‘Graffiti culture’ is one of those vague terms that gets thrown around a lot these days. It’s intrinsically difficult to construct a definitive summation of a culture that’s core tenant is anonymity. It’s a logical paradox that in an era of unprecedented information it’s the names that are the most sought after who are the strongest defenders of their privacy. Will Robson-Scott is one of the few who’ve managed to bridge this divide. Acting as a cultural arbiter between the interests of the public, and those of some of the most prolific graffiti writers globally. We caught up with the accidental photographer to talk about representation, and the responsibilities of throwing a floodlight on the darker spots of the cultural landscape.
I guess we’ll just start with the basics, how did you get started in photography?
It was by accident actually. In England at sixteen you get the choice of carrying on with school, or finishing it. I finished it but then after that I was basically floating around not really knowing what to do. I had to find a job or go into further education as my mum and dad weren’t really too happy with me just skateboarding and doing nothing. One of my friends was doing a photography course and said it was easy, so I just decided to do it to prolong real life. That was that. I started taking photos and realised it was something I enjoyed, it wasn’t a pain you know? It wasn’t like going to school, it was more of an outlet.
So have you always been involved in those subcultures, skating and that sort of thing?
I actually credit skateboarding for my outlook on life. I think skating is sort of like graff in a way, its not really got loads of barriers. If you see a sign that says ‘Don’t Skate’ you’re not really going to pay attention to it. They’re both quite independent DIY things, you don’t need a team to do it. It’s just up to the individual to do it, and you always end up having a little gang of mates who are in it together. I started skating quite young, then from skating I got introduced to graff and they just went hand in hand.
Is that solo dedication something that you see in your photography as well?
Well, you mean would I compare skateboarding and graff to photography? Well, I guess they’re the sort of things that are a personal. Also, I was never interested in a nice finished legal piece. I was always interested in illegal graffiti and bombing and basically people who were prolific and basically just did illegal stuff. I like the idea of being prolific in photography. I quite like the idea of almost doing a survey on like a scene, so you try and cover everyone. Like the Crack & Shine was basically the first ever book on London graffiti, it was something that had strangely never actually been done before.
So how did that Crack & Shine project actually come about? Was that off your back, were you pushing that personally?
Nah. I was involved in graff from a young age, so when I started in photography they sort of went together. I started photographing graff, because that’s what my friends were doing and that’s what I was doing. I actually ended up going to a university and doing documentary photography, which is where I probably gained my idea of doing like long term personal projects. I got more of an idea of what photography was about, and learnt about other photographers and started using a bit of equipment. It just opened up more possibilities of doing a photo story. I was given a portrait project, and I did one on writers…it was actually sort of based off seeing ‘Autograf’ that Pete Sutherland did in New York – I was trying to do like a London version of that. I did portraits, and then I did some action stuff, and Fred [Forsyth] randomly saw it and put it on Hurt You Bad which is the big English graffiti blog. Anyway we met up, and it was like internet dating or something. He emailed me and I’d never met him, so I was a little bit dubious – especially with graff. But we ended up producing a book in about a year and a half. It was the first ever book on London graffiti to look at illegal writers, and people who we grew up looking at. It got a really good response and from that Topsafe and all the Crack & Shine stuff was born.
There’s something about your work that’s a little more considered than your standard graff photography. Did you want to bring something a little more refined to the genre?
I guess from the school I’m thinking of, graffiti photographers don’t really influence me. I mean you can’t really beat someone like Alex Fakso, he’s been doing it for so long and has such a strong body of work, and he’s obviously integrated into the scene. It’s almost like what’s the point of trying to emulate that? So I started off with the idea of doing portraits, I mean my portraits are sometimes in-situ, you know the quiet moments before you go do something. Or they’re within the context of actually doing illegal graffiti. That’s one thing about photography is that a lot of people look for the big exciting and dramatic shot but sometimes the best photos are times when people are expecting you not to take photos if you know what I mean? The quiet moment. There are so many people out now doing graffiti photography it’s quite hard to make yourself look original anymore.
You’re kicking off the Crack & Shine Video Season Two now, what was the process of filming that? How did that go down?
I mean the process of shooting a graff video is basically the same as shooting photos, but I think with photos you almost want to shoot less whereas with video you basically want to keep filming the whole time. The one most important thing with video is the audio over what you’re seeing, that’s the thing that interests me, whereas in photography obviously you don’t get to hear the person’s voice. I always think photography is a bit more poetic and video is slightly more factual in a way. The video you can hear the persons voice and see the person at the same time, so it’s not like in photography where you can make up your own mind when you see a photo.
Essentially what you’re doing is cultural documentation I mean do you see that as necessary, do you think that someone needs to be out there recording all the stuff that’s going on at the moment?
I think that there’s too much stuff getting produced, but that’s just the way that it is and it’s not going to change. With things like Instagram and all that, I mean I use those things but I think it’s sort of 50/50 whether it should all be documented. It’s sort of a dead conversation because it doesn’t really matter if it should or it shouldn’t happen, it’s going to be recorded. With the first Crack & Shine book it’s amazing that there has never been another graffiti book looking at that content. I feel that sometimes you need to be slightly removed and not be too involved every day with the scene that you’re trying to shoot, because you just become too involved and it doesn’t really work. I think that applies to a lot of subcultures that I’m involved in, it becomes difficult to take a step back and look at it from another point of view.
I guess that’s always going to be the role of people like yourself you know, to take that objective view.
I mean I am objective to a point, but say for example if someone asks me to do a street art book. I’d have to think deeply about doing it, and probably the only way they could get me to do it was if they paid me a shit load of money. It’s not something that interests me one bit, and also if I did do that I’d get a completely different response from the people I deal with in Crack & Shine.
Is that a big part of that for you I guess? These people who are so prolific and they’re up everywhere, but you never really get to hear their personal story?
Is that what interests me? Their personal story? It is, but honestly I know a lot of them personally and 95% of them don’t want their personal life actually documented. I mean there’s loads of things I know, and it interests me but there’s no way they’re going to let me put that in the public domain. For most graffiti writers as well they’re super paranoid.
So how did the collaboration with Vans come about? As far as facilitation the documentation of these fringe cultures through a large company?
I mean because we started at ground level, we started with no funding. Then Vans amazingly gave us money for the second Crack & Shine book that they had no creative input with, which is insane. With the new videos they have got no creative input as well. I think with Vans they’re pretty authentic themselves you know? I mean if it wasn’t for Vans we’d be a bit screwed, basically they’ve given us budgets to do what we want really. I think I’ve travelled to about ten countries in the past year through them. So I think we owe a lot to them and it’s pretty amazing what they’ve been able to do for us.
I guess that particular relationship between yourself and Vans seems quite genuine and they seem interested in giving you that control. But it seems like there’s a fine line between some of the other stuff that’s coming out from big companies. Do you think these subcultures are going to have to learn to mediate themselves through large corporations in the future, just because there’s so much attention paid to them?
I think that it’s going to be hard in the future because graffiti writers are now being paid to be graffiti writers, which is pretty crazy. A lot of the MSK guys make a living off being graffiti writers now, they have paint brands that sponsor them, they have clothing brands that sponsor them. You know like Krink has done a collaboration with everything under the sun from car companies to fucking Levis, which are like the craziest companies to pay you for graffiti. It’s weird because a lot of these people still do illegal graffiti, but at the same time they’re making money off doing graff and being artists. Who knows how much money Retna’s got now, but he’s from a background which is painting freeways in LA – one of the hardest cities in the world to do illegal graffiti in. I think there’ll be a big alignment with people wanting to make money off graff, but there will always be people just painting for the sake of painting.
I know a writer who’s done quite well for himself who was saying that he gets emails from kids in primary school asking how to become a famous graffiti writer. These kids are saying “I want to do as my job” which seems fairly fundamental shift in mentality.
Yeah completely man. I don’t know when it was, but when I was interested in graff I’d literally just got an email and there wasn’t really graffiti websites. I definitely think the golden-era of this sort of stuff has gone, but there’s no point being reminiscent and hoping for the good times to come back because then you just become a stale old man. I definitely think it’s changed.
I mean do you see what you’re doing as documentation of a culture that may disappear?
It’s interesting, I was talking to someone about that, [in London] there’s a really infamous crew called DDS and they’re still painting. There are many a crazy story about them, and a lot of them are into other things than just graff. They’re basically what inspired Crack & Shine, and we’ve got quite a few of them in the book. They’re the real hardcore London graffiti writers, and they’re in the process of putting together a little short film, and the guy who was doing it was saying that a few of them realise that eventually it is going to be impossible to paint tubes. It’s getting harder and harder now, it’s almost like being a terrorist. I think that in a way that sort of thing will die out, but it really depends city to city. You know graff is not going anywhere in Paris or New York or places like that, but then places like LA they’ve basically passed laws in LA to get rid of MSK. People who want to paint [legal] murals need not just permission from the property owner, but permission from the state. So they do a check, and if they find anyone’s got any affiliation with MSK or they’ve been arrested they just say no, and then if they paint the wall then the property owner gets arrested. I don’t really think painting illegally is going anywhere because that’s the thing that most people get excited about. I think maybe the idea of infamous writers who you never hear about, that’s fading away because of people like us. But it’s a necessary evil in some way.