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Graffiti convicts or artistic talent?

PUBLISHED: 12:09 17 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:02 25 August 2010

ART OR VANDALISM? An example of the group’s work on the side of a train.

ART OR VANDALISM? An example of the group's work on the side of a train.

SOME of these men have worked with vulnerable youngsters teaching them how to use art to express themselves.

JAILED: Ziggy Grudzinskas, Andrew Gillman, Paul Stewart, Slav Zinoviev and Matthew Pease have all been jailed.

SOME of these men have worked with vulnerable youngsters teaching them how to use art to express themselves.

One was hired to decorate the set of Britain's best loved soap and next Saturday pictures of their work will be displayed in a unique art exhibition in New York.

But these five men are currently in prison, serving between 15 months and two years each after pleading guilty to one of the biggest prosecutions for criminal damage the UK has ever seen.

In total eight young men were sentenced last Friday after they all admitted a charge of conspiracy to cause criminal damage that is estimated to have cost up to £1million.

Called the DPM crew, they all admitted conspiracy to graffiti trains and rolling stock that caused hundreds and thousands of pounds worth of damage to South Eastern Trains alone between 2004 and 2006.

British Transport Police, who led the inquiry said DPM were responsible for tagging and spray painting trains in Dartford, Grove Park and Orpington as well as Croydon trams, Wandsworth Town tube and stations in Liverpool, Manchester and other parts of Europe.

Detective Sergeant Michael Field, who led the inquiry described it as a "major crime on a vast scale".

He said: "Graffiti is an attack on the community and the environment. It is anti-social and destructive and it's a crime we take very seriously."

Indeed, the courts took it just as seriously, jailing five members Andrew Gillman, Slav Zinoviev, Ziggy Grudzinskas, Paul Stewart and Matthew Pease to a total of eight years with the remaining three receiving 12 month suspended sentences.

Sentencing at Southwark Crown Court, Judge Christopher Hardy said he had to acknowledge that some of the graffiti written by DPM showed "considerable talent".

That considerable talent is to be shown off in an exhibition organised by Hip Hop promoters End of the Weak and artist Elura Emerald this Saturday at the Anonymous Gallery Project Space in Broome Street, New York.

Ms Emerald said: "The exhibition in NYC is to give the recognition to the artists that I believe they deserve and to accentuate the fact that they are not at all criminals and do not at all deserve to be put in jail for their creative force.

"I do not believe the creators of art should be punished, but appreciated and celebrated."

On the day that the court opened its case against DPM, London's Tate Modern was opening its Street Art exhibition celebrating artists who made their names by 'decorating' buildings in much the same kind of illegal activity.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors have already filed past the installations, admiring work by Blu, an Italian graffiti artist who uses buildings as "sheets of paper", JR who illegally painted his initials around the streets of Paris and Brazilian Nunca who started tagging at the age of 12.

One member of the Tate's audience was 25-year-old Greenwich art student and member of DPM, Ziggy Grudzinskas who was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

"I stood there completely baffled for about an hour outside of the Tate," he said before the sentencing.

"I quite like it but it really confused me a lot. I know that half, if not all of the graffiti that is on the Tate Modern building is done by people who do illegal graffiti or have done illegal graffiti and have made their name doing that.

"It is like they're saying 'yeah we're on the edge of the law yet we're being shown by one of the biggest galleries in London.' And it's sponsored by Nissan!"

According to Andrew Gillman, the 25-year-old so-called 'main mover' of DPM who was jailed for two years, the exhibition just highlights the mixed messages surrounding graffiti.

He said: "If you can make money from illegal graff or a gallery does it off your back, then it's okay. It's in advertising and fashion as well. There is graffiti on trainers, hoodies, hats, t-shirts, everything you can think of. People want to wear illegal graffiti that is on the trains and the street.

"How come you can wear it and buy it, use it in advertising, marketing, music and every album cover and as soon as you do it you're f***ed, so where's the message? If they don't want people to be involved, don't popularise it."

End of the Weak's Padraic Mccroudi, who last summer hosted an event in association with the Tate Modern called the Art of Freestyle, said: "Jailing artists for criminal damage, although it may seem to be a deterrent, does in fact only serve to gain kudos and notoriety for the artist.

"This in turn means that the criminal justice system in this case is fundamentally flawed and counter productive."

Even London councils Greenwich and Tower Hamlets called the work by Grudzinskas, and fellow DPM member Jack Binnie, 26, who got a suspended sentence, as "inspirational" and "positive" in character references they gave to the court.

They were popular Street Art tutors and led workshops in youth clubs teaching young and vulnerable children "positive messages about life choices" and helping to construct striking murals in Charlton Village, Woolwich and Tower Hamlets.

A source at Greenwich council said: "They showed the young people who aren't able to do reading or writing that they can use artistic ways to express themselves.

"Their skills are obviously needed, it doesn't make sense to send them down, we should use them."

Matthew Pease, 24, and Paul Stewart, 26, also of DPM who were sentenced to 15 months and 18 months respectively, took part in a five-day workshop in the Czech Republic to work with disadvantaged youths as part of an event organised by music and art organisation Community Music (CM).

But it was Gillman in particular who made the headlines when he was hired by the BBC to tag the set of EastEnders while he was on bail.

He said: "They knew I was a writer. I said to them, the tags I am putting up, are the tags I see in London so it's realistic. And they said 'great, realistic tags, just what we want.'

"And they said 'maybe you could come up with three tags for EastEnders, you know, three writers that are just around the square, you could put up East 13 crew, one could be Rocky!' They were getting really into it."

But now DPM have vowed never to pick up a spray can again since their conviction but their friendship will clearly remain.

"It was more about friendship than graffiti," Gillman said. "We knew what we were doing was wrong but when you are painting a piece, all your worries just fall away.

"Trains were like moving canvasses, they go underground, over bridges. And if you're standing there amongst the crowd and you see everyone looking at it, it gives you a huge feeling of gratification.

"We tried to create something that was artistic, made people look, something that's thought provoking, makes commuters look up from their paper."

DPM's "brains of the group", Masters graduate Slav Zinoviev, 25, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison, said: "Now that Banksy has come around, people see it as one of the purest art forms, which it essentially is. And so to that extent I would say that I was an artist.

"To train writers, tags are actually much more valuable to the graffiti community than a Banksy painting is.

"We were all brought together by some sort of passion and this is one of the things that has created stronger bonds between us, and perhaps given us richer memories than the average person possesses."

Gillman of St John's Hill, Battersea, was jailed for two years; Zinoviev, of the same address, Grudzinskas of Ulundi Road, Greenwich and Stewart of Manor Lane, Lewisham received 18 months in jail; Pease also of Manor Lane, Lewisham was jailed for 15 months

As they were led to the cells, members of a packed public gallery shouted: "We love you boys, stay strong!" and applauded them until they were out of sight.

Binnie of Adelaide Avenue, Ladywell and Matthew Tanti, 23, of Holmsbury Court, Upper Tooting Road were each sentenced to 12 months suspended for 12 months.

Alex McClelland, 24, of Croxted Road, West Dulwich was sentenced to nine months suspended for 12 months.

Outside court, Ziggy's father Professor Gedis Grudzinskas said: "Ziggy has been sent to prison for 18 months having pleaded guilty to a crime not involving violence, terrorism, knives or drugs but vandalising public property.

"British Transport Police declined to arrest him and others when they knew they were breaking the law, presumably to develop their case for this show trial costing the taxpayer thousands and thousands of pounds unnecessarily.

"Now they have sent him to jail instead of getting him to do community service for example to clean and help restore the trains and stations.

"This is not justice in modern Britain is it?"

kate.mead@archant.co.uk

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