically taking paint off of your clothes to link it to your tags and other stuff. Eventually they let you out and then you will have to return to go to court. If you are found guilty, you will get fined, and you cannot carry spray paint, felt tip pens, or chalk for 5 years. If you get caught violating this condition, you will go to jail. The first 3 to 4 times you will get a slap on the wrist, but if you continue to appear before the court, they feel a need to do something to make an example out of you. Community service will play a major factor, especially after the 3rd or 4th time. The punishment often involves lawyers getting you to clean up the graffiti, which simply makes artists angrier. They have to clean off something that people like doing… it doesn’t make sense. Once I spent two days in a holding cell. I shared that space with a paedophile, and he was released 24 hours before I was. Paedophiles get between 9-14 months, and artists go down for 2 years. You can never erase assault but artists are considered worse. How do you think that is right? The balance is imbalanced.
“If I have to do community service that involves cleaning walls… then I will know exactly where there is a clean wall for me to paint on!” HERS
Q: At one point you were sentenced and not permitted to carry art materials. Can you now?
H: Yeah, I can carry paint now, woohoooo!
HERS is very open about dealing with chronic depression and about the fact that his father absolutely hated graffiti. He wrote online about how he dealt with those difficult situations.
“There’s been a lot of ups and down over the years, like a lot of you, but let me tell you, putting a paint can in my hand can switch my mood drastically, even that has been an emotional journey . . . it still makes me happy to just lay something up …”
“… the good memories, wearing a pair of trainers out a week on railways to touching steel on trains to getting in police chases, think back and I lived it, I loved every second of it.”
“And”, he added, “I have a very loving and supportive family.”
Q: You have also suffered losses, haven’t you?
H: Birmingham is like a club. It is a close community with lots of drama, which is pretty shitty. It has been very rough. A crew member, Hush, was stabbed in the neck over graffiti gang rivalry and I lost my good friend, Tame, to graffiti, after he slipped and fell 80′ off a roof and died. When they released the news of Tame’s death, they said “Thank God he is dead” and looked at me like I was a scum bag…. that is where it changed for me. I started doing more artistic things.”
Almost all of HERS’ prescient observations about street art, its life-and-death reality, and the continuing problems and consequences that young artists face when dealing with the law, have, coincidently, recently been confirmed in newspaper headlines. Two artists were murdered by police in Brazil, three artists were struck and killed by a train in London, and a manhunt is on for Zerx, for causing an estimated £1 million in damage.
Q: In 10 years will you still be doing graffiti?
H: Yeah I will still definitely be doing it. As bad as it sounds. I have tried to stop doing it. I’ve tried. I am telling you, I have tried… I’ve tried and I’ve tried! I just can’t. I just couldn’t stop, I tried. . .
Q: Do you think that graffiti as an art movement will disappear ?
H: Remember… cave men drawing on rocks… if it has lasted this long…