By Suzanne Kelly

Public areas of Hastings are being ‘tagged’ – graffitied illegally with spray paint or permanent marker with stylised initials and other markings. Bottle Alley was a recent target as are other areas such as bus shelters, walls, even trees and rocks on woodland walks.

Some people don’t mind it while others cannot stand tagging. Should we learn to live with it? Should we press charges against those who tag? Should we set areas where tagging is allowed?

Hastings Borough Council addresses the issue on its Street Cleaning web page: “’Graffiti’ refers to any drawings, scribbles, messages or ‘tags’ that are painted, written or carved on walls and other surfaces. Graffiti is an illegal, anti-social activity that creates a negative impression of an area and contributes to people’s fear of crime.”

In times past, John Bownas fronted a 20-strong team dedicated to the rapid removal of graffiti from London’s largest borough. Now manager of Love Hastings and the local Business Crime Reduction Partnership, as well as being chair of Hastings Neighbourhood Watch and Vice-Chair of Sussex Crimestoppers, he recently started a Facebook thread on St Leonards on Sea is THE Place to be which has gathered nearly 200 comments. 

Tagging at Bottle Alley
CREDIT: John Bownas

“Illegal and unwanted”

Mr Bownas says: “Graffiti tagging is not art. It’s the territorial act of a dog cocking its leg against a tree. A tiny minority of taggers do evolve into ‘proper’ street artists – indeed I’ve given some of them their earliest commissions. But the majority never progress from scrawled letters that they use to deface public and private property whilst hiding their identity because they know what they are doing is illegal and unwanted. We have some spectacular murals in Hastings, but these are a million miles from the current proliferation of tags that deface public and private property and that have no place in a seaside town. 

“If you are a victim, report it to the council via My Hastings and to the police on their 101 website. This is the only way the problem can be properly dealt with and the culprits dealt with appropriately – either through community resolution or, if necessary, the courts.”

The cost of cleaning graffiti can be a drain on council resources. But there are solutions which will allow artists to express themselves and to make a positive impact on our shared spaces. One such option might be a shared tagging space.

Practice wall

Sam Kinch, who lives in St Leonards and describes himself as a ‘local agitator’, says: “It strikes me that it would be worthwhile for someone (perhaps the town centre management team) to find a big blank canvas somewhere and designate it as a public graffiti practice wall. It could be re-coated once a month with cheap white emulsion so each month there is a fresh blank page for these youngsters (assuming that they are youngsters but, honestly, who knows?) to practise their art legally and without the risk of turning young creatives into young criminals.”

There are other expressions of public art which can encourage artists new and established, and enhance the urban environment. Areas in St Leonards and Hastings where such public artwork takes place include the mural project at St Leonards promenade, and Wavelength, formerly at Bottle Alley. The artists ‘zeroh’ (Daniel Hardiker and Neil Hetherington) behind Wavelength said: “We have been in conversation with Hastings Council, and we are pleased to say that we have been given permission to re-instate the design as it was originally painted in 2017. The plan is for the refurb to happen next spring, and this will be marked with an event/ happening in the space.”

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