I’m doubled over, lying low, trying to stay as close to the ground as possible. I’ve picked maybe the worst possible position to hold for any length of time, kind of a half squat with my legs folded under me. It’s stiflingly hot in the afternoon sun, and I can feel sweat running down the inside of my makeshift balaclava, a hastily tied t-shirt that’s covering my face from any on looking surveillance cameras. Around me members of Melbourne’s TGF crew are all trying to use the same small pile of debris made up of abandoned packing crates and fencing for cover.
Leo, who was leading our group moments ago, is hiding behind a large gum tree a few metres to my left – a perverse image of the modern bushranger hiding from authorities – and has relative freedom to move unseen. The space where the rest of us are huddled barely keeps us out of direct sight of the figure that’s seemingly materialised out of thin air into the cabin of the Comeng train that’s parked stationary about three metres away from where we’re hiding in plain sight. If he’s seen the group of us, crouched frozen and willing invisibility, then he’s not letting on. It’s a tense moment, and one that’s marred by frustration. Five minutes ago we were about to duck through a pre-cut gap in the fence surrounding the train yard, appear briefly on the CCTV cameras stationed across the fence (when I ask Leo if they were being monitored in real time his answer was an optimistic “Hopefully not,”) and then disappear into the relative safety of the aisle created by two stabled trains. Now we’re trapped indefinitely, unsure if we’ve been spotted – and if so, whether or not the figure has alerted authorities to the presence of the group of men in ski masks carrying bags and cameras.
To my left, Sailor – my initial guide to the yards today, swears in harsh whispers and urges me to move closer in order to stay out of the driver’s line of sight. “Push against me,” he urges before clarifying “Don’t worry, it’s not gay.” He’s in his early twenties, and vibrates with an erratic energy. In conversation his answers are staccato, and topic changes arise frequently and without warning. He often seems to be looking past you, mentally sizing up whatever environment he happens to be in. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, but has a voracious appetite for other vices. There’s a sense, of course, that graffiti is his outlet – a frenzied energy that’s been somewhat channeled and focused into a visual product. This isn’t exactly a novel observation, and it’s true of a lot of graffiti writers, but it’s blindingly obvious in Sailor. He carries a discipline that is enforced crew wide, and it’s obvious that he has big plans for TGF – “We’re fucking forever, if we’re not around in 10 years time, someone knocked me off,” he declares one night.
By comparison, Leo is quietly spoken (“I don’t really like talking,” he discloses on our way to the yard). He’s reluctant to speak on any formal record, but is easygoing and becomes animated when in action. From his vantage point behind the tree he’s able to bring us a constant stream of hushed commentary. “It’s a Jamaican guy with dreadlocks.” “No, shit it’s a girl.” “Why would there be a girl in the yard?” “Wait, it’s not a girl.” “I don’t think he’s seen us.” “He’s looking straight at you.” “It’s security.” “Wait, I think it’s a driver.” “Don’t move.” I can hear excitement more than anything else in his voice, and the flash of his teeth lets me know he’s smiling under the balaclava. His affable, contemplative nature is a foil to the unwavering self-confidence of Sailor – and it manifests itself stylistically as well. Where Sailor’s pieces dip and curve into articulated fighting stances, Leo’s letterforms float languidly on the surface of trains. As co-founding members of TGF, alongside Menue, Diets and Galaxy, they’re a good partnering – both in action and in output.
As the minutes slip past, my thighs and shoulders start to burn from the position that I’ve contorted my body into, and after the initial adrenalin rush dissipates we fall into an uncomfortable silence that’s only punctuated by the mechanical idiosyncrasies of the nearby train. The clicks and pops of cooling metal and ticking engines seem amplified, and their irregularity is unsettling. Finally, with a hiss of pressure, the air brake is released, the whistle sounds twice, and the train pulls out of the yard. After 45 minutes of tense hiding we’re free to move, although I feel unsteady on my legs. Sailor and Leo are angry, they know that if we had of moved to the fence just 15 minutes earlier, they would have had time to paint the train that just pulled into service – a relative rarity in the state of Victoria’s current transit landscape. I refrain from pointing out that they also would have been painting the train at the same time as the driver arrived – it seems that some things are better left unsaid. We beat a hasty retreat, unseen, to re-strategise. Like fishing, painting trains is a hobby for the patient man.
TGF – short for The Good Fellas, are relative newcomers to the graffiti game as a collective force. Formed just over two years ago they’re a close affiliation of 13 vandals with a shared vision. “We like painting trains. That’s what we do,” Sailor tells me, “If you don’t paint trains, you’re not a fucking graffiti writer.” Diets has a similar outlook, “It’s all about the thrill and the mind games that goes along with it,” he explains, “It’s about mateship and teamwork.” They’re by no means the only crew, new or old, who are active on Australia’s railway stock – but their unwavering dedication and sheer prolificacy bears paying attention to. Speaking with their latest inductee, Rusto, gives an insight into the mindset of The Good Fellas, “A year ago I came down to Melbourne, we didn’t know anybody here, no writers or nothing. This guy [Sailor] picked us up from the station, introduced us to the crew, and took us straight to the yards. I’d only been in Melbourne for 24 hours and I was already painting panels,” he tells me. The experience was compelling enough for him to relocate indefinitely. “I was only planning on staying for a week but I ended up just staying here. All The Good Fellas let me stay at their houses, I didn’t even know them – but they treated me like one of their own, like family.” It was a similar experience for Sydney crewmember Space, “I’d been down in Melbourne a fair bit, painting and making money. I met Sailor and the others through writers and it became an ongoing thing. One weekend they said ‘You’re one of us, you’re a good fella, do you want to put it up?’” It’s that sense of camaraderie that defines TGF. Contrary to the oft-perpetuated image of graffiti writers as bored suburban delinquents – the TGF crew are a tightknit criminal fraternity that prides itself on their organisation and collective visual output. “We’re all close homies with similar styles and personalities. It’s just the world we live in,” Space explains. Or as Rusto succinctly puts it to me, “When they asked me to be in The Good Fellas I couldn’t refuse. I was fuckin’ honoured to be in.”
Even though it’s preoccupied with the written word, graffiti tradition is largely passed down orally. The lore of the culture is born of hushed conversations and whispered techniques, and scant physical documentation exists outside of the personal photo collections of its practitioners – particularly in the tight knit core that still pursue trains as their canvasses. It’s a defiantly insular culture, or as Diets explains, “It’s about you and your mates, I honestly don’t give a fuck who else sees it.” The cloak and dagger mentality is not just for show either, punitive measures against graffiti writers in Australia are severe – and courts are often keen to make examples of those who come before them. It’s easy to make a mistake, and the consequences of a simple slip up can be major. “I can’t remember the last time I got chased,” Diets tells me, “It doesn’t mean that we can be slack though. It only takes one wrong move to get done.” Potential jail terms are an accepted risk for those at the extreme ends of graffiti practice, and for any writer with an extended career a criminal record is part and parcel of being active.
“I’m not totally old school, I started around ’97, but painting trains was different back then.” recalls Logik, an AFP crew member – a group of senior writers whose name commands respect in both local and international graffiti circles. “In the mid ‘90s there was a bit of a crack down, it was a quiet period,” he recalls. When AFP formed in ’95 they brought a new approach to producing graffiti on an unprecedented level in terms of both technical execution and scale of damage. As he explains, “We were going to yards and using them for the time that we had, not just going in for five minutes and painting a backjump style panel. If we’ve got an hour, we’ll stay for an hour or longer. We’ll keep pushing it.” Recent well-publicised prosecutions have specifically targeted AFP and their affiliates, but the crew shows no signs of slowing down. As a bastion of the older generation of writers they represent a cohort who are now influencing an emerging crop of young vandals. “I was overseas, and when I came back I took a train ride. I was seeing the same old garbage, nothing much had changed until I started seeing stuff from Leo, stuff from Sailor, stuff from Bzar, and other TGF kids. I was impressed, what they were doing was simple but it was executed really well and it was clean. They do what they do, and in my opinion they’re killing it,” Logik tells me. The co-sign carries weight in a subculture that’s obsessed with honouring its elders, where styles and techniques are handed down generation to generation in a lineage that is traceable back to the movements pioneers in New York nearly five decades ago. Speaking of the TGF members over a few beers in a nondescript pub in the suburbs Logik expands – “They’re good kids, they’re not little crims. They’re not about beefing, or being hard, or standing over people and all that shit. They’re positive, they fucking love graffiti, and they’re definitely dedicated to painting steel.”
There’s an intrinsic power to a painted train, far away from their origins of New York City in the ‘70s. In 2014, more than ever, they stand as a testament to aggressive urban disobedience. Writers call it ‘getting over’ – beating the system and accomplishing what they set out to do against all odds. For the bleary-eyed commuter standing on the train platform in the outer suburbs in the morning peak hour, idly dreaming of their first flat white with half-a-sugar and thirty seconds of flirty banter with the receptionist at the front desk – the motives of writers are inscrutable. When our commuter catches an explosion of colour in the corner of his eye as his daily train pulls into the platform, the discord between two realities is never more apparent. One of routine and passive indifference, and another that carries the promise of freedom – or at least a sense of adventure. Often, the reaction is one of discomfort and anger – in an urban context, graffiti is the most apparent visual manifestation of criminal activity. Where burglary and drug dealing whisper, graffiti shouts in your face with the audaciousness of its execution. A painted train carries that symbol of crime through the city, and if the branched networks of public transport are the lifeblood of a modern city then a running panel is a cancerous cell steadily making its way to the heart.
“We don’t use the term graffiti artist, we’re writers,” Rusto states one night. It’s a semantic differentiation that’s integral to understanding the motivations of The Good Fellas and their ilk. While the proliferation and acceptance of street art in popular culture is the sickly saccharine by-product of the widespread availability of aerosol paint – graffiti, real graffiti, is a crime defined by binaries. It’s wholly selfish and selfless at the same time – committed with no desire for personal gain outside of the act itself. It’s an action that’s simultaneously public and private, executed secretly in stylistic and linguistic codes that are only fully fathomable to those versed in its internal logics and traditions – but displayed flagrantly to those who are outside of this group. It’s an invitation and a muffled threat, an open palm and a closed fist. A lot of discourse, academic and otherwise, has been dedicated to the concept of graffiti as a revolutionary act, and in a manner of speaking, it is. Not in the sense of organised protest or social change, but in a manner of personal revolution. Of transgressing social and societal limitations, to stop wondering ‘What if?’ and actually find out – for better or worse. As Space tells me, “It’s about expression, and it’s about destruction.” In short, it’s about getting over. As such, it’s not surprising that by and large it’s loathed by the public, nor is it surprising that generation after generation, a new crop of youth are seduced by the intoxicating promise of splashing their names on a steel canvas. As Logik dictates, “That’s where this style of graffiti started, and I know that’s cheesy to say, but it’s the fucking truth. Graffiti started on the trains and that’s where it belongs. Once you’re in there’s no turning back.”
Back near the yard fence, a plan has been formulated over the past hour. The intervening time has seen a trip to a local fish and chip store for sustenance, and a spirited attack at the crew bong on behalf of Rusto and Leo. No train has appeared next to the solitary one by the fence, and after a round of back and forth debate it’s decided that our best option is to force our way into the stationary train, make our way through the carriages internally and then drop out of the doors on the other side of the train and disappear into an aisle where two Comengs are stabled further into the yard. It’s a risky maneuver, the deeper into the labyrinth of trains that we go – the further we are from an exit point if anything goes wrong. The Good Fellas seem confident though, and gloves are donned, individual cans of paint are wiped clean of fingerprints, and bags are re-packed. This time we make our way back to the fence without incident, and after a collective regrouping we push through the tiny gap in the fence. It’s at this moment – sprinting across the yard to a stationary train – that we’re most exposed. As with everything else today, bad luck strikes almost immediately. The train that we’re attempting to clamber into is still running, which means that not only are the doors locked as if in transit – but also that the internal CCTV cameras are still running. After all the setbacks the TGF crew aren’t prepared to succumb to these obstacles. We force our way through the doors among the shrieking falsetto tones of the alarm, and hurriedly make our way through the stabled train to reemerge at the end of the third carriage, before quickly disappearing in-between the pair of stabled trains. All conversation ceases and The Good Fellas spring into action. They’re well versed in this and move rapidly – quickly outlining with high-pressure paint and fat caps, marking up their pieces.
The majority of the action is over in less than 20 minutes, the hours leading up to this are lost in frenzied riot of colours splayed across the train’s surface. There’s honesty in this moment that’s hard to articulate, it’s an antidote to the commercialisation of subcultures globally – a democratisation of defiance. Far away from picture perfect polished letterforms, it’s a compelling manifestation of personal choices irrespective of consequence. Sailor signs off his panel with a prophetic three-word message borrowed from synth pop artist Cold Cave, ‘People Are Poison’, and I’ve got no doubt that he believes this wholeheartedly. He marks the engine with a mocking taunt – ‘TGF – Us Again’ and we make our escape out of the yards without incident, our adrenalin pumping. TGF are satisfied; it’s another success out of the hundreds of similar missions that they’ve carried out in the past few years. Obsessively painting surfaces at great risk for no material reward, as many generations have before them, simply for the love of the sport.
The train doesn’t run its scheduled service, instead it’s diverted into a maintenance shed for cleaning. Like the vast majority of trains that are painted across Victoria, the only people who ever see the finished product are those who apply it to the surface and those who buff it off again. A few days later, I link up with TGF members and ask them if they’re disappointed that no one saw their work – Rusto just laughs and replies candidly, “Just another one for the memory bank.”
SAILOR – GALAXY – DIETS – LEO – MENUE – BZAR – RUSTO – READY – NEGUS – SPACE – DAVE – SAMON – HIKUPS
This submission was received anonymously – ACCLAIM magazine does not condone illegal activity.
This piece was originally published in ACCLAIM magazine issue 32, which is available for purchase here.