When Signing on Means Making a Living; Just the Job: Graffiti Is Not as Different from the Ancient Art of Calligraphy as You May Think. Stephen Hoare Talks to People Who Use Words and Pictures as the Tools of Their Trade

By Hoare, Stephen | The Evening Standard (London, England), November 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

When Signing on Means Making a Living; Just the Job: Graffiti Is Not as Different from the Ancient Art of Calligraphy as You May Think. Stephen Hoare Talks to People Who Use Words and Pictures as the Tools of Their Trade


Hoare, Stephen, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: STEPHEN HOARE

FROM the scribes of ancient Egypt to the monks of the Middle Ages and scholars of the Renaissance, men of letters have consistently enjoyed high status. But you do not have to be a Booker Prize-winning novelist to make money from writing.

Take graffiti artist Darren Cullen, for instance. Train commuters pausing to look out of the window at Vauxhall will have seen his work adorning the high wall of the bridge parapet.

Cullen and a group of mates had just four hours to complete the mural in the dead of night while the electrified track was switched off. But rather than being placed on a police list of vandals, at the end of the job they were paid by Railtrack.

Cullen's most recent work can be seen on the walls of an underpass in the Whitgift shopping centre, Croydon.

Called the History of Writing, it was commissioned by the borough as part of the Smarter Croydon project.

Cullen says: "I was paid [pound]3,000 to paint everything from cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics to the internet. I got some mates together and we did it in two nights, working without a break.

"People's reaction was brilliant. One woman came out and bought us cups of tea."

To spray murals, Cullen copies the designs from paper onto a wall using a spray can of black paint. He advises: "Put in the shadows early on and always work from dark to light. We use at least three tones on each colour so there are no flat areas."

Graffiti is seen by many as synonymous with vandalism all over the country, where "artists" scrawl their tag (graffiti nickname) on any surface they can find (called tagging).

Cullen has his own tag; he is known to cognoscenti as SER because of his skill in teaching graffiti to younger kids on the block.

Far from being associated with the constant defacement of public and private property, his influence has had a positive effect.

His professional career started when he was asked to run a youth project in Merton for persistent offenders: Cullen channelled their energies into creative art.

His big break came when rail firm Connex asked him to decorate stations.

"When we painted murals from Hayes to Catford Bridge, all the tagging stopped because the kids were taking part in something useful," he says.

Cullen is self-employed and earns around [pound]150 to [pound]350 a day. His advice to would-be graffiti artists is simple: "Don't do it unless it's in a legal place where the police won't hassle you."

Tim Noad has known he wanted to be a calligrapher since he became hooked on artistic writing at school. He went to evening classes run at St Bride Institute in the City before going on to study fulltime at Reigate College of Art.

Working freelance, he spends three days at the College of Arms. This ancient City institution produces grants of arms, impressive vellum documents proclaiming that an individual or a corporation is entitled to use a coat of arms.

Using gold leaf, gouache paint and a tiny camelhair brush, he paints heraldic designs such as griffons rampant on a field of gules, with argent sables, and that sort of thing. …

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