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Is the State Censoring Anti-Thatcher Graffiti?

Posted: 17/04/2013 00:00

My home in London is a few minutes' walk from Leake Street, an underpass adjacent to Waterloo station that has been a licensed graffiti area since 2008. Walking through Leake Street, which I have done several times a week for the past four years, is a pleasure and a privilege.

Its walls are a living skin of art where the cartoonish meets the photorealistic and the abstract, the vulgar and inane sit next to the witty and sophisticated. It changes daily but right now you can see an ornate owl, a geometric colour field, a flock of Y-fronts, a decapitated superhero. All life is here.

The graffiti tunnel, as it's often known, defines democratic creative expression. Literally anyone can pitch in: talented local graffiti writers, internationally acclaimed street artists, graphic designers, art students, primary-school children, even knitters.

The tunnel's existence is a credit to the British Rail Residuary Board, which manages former British Rail properties not yet sold off following privatisation, including Leake Street. In 2007, a piece there by Banksy was joylessly painted over by rail employees but the following year his Cans Festival inaugurated the space as a platform for art. Its walls have never been the same since.

Among other things, the tunnel is an alternative gazette of London's public life, offering street-level takes on things like elections, the Olympics or Christmas. Deaths are also marked there, famous or otherwise: there were painted tributes to Amy Winehouse after she died, and right now a simple piece of writing says "RIP Bruno".

Last Wednesday, a grotesque large-scale picture of Margaret Thatcher appeared. Coloured purple with blank eyes, skulls for earrings and a thread of drool leaking from the mouth, it stood three metres tall against a background of flames. Next to it, in huge, carefully scripted letters, were the words "ROT IN HELL!! MAGGIE". It was not subtle or tasteful, but it wasn't thoughtless or unaccomplished either.

On Friday morning, following outraged reporting of the image in the Daily Mail, the British Rail Residuary Board had it painted over.

To my knowledge, no work in the tunnel has ever been censored before.

According to the Board, "[t]he removal of the graffiti at the Leake Street site is in line with our standard policy when properties are defaced with graffiti that is obscene, racist or likely to cause offence".

The terms on which the tunnel is provided for artistic use are posted at the northern end of Leake Street. They specify: "No sexism. No racism. No adverts" but don't mention avoiding the potential to cause offence for other reasons. This, after all, would fly in the face of offering a platform for creative expression: the potential to offend is inseparable from freedom of speech.

During my hundreds of journeys through Leake Street, I have seen numerous images that include nudity, sex acts or obscene language, as well as others containing political content which, inevitably, some could find offensive. I have never seen any targeted for removal.

Of particular concern here is the British Rail Residuary Board's relationship to government. The BRBR homepage states that "[t]he company is owned by the Government and reports to the Department for Transport (http://www.dft.gov.uk)."

This would seem to suggest that public employees have assumed the role of policing the kind of work permitted in a space made universally accessible for artistic expression.

The Department for Transport handles press enquiries for BRBR. But it told me that "BRBR is a private company. Its employees are not government employees. Neither Ministers nor civil servants had any influence over the company's operational decision to remove this graffiti."

I asked to be put in touch with someone at BRBR who could account for this operational decision; provide details of the "standard policy" regarding graffiti removal; and report whether such removal has happened before, and if so, when and for what reasons. I received no reply.

As far as I can tell, this isn't a matter of law. The walls are the Board's property and any graffiti there exists at its indulgence. Rather, it's a matter of hypocrisy, and a sign of a growing culture of censorship with potentially hazardous consequences.

Since Thatcher's death, many on the right have tried to shut down debate about her legacy in the name of good taste.

It was perhaps to be expected that the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph would equate any anti-Thatcher sentiment with treason.

It was more unnerving to see Conservative MP Sir Tony Baldry raise an objection from the floor of the House of Commons to the mere fact that Labour's Glenda Jackson voiced a critique of Thatcher's legacy. Speaker John Bercow slapped him down, emphasising that "nothing unparliamentary has occurred". This was a healthy sign.

Less healthy was the BBC's response to the popularity of 'Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead'. Shamefully, the Corporation opted not to play the full song on the Radio 1 Chart Show, as they would any other top-selling record - a decision no doubt coloured by the succession of partisan batterings from the right to which the BBC has been subjected on issues ranging from Jerry Springer The Opera to Jimmy Savile.

Tony Blair might have been right last week to warn Labour against banking on too big a swing to the left among the UK electorate. But it is also true that the Conservative Party failed to win a majority at the last election. Even so, it has set out the most divisive programme of legislation seen since, well, Thatcher's premiership.

Our culture is increasingly polarised. Some are offended by gloating over an old woman's death. Others are offended by the removal of material support from the most vulnerable members of society. That's democracy. But an inability to tolerate dissent expressed through satirical graffiti or the purchase of novelty singles does not suggest a ruling class confident of its legitimacy.

In principle, the policing of popular responses to issues of national import is incompatible with celebration of Thatcher, the Cold War champion of liberal democratic values. If it is acceptable to censure graffiti or pop on political grounds, why should the same not apply to plays, for instance, or novels? It smacks more of Iron Curtain than Iron Lady. Worrying about one's beliefs offending others was not, to put it mildly, her style.

In practice, such acts of censorship court danger. These are harsh and divided times, and things are unlikely to get better soon. To prevent people from airing their grievances through rude pictures and funny songs is to invite them to consider expressing dissent in less witty or thoughtful ways. It risks elevating the potential for violence.

Paint can be covered over. Pain will out.

"BURN IN HELL!! MAGGIE"
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The controversial piece of graffiti appeared in Leake Street two days after Margaret Thatcher's death.
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