Three weeks ago, on New Year's Eve, 21-year-old Bradley Chapman was at his friend Kero's house having a few beers. "He keeps moaning how brass [rubbish] Fosters are, seeing as he's a Stella man," Kero posted on a website this week. "I ask him...Brad, what you wanna do when you get older, what are your future plans? He said he just wants 2 paint, nothing else!
"So I said, bro come on there must be other things you want out of life? He said, ah yeah there is 1 thing...A STELLA!..haha.
"He left me to link [meet up with] other people that nite and said to me that he mite not speak to me soon because he mite be getting put away... Now I only wish he did."
In fact, his mother revealed this week, Chapman had been planning to emigrate to Australia from his home in Grays, Essex, to train to be a psychiatric nurse. But last Friday night, shortly after 11pm, he and his friend Daniel Elgar, a 19-year-old postman from Southend, were spotted spraying graffiti at a London Underground depot between Barking and Upney stations in east London. They had apparently scaled the 3m-high palisade security fencing, and were planning to spraypaint the side of a train. According to the British Transport police (BTP), security guards spotted them and shouted, at which point the two men dashed out across the tracks, only to be struck by a westbound District line train. The driver reported feeling a "tremendous jolt" and immediately brought the train to a halt. Both men died at the scene from massive multiple injuries.
Keith Elgar, Daniel's father, described his son's death as "just a pointless waste of life. We are just a normal family. We have got a memory now of Dan just on a dark grimy railway track ... "
But the young men's bewildered families were not the only ones mourning this week. On message boards and websites, members of the graffiti community expressed their own shock and dismay. To their fellow graffiti writers (the term is preferred to "artists"), Chapman and Elgar were better known, respectively, as Ozone and Wants, the "tags" the two men wrote over trains, walls and buildings in Essex and London. "King Ozone, Wants, Rest in peace," read one. We will never forget you, soldiers." Despite Keith Elgar's request that no one else put themselves at risk, sprayed tributes to the pair have begun to appear across London. Two other men, aged 24 and 25, have been charged in connection with the incident - one was arrested close to the scene, the other the next day.
What drives a young man, much loved by his family and friends, with plans for his future and, in Elgar's case, a five-month-old son, to risk everything to spray a few looping letters on a train? It is not as if his handiwork will be seen by thousands. London Underground has a policy of not allowing carriages that have been vandalised to run until they have been cleaned; new graffiti-resistant paints applied to trains mean that most tags can be easily removed with no more than a high-powered jet of water.
But to Elgar and Chapman, graffiti was much more than a hobby. Chapman (Ozone) in particular was becoming well known on the graffiti scene, not so much for the inventiveness of his tags but because he was so prolific.
DVone, a close friend of Chapman's who went out tagging with him often, says his friend had recently become really active, following the breakdown of a relationship. "There was kind of a group of us, one of our mates went to prison for about eight months, and it all kind of started falling apart, Bradley just started doing it on his own. Anywhere you go, a lot of places, you'll see Ozone. He did make a name for himself. Graffiti is an underground society, a group of people that go out and make their names around and earn respect from other people that do it. That's what Ozone's done."
A close friend of Edgar (Wants), himself a former writer who didn't want to be named, described him as a charismatic and ebullient friend. "He is just a character that you would never meet again. His personality was really individual. He was incredibly popular, the type of person who made friends wherever he went."
"I was in a pub with Dan the other week, and when we found out it was karaoke night, he was so confident he just got up and started singing Kingston Town by UB40. He did like to be the centre of attention."
"Why do we do it?" says Twisted, a London-based writer who knew Chapman. "It's about respect. Obviously there's the adrenaline from painting in a tube yard, they are really hard to get into these days. There are no kids painting tube lines, it's adults only really cos it's so hard. It's probably similar to breaking into a house or something, it's such a big mission. Finding it, breaking in, painting, getting away scot free ... "
"The thing with graffiti these days, especially since there's been a few Asbos given out to graffiti artists, you don't have to be that good to do graffiti. You just have to get your name up to be respected. "
The history of graffiti can be traced to New York in the late 1970s, when a handful of writers began painting their names on the sides of trains and subway walls around Manhattan. Thanks to the relative lack of security, the city's subway was soon wallpapered with tags, though the writers soon learned to disguise their identities: Demetrius Panayiotakis, an early pioneer, called himself Taki 183 in reference to his address on 183rd St in Washington Heights. Though the scene diversified as it spread across the world, and has expanded to take in some well-known art world names, to purists, painting on trains will always be graffiti's highest calling.
'There's always been something special about trains because of that New York history," says Fiasko, a train writer who gained some notoriety in the 80s but "retired" after getting caught one too many times and narrowly escaping prison. "They're the hardest thing to do so people willing to risk it are given more respect than those that just do walls. I think the challenge of getting past all the security measures appeals to people ... You've got to work out the timing of the security patrols, avoid the CCTV, avoid the laser trips, avoid the secret pressure pads, cut the fence without triggering the vibration alarms, get to the tube and paint a nice panel, take photos and then get out without leaving any clues for BTP to raid your house the next morning.
"The rush you get from doing graffiti and the respect you get from your peer group is certainly very addictive. There are people who have been doing it for 20 years and still occasionally do pieces on tube trains even though they've been arrested many times and have families now. Like the Streets song says, 'Geezers need excitement', and if you're young then graffiti is an easy way to get it."
"It's a really dedicated thing for people to go out and risk their lives to do something entirely for free that nobody will ever see," says Amoe, a 21-year-old writer from London. "In that sense, there's nothing like graffiti that I can see." (It is not even the done thing, among absolute purists, to post pictures of your work on the internet. As Twisted says, "Those who know will know.")
Within this tight-knit brotherhood (women do paint trains but in relatively tiny numbers), the more mainstream decorative graffiti artists, particularly those who are commercially successful, are viewed with disdain. For this reason, many train taggers say they would never move onto council-sanctioned legal walls or into other artistic channels. "I never do no legal stuff," says Twisted. "People that do legal stuff are the arty farty types. You either do illegal or you do legal. It doesn't make much sense to be out one day doing a tube train and then going out the next day and painting a legal wall. You're one or the other."
The problem, of course, is that that risk can be much greater than a simple boyish thrill. The first person to die in a graffiti-related incident on British train lines was John Koporo, 11, whose clothing was caught on a train passing through Kilburn Park station in 1987 and who was dragged to his death. The following year Gary Baxter, a 16-year-old called "Rase", slipped while fleeing security guards and was killed on live rails. The names of others who have died - Blis, Zone, Vizo - are legendary among writers. "People still put [Rase's] name up now," says Twisted. "I think people will do that for Ozone and Wants."
Fiasko describes some of the risks he took when he was still writing. "One way of getting to tag trains was a method called doing a 'back jump'. This when you hide near a station or lay up, wait til a train pulls in, then quickly do as much painting as you can before the train rolls out again. It's quite dangerous as it in- volves crossing tracks and being around moving trains. There was a kid killed last year at Acton doing this sort of thing.
"I had quite a few near escapes myself in the past. A couple of us discovered that at one central London tube station there was a short section of disused track that led off from the active track. If you jumped out the driver's cabin at the back of a train you could run down this tunnel and hide in it before the train pulled out. When a train pulled into the platform you could run up behind it and put up a few tags and return to hide before it pulled out. I would spend hours sitting in this tunnel tagging as many trains as I could but it was extremely dangerous. I tripped over on many occasions, often falling extremely close to the live rails and once hit my leg so hard I couldn't walk for three hours.
"Another time when doing back jumps I fell off the top of a fence and ended up hanging from the top of it next to a tube train which had just pulled in. The passengers must have had a shock seeing someone suspended upside down looking in though the window at them."
Really, I'll be honest," says DVone, "when we are going down the train lines and walking down the tunnel, it's always in the back of our heads that a train can come, you can get electrocuted, you can die. There's always that pressure. But it doesn't stop you."
The BTP has had a dedicated graffiti squad since the 1980s; it won't disclose the number of officers working solely on capturing writers, but teams will frequently work for months, using profiling, covert surveillance, even handwriting analysis, to track taggers or entire crews. London Underground spends £20m and 70,000 hours each year removing graffiti on the network. Over the Christmas weekend alone last year, 63 graffiti "attacks" were reported nationally. Reported offences in 2005/6 were up 28% on the previous year.
The BTP estimates there are around 200 "serious graffiti vandals" around the country. It estimates that it would cost £38m to replace every tube window that has been damaged by etching.
In November, nine men from south London, aged between 18 and 25, were charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage after a seven-month BTP investigation. It is alleged the men committed 120 graffiti offences over two years. Their case was handled as a "level two" offence, one step down from serious organised crime. Taggers are increasingly given Asbos banning them from carrying pens, for example. Daniel Halpern, who as Tox has been described as the tube's most prolific tagger, was given an Asbo banning him from the underground in 2003. Robert Lee, a south-London writer known as Ribz, was jailed for three and a half years in December last year despite having "retired". For damage valued at more than £5,000, a convicted graffiti writer can be jailed for up to 10 years.
And yet, despite last weekend's tragedy and the police's best efforts, determined taggers insist they will not be deterred. Some suggest the tragedy may even spur writers on to take more risks. "A lot of people are getting very angry," says Twisted. "I think the whole graffiti scene sees that it could be a game, but some people now will call it war. Some people will do stuff to wind the police up. Writing stuff like, 'This Ain't Over BTP'."
As for his friend, says DVone, "People are always going to remember him because he was Ozone. People will always have a lot of respect for him. That's the truth in graffiti. And that's the reason I do it. I know when I die I won't be forgotten."