First Person: Paul ‘Moose’ Curtis

I’m known as Moose, the inventor of reverse graffiti. Instead of spray painting graffiti, I write messages and create images in polluted areas – usually on dirty walls – where I can make a bright contrast between what’s clean and what was dirty. I’ve been doing this for 11 years now, and have seen many other people around the world take up what I do. I’m from Manchester originally, but at the moment I’m working in San Francisco, in the Broadway Tunnel. I’ve asked members of the public to send me images of trees, and I’m using recycled plywood stencils and rainwater in a pressure washer to create a forest of trees in the dirt of this filthy road tunnel that has never been shown any love. It looks ghostly – the clean wall shines through and the trees are like a reminder of what was there.

I don’t actually like the phrase “reverse graffiti” now, although I came up with it myself when I first started doing this. People write “clean me” on the backs of vans, but for me the seed of it all was planted in my mind when I was working as a kitchen porter in my teens and cleaned a mark off the restaurant wall. It showed how dirty the place was, but it got me thinking.

I went to art college with Damien Hirst, and shared a flat with him, but then went to work in the rock and roll industry as a roadie and stage builder. I’m 46 years old now. Back in 1999, I promoted a record on the small label I run by cleaning its name on to a tiled wall in Leeds city centre using only a sock. People were intrigued by the message, which glittered like chrome, and I started making art like this more seriously.

Criminal damage occurs if it is going to cost money to return the surface to the condition it was in before – but I return part of the wall to its original condition. It’s a cleaning and restoration process: I call it refacing, not defacing.

The police have stopped me many times, but I explain that I haven’t damaged anything except the dirt. I haven’t left marks, I’ve removed them. If they want to arrest the people who made the marks, then they should arrest the people who create pollution. I have been arrested but never charged, and most of the time the police officers just go, “Wow. That’s really cool.”

I have actually worked for the police, on an anti-gun campaign. I’ve also worked for Transport for London, the Greater London Authority, Greenpeace and Crisis. During the election we tried to write “Change the politics – save the climate” on the Embankment wall. We only got halfway, because the tide came up fast and the river police chased our boat, although eventually they let us go.

I have done corporate work – beginning with the launch of the Xbox – although I think it’s ironic that corporations would want to write their names in the dirt they make. Other people have made money out of what I do without my involvement. I think that’s disrespectful. People have jumped in on this so much that a dirty wall is now seen as advertising space.

Money’s not what motivates me. Here in San Francisco I am funding my own work. I like the reactions it gets. I like to keep things clean – I don’t have OCD, but I’m close. It does take a certain kind of weirdo to spend five hours cleaning a massive message on to a dusty ringroad tunnel wall while people are abusing you in passing cars and it’s really cold. But every mark I make is an environmental statement, because it allows you to see how dirty the world is.

I don’t look on myself as a great artist, although I do think the process is beautiful, romantic and subversive. If you take away the illegal part of writing a message on a wall and replace it with something as honourable as cleaning, you throw people’s objections back at them. It becomes clear they just have a problem with other people expressing themselves. That’s the art in it. That’s why I love what I do.

A retrospective of the calligraphic works of Tsang Tsou-choi is being held in Hong Kong until May 31. Tsang, who died in 2007 at the age of 85, used to tie his brushes and ink to his crutches and created at least 50,000 outdoor pieces. The British Transport Police maintain a national database of “tags”, the identifying “signatures” of graffiti writers, which are used to support prosecutions, usually for criminal damage.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.