Thursday 22 September 2011

The Banksy of Book Publishing: Echo and The Underground Graffiti Sketchbook (The Ilex Press, 2011)

(NB: This post also appears on the blog for The Ilex Press, the Lewes-based illustrated and pop culture publisher of which I'm managing editor. I'm cross-posting it here partly for posterity and partly because I've got nowt else to post today.)

By and large, Ilex's authors are an agreeable, accommodating bunch, always willing to speak to the press or make themselves available for oversubscribed signing sessions. But there is one Ilex author who shuns the spotlight; who exists in a shadowy world of half-truths and obfuscation, his identity shrouded in mystery. That author is "Echo", the man (or possibly woman; who can tell? I've only ever communicated with him/her via email) behind the recently published The Underground Graffiti Sketchbook.

If you're not familiar with this particular tome, it is, in essence, and as its title suggests, a sketchbook, comprising over fifty line-drawings of classic Metropolitan Line and Hammersmith & City Line – or "Big Met" and "Little Met" – train carriages, which fold out to a great big long tube train and on which aspiring graffiti artists can scrawl their tags and designs for masterpieces. There are a few sample pieces to get you started, along with a couple of characters. But there's also an essay detailing the history of British graffiti, from the mid-1980s until the present day, written by a man (or woman...) who was there: the aforementioned Echo.

Little is known about Echo, but many and legion are the tales of his graffiti career. There's the time he was chased down a train line in the dead of night by the transport police, their torches bobbing towards him as he pelted alongside the live rail, eventually tumbling down a bank and scrambling over a barbed wire fence to make his escape. There's the occasion he had to hide in a bush to elude a squad car, and the time he was stopped by a couple of coppers whilst carrying a bag full of spray-paint.

But I think my favourite Echo story dates from early in his career, and concerns a piece he and his crew spray-painted one night on a pristine whitewashed brick wall. The location was scouted out by a member of the crew, who at that time was infatuated with a then-popular pop princess. Unwisely perhaps (they were all very young), Echo and the rest of the crew agreed to do a piece dedicated to this pop waif on the wall their crewmember had found. Come nightfall, the crew gained access over a back fence from an alley backing onto a terrace of suburban homes, so Echo had no idea what the building – a 1960s brutalist Bauhaus affair – was. The piece was completed in a few hours (Echo did the character, his particular speciality), and that was that.

Cut to a few days later, and Echo decides to go and check out the piece in situ. Retracing his steps down the back alley, he's met by the glorious sight of the crew's slightly embarrassing spray-painted shrine to a pop star. But there, in front of the wall, are what looks to be hundreds of uniformed schoolgirls, engaged in lunchtime games of hopscotch and huddled in conspiratorial groups in a tarmacked playground. The wall, it turns out, was propping up the roof of a girls' comprehensive. To this day, Echo isn't sure whether that made the piece even more embarrassing or strangely apposite.

Echo is mulling over a further book detailing further episodes from his graffiti career, but in the meantime, you can read his appreciation of the UK graffiti scene in The Underground Graffiti Sketchbook, and doodle your own pieces on its pristine train-carriage pages.

Which is certainly better than writing on the wall of a girls' school...


  1. The coppers?

    "...the time he was stopped by a couple of coppers carrying a bag full of spray-paint."