Spray Painting the City: Edinburgh’s graffiti scene

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My walks through Edinburgh have been changed irreversibly since a friend began to point out the names sprayed and inked on every wall, electrical box, bin, and road sign that we passed. Once you start paying attention, you see the same names everywhere. Some pieces appear and then vanish in a matter of days, either blasted away by a pressure washer or painted over by a rival artist. Some stay for so long they become part of the landscape, gradually fading into their concrete canvas. 

“It’s always been a part of the game. Either the council buffs it, or other people decide to go over it,” says LaToy, a graffiti artist who has been active in Edinburgh since the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally from Naples, LaToy spent her teens and early 20s marking the Italian city with her ironic pseudonym; a ‘toy’, in the graffiti scene, being someone who lacks technical skill with a spray can. 

This longstanding game of cat and mouse between the city’s council and graffiti artists has recently garnered an increase in attention from local authorities, with a city summit held in January 2024. Moreover, last year, Edinburgh City Council invested an additional £750,000 in anti-graffiti measures last year. As noted in a FOI response from Edinburgh City Council, ‘non-offensive’ graffiti service requests have consistently decreased since their pandemic peak in 2020; despite this, a regional MSP for Lothian, Miles Briggs, described graffiti’s presence in the city as a “growing problem” and “antisocial behaviour”.

“There is some stuff that is just purely antisocial [hate messages] but a lot of stuff they deem as antisocial isn’t done with an antisocial mentality,” says Craig Robertson, lifelong graffiti artist and shop manager at Edinburgh’s only street art focused supply store, Mainline. “Most of the time it’s just people making their mark on a world that, quite often, doesn’t really give a shit about them.” The view of graffiti as a problem to be dealt with, rather than a mode of self-expression, often glosses over questions we must ask ourselves about what kind of art we deem acceptable. When speaking to Edinburgh street artists, one particular point kept coming back to me: who likes looking at adverts? 

In all urban areas, we are bombarded with, what LaToy calls “visual pollution”: endless billboards, posters, and signs plastered across our view. Anyone who has taken a stroll down Middle Meadow Walk during the Fringe can attest to the sheer quantity of signage packed into that quarter-mile path. And yet, it is the painting of names and messages, sometimes with hours of planning and execution behind them, that is seen as mindless vandalism. “Is it really antisocial? Or are we afraid of things we don’t understand […] obsessed with everything being neat and nice at all times and accepting literal golden shits,” remarks LaToy, referencing the recently erected St James Quarter’s controversial spiral motif. “But no one asked me.” 

“It’s a DIY ethic,” says Robertson. “It’s [saying], ‘I don’t need you to tell me that I’m a good artist to put my work out there.. I know I’ve got what it takes. I’m going to put that out there.’” The very nature of graffiti is transgressive – it puts self-expression directly in your face, whether you like it or not. Historically, graffiti has been an artform fuelled by people who lack the resources to bring their work into galleries or even pay for their own studio space. Its presence and production has pushed against gentrification and middle-class anxieties surrounding house prices and ‘respectable’ neighbourhoods. But this relationship between art and its environment does not necessarily have to be adversarial.  

For LaToy, graffiti and street art can improve community spaces and bring people together. “Especially when you come from a shitty neighbourhood – like this is the space we live in. We make it ours. It’s free art for people,” she says. “You invest a lot of time and even money into a graffiti piece which you give to your neighbours, in a sense.” This sentiment isn’t entirely lost on those involved in city planning, with legal walls and ‘tolerance zones’ – areas where local authorities allow graffiti and street art to exist unpoliced – becoming increasingly common in Edinburgh. 

With the help of Mainline’s work with local authorities, Marine Parade in Newhaven became the UK’s longest legal wall in 2018. Talking of the success of the legal wall, Robertson recollects: “I went down [to Marine Parade] to take photos and there was a woman that walked along, and she was on the phone, and she [said] ‘It’s amazing, I don’t feel afraid to walk down here now.’” 

Legal spaces have an ability to uplift areas left behind by city rejuvenation schemes and are an effective compromise between local authorities and street artists. However, their existence draws a clear line between acceptable and unacceptable expression. Legal graffiti is presented as street art and unsanctioned painting is regarded as vandalism – and nothing more. 

With increased public spending on cleaning services and legal walls now framed as a tool to combat vandalism, it’s important to understand unsanctioned graffiti as an integral part of the artform. As LaToy says: “Tags are frowned upon, but the reality is that humans have been making marks since the beginning of time. And it’s all part of the same process.” 

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