Graffiti Transforming Look of London Underground Subway; Removal Cost Soars

Associated Press

Graffiti artists are transforming the look and atmosphere of the 125-year-old London Underground, the world’s oldest and most extensive subway.

Not long ago, tourists hopping “the tube” would marvel at the absence of graffiti along the 254-mile labyrinth linking London and its far-flung suburbs.

Now wherever you go, you’re likely to encounter Chrome Angels, Surf 66, Mag, Top Cat--the stylized signatures, or “tags,” of graffiti artists and their spray-painted murals, or “pieces.”

Often working in gangs, called “crews,” the biggest of which is thought to number 30 to 40, youngsters compete to see who can “bomb” the most trains or the most inaccessible walls. The Underground offers maximum exposure for their handiwork, and they will risk arrest and serious injury to see it displayed.

11-Year-Old Killed

Last November, 11-year-old John Koporo was killed while trying to spray a train at Kilburn Park Station. Police said the train apparently caught the boy’s jacket and dragged him along the tracks.


It was the first death blamed on the graffiti craze, although other youths have suffered electric shocks and burns crossing the 600-volt rails to tag a wall.

Paradoxically, the craze developed in the midst of a long-overdue modernization of the Underground.

When the network opened Jan. 10, 1863, it was hailed as a triumph of Victorian ingenuity. Now many of its 273 stations are being remodeled with new platforms featuring bright tiled wall murals. The 7-year-old project has cost taxpayers more than $150 million.

Safety Complaints

Complaints of substandard maintenance and safety on the Underground have multiplied since a fire at King’s Cross Station on Nov. 18, 1987, killed 31 people.

London Underground Chairman Tony Ridley said the millions spent making the subway more attractive and welcoming will be “wasted if the plague of graffiti is not checked.”

Writing in London’s Evening Standard, a popular commuter newspaper, Ridley warned: “If we allow the Underground to become a sewer, intimidated passengers will desert it in droves with all the attendant problems for London’s hard-pressed roads and indeed for its very prosperity.”

The network handles 2.5 million passengers a year. But as recently as 1983, there was so little graffiti on the Underground that no money was budgeted for its removal, said Catherine Burke, a spokeswoman for London Underground Ltd., a subsidiary of London Regional Transport, which operates the government-owned city buses and subways.

Rising Cost of Graffiti

Last year graffiti removal cost $1.4 million, up from $560,000 in 1985.

The Underground’s policy is to never allow a defaced train into service and to erase graffiti from trains and walls as soon as possible, using high-pressure steam hoses and chemical solvents.

But it has become impossible to clean all the trains without causing delays, which bedevil the system anyway. Even washed trains usually bear graffiti shadows on their aluminum surfaces, and most stations are left with some graffiti.

“Much to the delight of the spray-can vandals, we have had to allow some of their ‘pieces’ to be exhibited,” Ridley wrote.

New York Model

Sgt. Eddie Thompson, head of the eight-man British Transport Police Graffiti Squad, said the craze can be traced to New York City. “They see the films and carry the books” about New York’s graffiti subculture, Thompson said. “They use the same language and even have contacts in New York.”

The graffiti itself is similarly styled, with angular, loopy designs that give it a three-dimensional look.

Thompson acknowledges that graffiti can have artistic merit. “Some of these lads are talented,” he said.