Darren Cullen, aka Ser, has come a long way with graffiti and then some. He started writing graffiti in 1983 even before he knew it was called graffiti. Through a fortunate series of accidents Darren likely became one of the first professional graffiti artists in the UK. A veteran writer and consummate businessman, today Darren runs the graffiti commission agency Graffiti Kings. Why then, after so many years of legal writing (and government endorsement) was he arrested in the run-up to the Olympics and banned from the Olympic area? There’s something fishy happening here but Ser’s not sweating it, he’s gone fishing instead!
Photos included in this article are mostly Graffiti Kings commissions and feature artists such as Ser, Aroe, Cheo and more.
In 1983 two school friends came back from New York to Croydon (where I lived in South London) and they’d adopted cool nicknames. I was a kid so naturally I took a nickname too (mine was ‘Flash’). We would scribble our names on school benches, desks, etc. That was before I’d even heard of anything called graffiti. When the Style Wars movie came out in 1984 we all caught the bug and started learning about spraypaint! We’d pause the movie and try and copy the letters! I was only 10 or 11 so everything we painted was in our local area – Mum wouldn’t let me go much further!
Although as an artist I’m known as ‘Ser’ that was originally a crew name. It stood for South East Rockers because that was our part of London! It wasn’t a very official or organized crew - it was very open crew and lots of people used to put up the letters SER by their pieces.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the graffiti craze started to die out, making way for things like acid house. People dropped off but new crews formed. We rocked crews like MJS (Mad Juvenilles) and TCN (Tough City Network), which was Steam 156’s Crew (Steam 156 is the pioneering UK graffiti documenter behind www.aerosolplanet.com). Others writers had stopped putting up ‘SER’ so I took it over and used it as my own name. Back then we’d all meet up every weekend at the writer’s bench in Croydon. We really started getting serious in late 1980s and early 1990s. The scene was very friendly back then and it still had a lot of the classic hip-hop unity spirit.
There were the illegal writers, the bombers, and then there were the guys who painted more legal pieces like me. I was there for the art! That said, I did have some problems with the law. In the early 1980s I was caught by a policewoman with my pen in hand about to write on a wall. She took my pen and told me to clear off!
In the mid-1990s the British Transport Police knocked on my door and arrested me for criminal damage. They showed me all these photos but they had nothing to do with me. That went no further – I wasn’t charged. You have to remember that graffiti was (and still is) a relatively small global community, especially in any given part of the city. The police sometimes didn’t know who they were arresting! Before this year I’d never been charged nor spent a day in jail for graffiti.
The Start of a Career
My two younger brothers were also involved in graffiti but they’d taken more of the illegal route. One of my brothers was arrested (when he was very young) and I had to pick him up from the station. The police were pretty cool about it and said that there were nearby graffiti workshops in Mitcham – they suggested that we should go down there and they gave us dates.
When we did go to Mitcham it turned out that there wasn’t a workshop. Kids had been told to go down there by the police because of a confused message – there was a probation service next to the youth club and the youth club had talked about planning these workshops. Between the probation service and the police the message had become that these workshops were actually happening! A man from the youth club had heard my name being called by a lot of the kids over previous weeks and he asked me if I would teach the workshop. I accepted – they paid me and gave me spraypaint!
By week two we were already turning kids away – there were already 30 kids packed into the venue and the ventilation wasn’t great! Teaching one day a week became two days a week and eventually five days a week, twice a day! The youth club was delighted – the sheer number of kids that came through the doors made it easier for them to apply for funding! Other council youth services (like Croyden, Sutton and Lambeth) all asked me to run workshops. My time was limited so I started asking my friends to teach as well!
What happened next was crazy! The manager of the West Croydon train station walks into the youth club one day and asked for me. He had had a problem with kids vandalizing his station but he didn’t call the police; he got to know the kids by the first names and wanted to help them. He asked me if I would work with the kids who were vandalizing the train station. He let us paint the outside of Wallington station. That’s right – the manager of a train station asked graffiti writers to paint a station. I called in writers like Solo-1, She-1, Eine, Oker, Rough, Mear, Dane, Astek and others (all legends) to help paint the station! Free paint, why not!
On set at a Wretch 32 music video
A little while after the same manager got in touch with me again and said the murals had been untouched and unvandalised. The public loved them so he asked if we would paint some more. So next we painted Morden next.
The train company Connex wanted to employ give me a job painting stations full-time! So for three days, to get me on the payroll as a station attendant, I stood in East Croydon station blowing a train whistle to tell drivers when they could take the trains out of the station. After that I started painting! In all I think we paitned some 15 different stations and a lot of legendary London writers were involved (guys like Fume, Diet, Zomby, etc.). After Connex I worked as a consultant for Railtrack and Thameslink doing the same thing: working with ‘vandals’ to paint stations!
The local authorities had noticed that train vandalism in the area I was working had dropped markedly. A government department did a report on my program. They moved me to Kent to see if it the program could be replicated. It was! We painted stations there too and there was the same effect – less vandalism. I was officially endorsed by the government!
I still feel that if you give most ‘vandals’ a chance to do something creative they’ll do it – they all want to better themselves. Most guys just don’t get the chance.
By this point I was in my early 20s and still wearing a hoodie. I was invited to a meeting of rail industry representatives to see about taking the program national. At the end of a long-meeting they decided against it. Maybe they were scared that the graffiti cleaning industry would disappear if the program went national.
After that meeting I quit working for the rail companies (that was 1996). I worked on other commission jobs ever since. A few years ago I registered the Graffiti Kings website and that’s how many people see what I do today. We’ve worked for loads of famous clients, from Microsoft, to Diesel, Red Bull, Calvin Klein, etc. Basically, anyone who’s anyone!
Excuse me Ser, please come with us
On Tuesday 17th July I got a phone call from my Mum saying the British Transport Police had been to her house looking for me. My first thought was that they wanted me to be an expert witness in court because I’ve done that before. But my Mum said they were here to arrest me for criminal damage I’d done between 2007 and 2012. That’s ridiculous. I’m completely legit. I’m a family man now with a company. I’ve done no damage at all. Anway, 20 minutes later 5 BTP officers knocked on my door and arrested me. They made various accusations and I said ‘there’s no way I’ve done any of that’.
I’d heard of other people being arrested for trumped up charges recently. I asked one officer if this had anything to do with the Olympics. He just looked at me and smiled. The BTP seized spraycans, laptops, iPhone, iPads, paint nozzles and magazines – basically everything they could put into bags. They took photos of everything else.
They then took me down to the police station and called me in for an interview. I said I didn’t need a lawyer because I’ve done nothing wrong. They then handed me a sheet of questions, many of which related to me registering a website for Frontline Magazine (a UK magazine that documents graffiti). I built that website for a client then handed them all the details and rights to them – it has nothing to do with me.
I told the police very simple “My name’s Darren Cullen I’m a professional graffiti artist and I’m endorsed by the government.” At no point in the interview did they ask me about criminal damage and they didn’t show me any photos of the crimes they accused me of from 2007 to 2012. They then let me go on bail to come back for a trial on 14th Nov 2012. In the meantime they granted me these conditions of bail:
- Bail condition 1 – I’m not allowed to travel on any UK railway because, they say, I’m being investigated for criminal damage on railways. They didn’t show me any photos of criminal damange nor did they discuss with me when they interviewed me. The ban has put up my travel expenses because now I have to travel by car.
- Bail condition 2 – I’m not to be in possession of any spraypaint or marker pens. They said I don’t need them for work (but clearly I do).
- Bail condition 3 – there was a list of 6 names and I’m not allowed to contact any of them. With me and another guy they mentioned in the interview there is likely to be at least 8 people who’ve been arrested I’d guess. It makes me doubt the official line where BTP is saying they have only arrested four people.
- Bail condition 4 – I’m not allowed to go within 1 mile of anything related to the Olympic Games. The reason they’ve given is ‘to keep the integrity of the Olympic Games in tact’.
Now I’m being represented by human rights lawyers. The bail conditions mean I can’t work. I’m stuck here in Kent scratching my bollocks. If can’t work for four months I won’t be able to pay my mortgage and I’ll lose my house. I’d be back where I was 20 years ago.
Recently I had an email from some yarn-bombers who had heard of other yarn-bombers being banned from the Olympics because the group they were associated with had ‘bombers’ in the name! They’ve since changed their name to yarn-stormers! They wrap yarn around benches for fucks sake. If it wasn’t so pitiful this whole farce would be funny.
This interview was written by Lee Bofkin, based on conversations with Ser. There may be inaccuracies and mis-quotes and the stated opinions may not truly reflect Ser’s views of events. Global Street Art and Lee Bofkin accept no liability for any inaccuracies. Similarly, the possibility of mis-quotes nullifies and value this article may have in a court of law. No part of this interview may be reproduced without express prior written consent.