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Desire Lines: ROID traces the rugged paths to forbidden territory

© Theo Cottle

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Everyday life in a major city is an automatic process. Once your daily routine is set, it becomes second nature to follow established routes – to live between a limited network of tube stations and bus stops, and to only venture to new terrain with the heads-down logic of a Citymapper route plan. But even in the age of the internet not every journey we take is determined by an algorithm. People are constantly personalising the environment around them in small but significant ways, discovering new barriers to break down, and leaving traces in their wake for others to pick up on.

Every city bears the marks of these unofficial, unplanned journeys. Known as ‘desire lines’, they can be of anything from a hole in a hedgerow that’s been used as a shortcut, to a well-worn ribbon of dirt running across a patch of grass. They are the subject of a new piece of work by ROID, a British graffiti artist and member of the world famous MSK crew. In recent years, he’s translated his work into printed publications, gallery exhibitions and, it’s probably worth noting, a really good Instagram account. He’s currently building an installation for an exhibition at NikeLab 1948 London, which he was commissioned to create as an accompaniment to the re-launch of NikeLab’s ACG collection.

Entitled Don’t Fence Me Out, the piece will draw on his experiences of painting in various cities around the world, where it became normal for him to follow paths carved out in unconventional directions and climb through mangled fences that had been battered by previous graffiti writers aiming to reach the same spot. “What always interested me was the idea of the number of different people using the same routes and entrances and holes despite these places being off the beaten track and in highly secure areas,” he explains.

“In a lot of these places, the ways into train depots and holes in palisade fences are pieces of art in themselves,” Gates continues. “They display a sort of history or timeline of when holes were cut, and then security in turn patched things up trying to reinforce the fence. Sometimes you could have up to four or five layers of different types of fence welded together like some sort of galvanised steel monster, and it’s a sort of physical documentation of the constant cat and mouse game between graffiti writers and security or the companies in control of the rail system. I wanted to find a way to relay that idea.”

"Holes in palisade fences are pieces of art in themselves"

Sharing ‘desire lines’ doesn’t necessarily denote a sense of solidarity. With more and more painters sharing territory, and the pressure of negotiating uncertain terrain, there’s always potential for the atmosphere to sour. “Recently, we had a situation in
a well known spot in Holland where we turned up via a particular route to a cut in the fence, only to find two writers waiting by the fence watching three guys who were already painting waiting for them to either finish or get chased so they could go into paint themselves. Being the third group in line was a strange position to be in… I’ve come across other people plenty of times, and it’s definitely not often a ‘handshake, fun times’ moment. Everyone is there to do their thing and if someone else is trying to paint the same spot as you, you’re not gonna be that happy about it.

“On the flip side, graffiti is one of very few subcultures in the world where if you’re an active person you could spin a globe, let your finger land on a city and be able to find someone through a friend or a friend of a friend that would most likely have a place for you to sleep and take you to paint. Since you’re essentially engaging in illegal activities with people you barely know, there is a massive amount of trust required… That can lead to some really good friendships with people you’d have otherwise never met.”


But there’s the theory that such positive experiences are harder to come by in London, and that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to gain the access required to produce high quality work. “Everything is being redeveloped. I’ve spent the past 15 years figuring out how to get into spots throughout this city and it’s getting harder every year. What we do really lack here is space. Nothing sits around for very long, as soon as something becomes free, it’s quickly snapped up and built on. As a result you’re a lot less likely to find abandoned sites and forgotten about spots than you would most other cities around the world.

I think there are always things to explore here, but it’s dependent on how far you want to go with it.” The NikeLab ACG Collection – paired with ROID’s functional stripped back style due to its focus on urban utility – is a world away from the baggy jeans and hoodies that typified the 90s graffiti writer stereotype. I’m curious to hear if the caricatured idea of a graffiti artist still bears any resemblance to reality? “Graffiti seems to have always had this confused and frankly strange link with hip-hop,” he argues, confirming that functional, technical apparel, stylish but “nothing too precious” is what graffiti artists more typically wear today. “As far as I’m aware the only correlation was that the two subcultures existed at the same time and were slung together in the same documentary [Style Wars].”

The aesthetic shift here is visible in the content of what ROID produces, too. It’s certainly an entirely modern vision, and what’s most striking is the coexistence of a contemporary, almost computerised clarity with an insistence on working entirely by hand. It’s a boiled down aesthetic borne of painting on in brutalist buildings and abandoned factories “on raw concrete with as little and as basic materials as possible – generally a bucket of white paint, a roller and a few cans of black spray paint…” There are also other influences. “Japanese graphic and print design… My dad introduced me to [designer, illustrator and printmaker] Tadanori Yokoo through an amazing book he brought back from Japan when I was young. You could place him somewhere between pop and psychadelic art, but with very solid graphic design elements”. For anyone familiar with ROID’s murals, it’s unsurprising to hear that this designer made an impact.

It’s exactly this stripped back, off-kilter style that continues to see ROID stand out as one of the paramount names in street art, even if he now works from within an exhibition space. While Don’t Fence Me Out will take place within this more curated, less transient context, the memories and stories it speaks to represent the multitude of broken fences and malformed gateways to spots from across Europe, and the anonymous writers who construct them. One thing ROID’s development here demonstrates is the ongoing relevanceof graffiti as a medium in 2015; like any interesting piece of work that comes from an artist whose spent years in the game, it’ll be interesting to hear soon from another generation of writers ready to follow their own path.

The NikeLab ACG collection is available from 3 December at NikeLab 1948 and online at nike.com/NikeLab.

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