Data reveals spike in graffiti incidents in Tower Hamlets

Je Suis Charlie graffiti in Sclater Street, Shoreditch

Je Suis Charlie graffiti in Sclater Street, Shoreditch - Credit: Archant

A street art campaigner has called for a rethink of Tower Hamlets’ graffiti policy as incidents in the borough continue to rise.

Mark Clack, co-founder of Wood Street Walls - a grassroots street art collective - says councils like Tower Hamlets are using outdated methods to tackle the problem.

His comment comes as wards across the borough continue to report high levels of graffiti.

According to Tower Hamlets Council data obtained via a Freedom of Information request, the borough experienced a 32pc rise in cases over the 2020/21 financial year. 

It also revealed the majority of removals took more than a week, longer than the council’s self-imposed five-day deadline, and only 33 fines were issued between March 2008 and June 2018.

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Just over half - 57pc - have been paid, earning the council £1,510 for a quarter-of-a-million-pound yearly service over an entire decade. 

Wards like Bow East saw a 47pc increase in incidents, jumping from 72 in 2019/20 to 136 this financial year. Weavers ward was hardest hit, registering 345 incidents, up from 213.

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The problem, Mark said, is being driven by budget cuts and a lack of safe spaces for aspiring artists.

"Where you've seen central government cuts, you've had funding or after-school clubs shut down,” he said.

“Local authorities have had to make very tough decisions to stop running core services.”

The street art campaigner suggests local authorities build more legal art walls and other zoned-off areas for aspiring artists to practice, while boosting funding for youth services.

“A lot of the people doing graffiti aren't turning to street art as muralists and contemporary artists, so in my opinion you need safe spaces for people to practise."

According to a 2008 Keep Britain Tidy survey, name tagging and juvenile graffiti - which generally takes the form "x loves y" - are the most reported across Britain.

It also found graffiti had been discovered at 26pc of the 19,000 sites surveyed, with back alleys, footbridges, subways and public open spaces being prime targets.

“One person’s graffiti is another person’s art,” Mark pointed out.

“If you’ve got metrics to report graffiti, there should be metrics to report people receiving murals and artwork in the public space too. 

“Without that mechanism, you’re not going to have the data to underpin your thinking about why you need a new space.”

Tower Hamlets Council has defended its policy, which includes provisioning street art projects.

A council spokesperson said: “We recognise there is a need to strike a balance between quickly and efficiently removing unsightly ‘tagging’ graffiti and preserving legitimate street art, as outlined in the council’s graffiti policy introduced in 2019. 

“Graffiti removal costs the council upwards of £250,000 a year and in 2020 alone, we cleared over 1,840 graffiti-related issues. We also use enforcement where necessary, with Tower Hamlets enforcement officers able to issue fines.”

On clean-up times, they said: “The council’s policy is to remove all graffiti on council-owned property within five working days and any graffiti of an offensive nature within 24 hours.

“Graffiti on other buildings, which made up 71pc of graffiti cleaned in 2020/21, does not fall under this clean-up pledge, as often the council will need to seek permission from landowners before any cleaning can start.

“We are working hard to keep Tower Hamlets a clean and vibrant borough, but like many councils across the country, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on our services over the last year.”

Keep Britain Tidy chief executive Allison Ogden-Newton said: “We are currently reviewing our policy, which was last updated in 2017.

"However we think that the difference between commissioned and licensed artworks in public spaces (street art) and graffiti (tagging), which by its definition is done without permission, is clear. 

“If artists have permission to create artworks on public walls and buildings, it isn’t the ‘graffiti’ that our research clearly shows makes people feel threatened and unsafe.”

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