10 Foot differs from the other shoppers at Halfords in two ways. Firstly, true to his name, he’s taller than everyone else, much taller. Secondly, 10 Foot isn’t planning on paying for anything. “I think I’ve used more of this than anyone in the country, and I never knew it was £10.99,” he says, gazing at a 500ml can of black matt spray paint. For someone as productive as 10 Foot, one night’s supplies might cost anywhere between £80 and £150. But 10 Foot maintains a strict buy-none-get-everything-free approach to stocking up.

Today, in addition to a few cans of paint, he’s looking for enough timber to build a makeshift grappling hook and rope ladder. He won’t tell me what for, only that it’s “high stakes”. I believe him. “Let’s keep it moving,” he says. Not having found exactly what he’s looking for, he leaves empty-handed.

I still don’t know why 10 Foot agreed to meet me. He’s easily the most prolific graffiti writer in London and one of the most productive globally. He’s been repeatedly approached by fashion brands, music labels and TV showrunners with offers to collaborate, most of which he’s turned down. There are two Instagram pages, each with thousands of followers, dedicated to documenting his output. One of them, @10Foot_Everywhere, has noted his work in the background of porn videos and video games. Taxi drivers and haulage workers across Europe will likely recognise his work. I once messaged him asking which cities he’s tagged, expecting a relatively short response. Instead, I received the following:

“Yeh, I mean . . . Paris, Berlin, NYC, Philadelphia, Buenos Aires, Funchal, Lisbon, Oslo, Copenhagen, Snowdonia, Dublin, Galway, Cork, Waterford, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington DC, New Orleans, Miami, Monterrey, Mexico City, Guatemala City, Guadalajara, Ajaccio, Milan, Sicily, Corsica, Bari, Tirana, Moscow, Marseille, Rome, Bogotá, Kuwait, Pereira, Quito, Port-au-Prince, Kingston Jamaica, Kingston Surrey, Guildford, Glasgow, San Antonio, Dominican Republic, Havana, Cancún, Panama, Taipei, Bangkok, Tokyo, Okinawa, Kyoto, Osaka. Almost every middle-sized town across the UK from Shaftesbury to Shrewsbury to Grimsby to Burnham-on-Crouch. All the far flung islands . . . Wight, Scillies, Shetlands, Orkneys, Inner and Outer Hebrides. Every state in Mexico. Anyway u get the idea lol.”

The list is extensive, but nowhere bears his mark more than London, his home, his favourite city. Sometimes his tag is spelt out, 1-0-F-O-O-T; sometimes it’s rendered visually as a foot outline next to a numerical one, with a toe doubling as the zero. It’s so widespread in London that it’s rumoured to have appeared in a recent James Bond film, though I couldn’t find it, and it was included in the opening credits of the hit show Top Boy. 10 Foot has a particular penchant for tagging bridges and overpasses, but he also paints shutters, windows, bus stops and, most significantly, London’s sprawling network of tracksides and train carriages. If you live here, to have his tag pointed out to you once is to see it almost everywhere you go.

Graffiti, from the Italian graffio, meaning scratch, is defined by New York transit police detective Bernie Jacobs in the 1983 documentary Style Wars as “the application of a medium to a surface”. Going by Jacobs’ definition, humans have been writing graffiti since the Paleolithic era. In modern terms, however, there is one crucial distinction: graffiti is not street art. It is not the mural of the nondescript, beautiful woman delicately holding a blunt from which a cloud of smoke arises spelling the word “community”. It’s not the adaptation of Magritte’s “The Lovers” with Covid-19 masks instead of veils, not the colourful depiction of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Nelson Mandela embracing over the phrase “anything is possible”.

Graffiti, real “graf”, in London at least, consists of a “tag”, essentially a one-colour signature; a “dub”, larger, often bubble writing using mostly silver and black paints, which don’t get absorbed by brickwork; or a “piece” — more complex compositions, including a background, 3D effects, sometimes cartoon characters, the works. All of it written in a visible location, known as a “plot”. The more inaccessible or policed the plot, the better. “Is that an art form?” Jacobs asks in the film, pointing to a tag on a train carriage. “I don’t know. I’m not an art critic, but I can sure as hell tell you that that’s a crime.”

© R Seventeen

In urban centres, graffiti is so ubiquitous that it’s become part of the psychic landscape, although very little attention is paid to those who produce it. There’s no money to be made, not for those who are serious about it anyway. Not much fame either, beyond the subculture. A good way to distinguish 10 Foot from street artists like Banksy — same genus, different species — is that while street artists add value to assets or property, graffers take it away. For serious writers, the ones who do little else, graffing is about defying authority while, hopefully, avoiding arrest, injury or death.

Graffers like 10 Foot are periodically killed practising their craft. In 2018, three young writers going by the names Lover, Kbag and Trip were struck by a train in south London. The driver didn’t even know he’d hit anything until his shift was over. Some years ago, 10 Foot was jailed and served more than a year in prison for racking up criminal damage costing £113,000. When he was finally caught red-handed, multiple cops filed out to meet him looking pleased with themselves, presumably having spent years poring over thick folders with his name on the label. Apparently, one of them asked for his autograph.

You might ask why, in one of the most surveilled cities on earth, someone like 10 Foot has been able to walk out of jail, go right back to writing and remain free. The answer is simple: 10 Foot can walk through walls. Members of the collective to which he belongs, known as Diabolical Dubstars or DDS, have “finessed” the maintenance keys for the London Underground from rail control rooms. (Finesse is a term for theft that requires significant skill and/or cunning.) As a result, they can navigate the city’s hidden passageways and tunnels freely. They also know more about train timetables and trackside security than most British transport workers.

In 2012, the group was reportedly held responsible for more than £10mn worth of criminal damage. On Boxing Day 2020, Londoners awoke to find the walls of Oxford Circus Tube station almost completely redesigned by the group, which used abseiling equipment and the cover of Covid lockdowns to break on to the platforms. By the time they were done, the whole station resembled the exercise book of an alienated teenager. “They’re a mythical institution,” 10 Foot says of DDS, “the most important group in the UK by a city mile. There are hundreds of members, different chapters, a lot of 30-year friendships and a good few enmities. It’s not my story to tell, though. Explaining it to an outsider is very hard.”

We have been walking down the Old Kent Road for some 40 minutes when 10 Foot realises Wickes, a hardware store and “an unwilling sponsor of the UK graffiti movement”, is closed. He doesn’t like the alternative, B&Q. Too many friends have been nicked there. “The security guards are going on like the fucking Viet Cong,” he says. “I can imagine them hiding behind a camouflage net in the parallel aisles.” He resolves to go to central London, where he’s planning his next big mission.

Kafka tells us that a legend is contained within the movement of truth towards the inexplicable. Some people would probably call 10 Foot a legend, as they would other, older London writers like Tox, Fume, Fuel and the late King Robbo, fabled to have once slapped Banksy across the face for disrespecting him when they met in a bar. Most writers will have a story about how they or one of their mates miraculously survived a deadly fall, spent hours dangling from a palisade fence or evaded a police helicopter by hiding in a wheelie bin all night. Every tag is a close call, or so graffiti writers like to imagine.

Graf’s Promethean origins, endlessly retold, involve a teenager named Darryl McCray from a rundown neighbourhood of 1960s Philadelphia. Known to everyone as “Cornbread”, McCray developed a crush on a girl called Cynthia and began writing “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” all over North Philadelphia. The story goes that Cornbread was eventually arrested for putting his name on the side of an elephant at the Philadelphia zoo.

It wasn’t until 1981, when a writer named Futura brought the New York style of singular, colourful monikers to London, that graffiti started to take hold in the UK. There, nestled among the blood red-brick and desolate, grey concrete of Blighty, it mingled with the anarchist tradition adopted by punk bands and became something new: UK Graf, an amalgam of British political alienation and American countercultural swag.

People online have speculated about the meaning of 10 Foot’s tag, suggesting that maybe it’s a reference to the standard distance that separates railway tracks. “I’m just called 10 Foot cos I was always really tall,” he says. Much like Michael Phelps or the Kalenjin runners, 10 Foot’s body is perfectly suited to his sport. His long limbs let him reach over walls and stretch for faraway handholds. From below, you might mistake him for an enormous, broad-shouldered spider-monkey searching for fruit and grubs.

We are cycling towards Waterloo. 10 Foot rides one-handed, holding my Dictaphone with the other. “Shout if my cycling is scaring you,” he says. Struggling to keep up, I ask if he prefers painting in the centre of London where there are more police and onlookers. “Well, it depends. More people see it. And I hate painting in places like Shoreditch. I’ve painted in Shoreditch before and found people cheering me on while they drink their negronis. I like painting in places that exemplify the extremity of control.”

10 Foot, who is in his mid-thirties, has seen the city change over the decades. The buildings he used to climb through to access train tracks have, one by one, started disappearing. The past decade or so has seen dozens of council estates demolished, some replaced by garish luxury developments. Almost 150,000 social housing dwellings have been demolished in England in the past two decades. “Gentrification is a really reduced way to play down what has happened. It’s actually the ‘boringification’ of London,” he says. “I don’t mind posh people or nice sandwiches. But it’s the pseudo-nice sandwiches that get me. I remember when Chelsea was full of French restaurants and scarf wearers; now it’s just confused, wealthy Chinese tourists looking for a mass-produced panini. Nearly all the Rastas, buskers and Soho gays, London’s incredibly unique character, has been pissed away.” 10 Foot says he sees London as a semi-vegetative friend hooked up to a life-support machine.

© Eddie Otchere

Part of the strangeness of graffiti is that, while its writers are regularly thrown in jail, the same subculture they’ve risked their lives to preserve is being used to promote expensive trainers, boutique cafés and “street art” tours. Consumer capitalism has an odd love/hate relationship with graffiti, a contradiction that writers like 10 Foot have noticed and find difficult to rationalise. This tension was perfectly encapsulated in 2012, when a writer named Darren Cullen, known as Ser, was arrested on suspicion of incitement to commit criminal damage and banned from using public transport — right after being approached by Team GB to paint the Athletes’ Village.

This line between commercial acceptability and criminal liability often turns court cases into chin-stroking seminars on the nature of the art object. “Art is controversial and what appeals to one person does not necessarily appeal to another . . . You are not entitled, however, to impose your views on other people by damaging property,” a judge in Manchester told a court in 2006, before handing a 22-year-old writer a two-year, suspended prison sentence. Whether the defendant thought to invoke Gordon Matta-Clark’s severed house or Ai Weiwei’s smashed Han Dynasty urn remains unknown.

For his part, 10 Foot likes to think of himself as a fringe, cosmic anthropologist. But it occurs to me that he might be little more than an addict, suffering from a dangerous compulsion. He’s spoken before about booking early-morning flights before a romantic trip with his girlfriend, just so he can get some painting done near the airport beforehand and to avoid ruining the holiday. “Addiction is a really loaded term,” he says, when I ask him about it. “The more you retrace your behaviours, the more of a canal they become in your mind. I don’t think that there’s an addiction. It’s just behavioural. I’m so used to it. I’ve done it for so long. I’m not saying that I have the ability to not do it. All I’m contesting is the word addiction. It’s a habit.”

He swerves to avoid an approaching police car, still one-handed. Then he tells me about the time he cut his leg down to the bone on his way out of Liverpool Street station. “I didn’t go to hospital, even though it was pissing out blood. I went to do some more graf. My shoe was squelching with blood and I started to feel faint, and I just thought, God, I need to do this other spot on the tracks before I go to A&E.”

10 Foot grew up by the British seaside, far away from any large city. “I’m from Crud Britannia, not Cool Britannia,” he says. “Bunking off and smoking cheap hash by the beach huts, Ukip placards in everyone’s driveway Britannia.” He was into music, and music became his window to the wider world. I’ve agreed not to give any details that might give away 10 Foot’s identity, but I can tell you that in 2006, at a house party in north London, he met graffers Tox, Save and CK. “Before that, I’d look at a tag and I’d think, How has anyone done that with all the CCTV? Whereas nowadays, I’d knock that out at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Thursday. Anyway,” he says, skidding to halt, “this is the bridge I wanna paint.” And I see it. And the drop below. He’s going to die, I think.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

— 17th century folk poem (seen trackside at Vauxhall station in 2022)

Turn left out of St James’s Park station, and you’ll immediately arrive at the enormous, brutalist block which houses His Majesty’s Ministry of Justice. It stands there like some giant, military bunker, casting a monumental shadow over the road. Follow the shadow and you’ll come to a similar, smaller building called Albany House. Take the lift up a few floors and, in a cluttered office surrounded by cabinets and folders, you might find Sharon Turner sitting at her desk.

Turner wanted to be a police officer from a young age, following in the boot steps of her dad, two brothers, her uncle and her godfather. She grew up watching the hit 1980s show Cagney & Lacey in which a career-minded single woman and a mother-of-three busted crime and sexism in New York. When she was younger, Turner tried for a job with London’s Metropolitan Police, but she didn’t get it. Having moved to London, she eventually landed a job with the British Transport Police (BTP) rising to lead a team tasked with combating theft and graffiti.

Sharon Turner © R Seventeen

The BTP is a strange institution. The UK’s official anti-terror slogan, “See it. Say it. Sorted,” has been cauterised on to the British subconscious, repeated endlessly through tannoys in train stations since its launch in 2016. If you do see it and subsequently say it, it’s the BTP who’ll sort it for you. The division tackles everything from ticket fraud to terrorism.

Today, she is discussing a different part of her remit: apprehending the country’s many graffiti writers. “You know, I’ve [seen] some horrific things . . . Things that give you nightmares,” she says, leaning back in her chair, next to a little poster asserting the values of her department. It ends with the phrase, “We are one BTP.” She seems slightly guarded at first, telling me, “I think that especially with the way that the media view the police at the minute, you know. Good stories don’t sell . . . They want the dirt. And they don’t realise how much that affects the people who are trying to do good out there. Ninety-nine per cent of officers join for the right reasons and want to make a difference.”

Most of what the BTP does is the kind of policing the public sees as vital: targeting robberies and sexual offences on rail networks, as well as investigating drug-smuggling rings. The graffiti task force, which contains one sergeant and eight dedicated officers, is also embroiled in a protracted guerrilla war that most people don’t even notice. One that’s been raging for at least three decades.

There have been a few notable moments in this conflict. One came in 1984 with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which gave officers the power to search people on suspicion of carrying items to commit criminal damage. Suddenly, paint-splattered jeans, loitering on Tube platforms and carrying a backpack became more risky for graffiti writers. It’s common for graffers to tell you they can spot another writer a mile off just by the way they move. It seems, thanks to her line of work, Turner has developed a similar ability. “If [a person is] loitering on the end of a platform or in a part of the station where they shouldn’t be… and you think, well, they’ve got a rucksack with them. They’ve got paint all over their hands. You build up your grounds of, what is this person doing?”

To graffiti writers, the BTP is an almost transcendental nemesis. Holmes and Moriarty, Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick. Graffers respect the BTP too, though they won’t admit it. Its officers are the only people who care about graffiti as much as they do. A good example would be Detective Constable Colin Saysell. If the BTP is the Gotham City Police Department, and Turner is Commissioner Gordon, Colin Saysell is Batman. He’s the one who put 10 Foot away, as well as his friend and mentor, Tox, along with many others. According to a 2014 Guardian article, Saysell was the only detective registered as an expert witness on graffiti in the UK. His influence over who went to prison became so singular that writers like 10 Foot now refer to him as “Colin Says-so.” In 2014, Saysell expressed a begrudging respect for the vandals he policed. “It’s often said… graffiti writers… are mindless,” he said in a lecture at the Southbank Centre. “That, ladies and gentlemen… is the last thing that they are… They’re pretty well organised. They know what they’re up to. They’re adept; they’re cunning.”

Turner has a different view. “It’s just very bizarre, you know, why people want to spend their time drawing on the side of trains . . . It’s not something that doesn’t come with risk; it comes with massive risk . . . Is it worth losing your life for?” She genuinely has no idea why graffers do this. I think back to 10 Foot’s story about almost passing-out from blood loss, trying to get his tag up before losing consciousness. “I really don’t understand it,” she continues. “You know, we turn up at people’s houses and have to tell their mum or dad that they’re dead because of [this]. It astounds me.”

Turner is also eager to correct the notion that graffiti is a victimless crime. Graffiti doesn’t just cost the rail industry £20mn per year, she says, it also negatively affects passengers and train cleaners. “Do you travel by train?” she asks. I nod. “Right, so you foot the bill. Why do you think your fare goes up every year? . . . When you’re standing on the platform and your train’s cancelled . . . do they tell you why they’ve cancelled that train? Has that train been taken out of service because someone’s drawn all over it? . . . Then they’ve got to clean the train. If they’ve etched or put acid on the windows, they have to replace the glass. Never mind that, if they’ve left acid and the cleaner doesn’t know, there’s damage to the cleaner . . . It impacts everybody.” She is referring to the acid-based pens used by some graffers, often, according to 10 Foot, the same acid used to etch logos on the side of pint glasses. Through a spokesperson, the BTP declined to comment on 10 Foot’s activity specifically.

We then come to a more fundamental point, that graffiti doesn’t look nice and makes people feel uneasy. “Go to somewhere like Milan, where there’s graffiti everywhere,” she says. “If you walk through Milan, do you actually feel safe?” She has a point. Graffiti has, through films and album covers, become the wallpaper of crime, synonymous with dereliction and antisocial behaviour. It’s a constant reminder that society is uncontrollable and fragile.

Finally, we get to the question of sentencing, which can consist of significant jail time for graffiti-related offences. I ask Turner if this is fair. “Yeah, I think it’s more than fair,” she replies. “I think our court system is broken and that we need to be dealing out a lot harsher sentences . . . How else do we deter offending when there are no consequences?” Turner looks like she’s about to go on, when her press officer tells her we’re out of time. “OK, so it’s not a violent crime,” she concludes, reiterating her point about the injured cleaner. “[But] it’s the bigger picture.”

10 Foot is staring up at 3-metre-tall barrier topped with menacing steel prongs. It’s night-time in central London. He produces a jangling bunch of keys from his pocket and, after a short process of trial and error, the padlock clanks open and he meticulously slides it off the chain. Beyond the gate, there’s a narrow courtyard with a stairwell leading to the tracks above. A brightly lit depot overlooks the area. There are voices coming from inside.

10 Foot creeps cartoon-style over to the stairwell and silently unlocks the metal door. The trains are still running. There’s a mystical quality to the trackside at night. Framed on all sides by the London skyline, it’s reminiscent of “the zone” from the film Stalker: a liminal space complete with its own set of wonders and hidden terrors. There are three rails: two for the wheels and one for the foot of the train. The third rail is the one “you gotta watch out for”, according to 10 Foot. “That one can kill you, but I’m still alive so . . . ”

Trespassers risk their lives. When the blades switch to redirect the train, their feet can get caught. And if not freed quickly, they’ll be “turned to vermicelli”, as 10 Foot puts it. “I’m on the ball in this situation. It’s sort of my environment. I’ve always got my eye on trains. The problem is, I suppose, that when there’s a train going past you can’t hear another one coming. That’s the only thing I’m scared of.”

A wind starts to pick up, distant at first, but building quickly. 10 Foot’s eyes widen. “You can hear them whispering,” he says. Then he jumps into the weeds on the side of the tracks just in time to see the Thameslink go thundering past, barely a metre in front of him. You should never look a train in the eye, he told me. That’s the rule. The eyes of a train can turn you to stone. Always turn away so the driver can’t see you, and don’t move until the front passes. As the carriages roll by, 10 Foot can see passengers sleeping, heads resting against the glass. “They’re like these quotidian mythical creatures, like great big whales or dragons.”

Eventually, he arrives at a rusty ladder leading to another track about four metres above. 10 Foot begins climbing, almost becoming a child again behind his balaclava. He darts about skipping over deadly rails, putting his name on things, finding tags his friends put up over a decade ago.

There’s a hierarchy to trackside graffiti. The divide mostly lies between those who paint British Rail, where 10 Foot is now, and those who paint the Tube. “It’s like different leagues,” 10 Foot says. “Tube writers really look down on BR writers.” Tube writing is much more difficult and involves accessing dangerous maintenance shafts, but there’s an aesthetic difference too. Tube trains, as 10 Foot puts it, are “red, white and blue icons”, whereas British Rail trains look more like “hospitals on wheels. Looking at the Thameslink trains with the halogen lighting, you half-expect a heart attack patient to be wheeled out: 17.05 service to Bedford.”

The Tube is a different game entirely. “We’ve been in the tunnels before and heard the wind coming towards us and run and run and run. You just have to hope there’s an alcove or something.” There are two types of tunnels in the Tube system. The first are called “cut and cover”, through which steam trains used to run. They’re essentially canals cut through the city with a street laid on top, lots of space. The others, the round ones, are “deep lines.” There’s no space in there, although 10 Foot has an untested theory you can grab the wires on the side and wrap your body around the carriage. This seems unlikely.

© R Seventeen

Later, 10 Foot is about 15 metres up, perched on a railway bridge. He can see people walking down on the pavement below. He can hear their conversations. The Shard glows in the distance. Suddenly, 10 Foot sees a spot he hasn’t tagged before and, holding on with just one arm, dangles from the bridge, spray-can hissing in the other, a sheer drop to concrete below. Back in the day, we’d probably have parachuted people like him into occupied territory. Pulling himself back up, he spots two railway workers about 30 metres down the tracks, steadily making their way towards him.

I’m at a church in north London when I catch a glimpse of 10 Foot’s other life, the one I can’t tell you about. I once asked 10 Foot what he did for a living. He just laughed and said, “Crime.” I never asked again. But in his spare time, 10 Foot likes to write things. Things other than his own name: poems, diaries, polemics. He’s good at it; it’s what got him through prison. His girlfriend, who was hosting the event at the church, is also good at it. And they were both standing by a converted crypt, reading their stuff to an assembled crowd.

Some of the people in the audience are young graf enthusiasts, fans of his who caught the train across London to see the man they know as 10 Foot outside his mythic context. You can spot the ones who are too nervous to approach him. There are also friends from his other life, the one outside graffiti. They are older, for the most part, perhaps wiser. Some of the DDS crew are here too, and Tox hangs around afterwards, a little distracted, looking at his phone for live updates from British Rail.

We all lead multiple lives. It’s just that one of 10 Foot’s lives could kill him or lock him away. When his girlfriend jokingly compared his soft cheeks to a cherub’s bottom during her reading, I remembered thinking how there seemed to be real love between them. How awful it would be if one day the BTP got to those soft cheeks before she did.

As the evening drew to a close, 10 Foot, introduced by his real name, read an account of one of his graffiti missions. I was taken aback. His two lives were colliding. His dangerous, secretive profession had swooped in like a crow flying headfirst into a stained-glass window, shattering it to pieces. This is what his graffiti fans came all this way for, not that he cares much about that kind of thing.

The reading ended with 10 Foot describing how he once looked down and spotted an earwig crawling over a cigarette butt between two bottle caps. That’s like me, he thought to himself, before heading out to paint a dub on a particularly inaccessible bridge, walking boldly on to the rails, “Past all the ‘no entry’ signs, the ‘trespass is a crime’ signs, the ‘police may be called’ signs, the ‘£2,500 fine’ signs and the ‘three-month imprisonment’ signs.”

The account went on for a long while, but people were transfixed. This, I think, is partly why 10 Foot has been able to accrue such legendary status. It’s not just that he’s up everywhere, all over the world. It’s not just that his tag appears in movies and TV shows. He sees graffiti as an exercise in community and a refutation of the same social contract that the late David Graeber, his idol, railed against in his books. It’s bigger than him. Graffiti matters to 10 Foot on a base, almost spiritual level and, in some way, that shines through.

On St George’s Circus, just up from Elephant and Castle, sits a little restaurant called Chillies Tandoori and, outside in the cool night air, 10 Foot is shovelling a large spoon of saag aloo into his mouth. 10 Foot loves it here, probably because it’s cheap, open past 2am on weekdays and you can bring your own bottle. Such is 10 Foot’s devotion that he once risked his life to paint a large Chillies Tandoori piece on the side of an Underground train. When he sent a picture of it to the restaurant anonymously, it wasn’t put up on the wall, which probably hurt his feelings.

In another life, 10 Foot would be a brilliant food critic. He once told me he’d be an invaluable resource for FT Globetrotter, only he didn’t want foodies ruining his favourite spots. “I know the best places to eat in London. Not based on the food, just the energy: Di Lieto’s in Kennington, Sami’s in Hendon, Spuds in Kingston — best omelette on the planet, Roti Joupa in Clapham — RIP.” I ask him if he’d ever vandalise this place. “No, I wouldn’t,” he says. When I ask him why not, he looks slightly aggrieved.

The shifting line between what is and isn’t OK to tag is more important to 10 Foot than he’d like to let on. There’s an unspoken graf precept which prohibits “doing damage”, or writing on cars, trees, churches and people’s homes. Though this doesn’t hold true everywhere. Once at a leisure centre where he used to go to the gym, he flippantly scrawled his name on a mirror. Later, the manager, a Sikh man in his forties, pulled him aside. He told 10 Foot that he wasn’t going to call the police but wanted him to know that the centre was community based, and graffiti made it look grotty. He relied on the place looking smart to get funding. “People will think we’re not running it well,” the man said. The way he spoke was so outside the usual justice system paradigm that it caught 10 Foot off-guard. He later bought the centre a new mirror.

“Have you ever been underneath the Barbican Centre?” 10 Foot asks, changing the subject. “It’s like the negative of the biggest brutalist construction in London. There are all these caverns. Some points you have to crawl through. In others, there are these massive pits where, if you fell into them, you’d die in there because nobody would find you. I’ve been in all the disused stations as well, that’s part of what this is about.”

This image of the graffer-as-explorer, occupying the forgotten parts of the city, helps keep the legend alive. There are entire forums dedicated to “urban exploring”, something graffiti writers like 10 Foot resent. “These places used to be sacred. Now there are all these high-definition photos of them online and instructions of how to get inside, places like Old Brompton or Bull and Bush station, and these urb-ex people just ruined them. These were places DDS had been and kept safe. These are the armpits of London.”

“People say they know London,” he says. “But do they really? I know the roofs of every council estate. I’ve been to most prisons in London, most Tube tunnels, most stations. I’ve walked around every sewage treatment plant: Hampton waterworks, Mogden sewage treatment plant. I’m not even exaggerating. I’ve written my name there so you can go and look.” He’s getting excited now. “I’ve been to every Docklands industrial estate, all the backstreets in Marylebone. I’ve cycled the canal 30 miles from Broxbourne to Shadwell, then back to Watford. I’ve been down footpaths where there’s no graffiti; that’s saying something.”

One by one, diners begin to leave. It’s midnight. We’ve nearly got through all the beer we brought from the off-licence down the road. I’m feeling it, but 10 Foot is holding it down. I wonder out loud if he finds fame weird. “You know, rappers wear T-shirts that I made in my bathroom. That guy KSI wore one on stage recently,” he says referring to the popular influencer. “I didn’t know who he was, but apparently he’s big. It’s pretty weird for me, being known. Standing on the platform and hearing some 12-year-old telling their mum about why I’m their favourite person.”

Then his arrest comes to mind, the one that landed him in prison for more than a year. He was stupid back then and, when he’d get a new burner phone, he’d send out a tranche of texts reading: “Hello this is 10 Foot, if u r painting graf then pls save this number.” In the end, they caught him “chrome-handed” on the side of a bridge, with the Thames rolling underneath. He saw the blue light of a police speed boat coming down the river, and remembers saying something like, “Someone’s getting nicked tonight, unlucky them.” Then the spotlight hit, and he and his accomplice turned to each other like Beavis and Butt-Head. “Oh shit, it’s us!” He ended up in Charing Cross police station. Since 2019, that station has been covered in commissioned street art murals that read: “be creative.”

So when does he pack it in? It’s almost 1am by the time I finally ask him. 10 Foot finishes the last of his beer. “What seems to happen is people say, ‘Fuck the system,’ for as long as they have stamina, until they get overwhelmed by it. So I’m trying to turn that impulse into something more positive in case I have a child or something . . . ” His voice is drowned out, as someone walks past with a boombox blaring Turkish music.

It’s been months since I started profiling this bizarre criminal and, honestly, I’ve enjoyed getting to know him. Though I also worry about him. I don’t think he can sustain whatever this is. He can’t keep trying to be the best, the most up. At some point he’ll have to stop and, when that time comes, he’ll struggle to find something else. Perhaps he never will. Perhaps graffiti will finish him off like so many other graffers, turned to heroin ghosts on London’s high streets or perhaps he’ll end up an inmate again, for longer next time, or ground into paste by a train. It’s time to leave. We dispose of our empties, and 10 Foot mounts his bike. Considering his size, it’s amazing how quickly he can disappear once you say goodbye. London can swallow you up like that.

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Letter in response to this article:

Graffiti artists are like SOE operatives of yesteryear / From Rui Ramos-Pinto Coelho, Lisbon, Portugal

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