Humans have been writing on walls since the dawn of time. Graffiti—a stripped-back, DIY form of street art that decorates our cities and brings colour to the otherwise monotonous, monochromatic urban sprawl—is the modern-day reincarnation of this ancient act. From overhead train lines to high-street shutters, this form of art is often vilified as vandalism, despite the rich and complex subculture that surrounds it.
Graffiti is a powerful form of self-expression, a creative outlet and a means to challenge social norms. And yet, despite this, the subculture and community that surrounds it are often male-dominated. But why is that? SCREENSHOT spoke with two London-based women graffiti writers about their experience in the scene, what draws them to graffiti, and how we can encourage more women to pick up the spray can.
“I needed a release: some kind of kick, an act of rebellion,” writer and music journalist, Verity Raphael, told SCREENSHOT, recalling the first moment she found graffiti and the community that surrounds the subculture. “I was invited to be a lookout one day during lockdown while a group of six boys did an operation in Soho, London. They all had scooters, balaclavas and timed it perfectly.”
“It was so exciting, especially in the middle of lockdown, I hadn’t felt anything like that in a while,” she continued. “That’s what first inspired me to start sketching in my notebook.”
London-based artist and photographer, Rahael Ross, on the other hand, notes that there “wasn’t a particular moment” where she found graffiti and the underground subculture surrounding it. Instead, she was gradually exposed to the art form through squat parties as a teenager and exploring derelict, post-industrial areas of the capital.
“I also used to walk around Hackney Wick—when it wasn’t as gentrified as it is now, it was just old warehouses and car MOT centres—and it was covered in graffiti,” Ross told SCREENSHOT. “I’ve always loved art too, but I never put the two together until Verity [Raphael] suggested I should do graffiti as well. Once I started it, I asked myself: ‘Why haven’t I been doing this the whole time?’ To me, it just feels really natural, and it’s really fun as well.”
Like every form of art, graffiti is transient: moulded by its environment, geography and culture of where it’s written. While any graffiti writer is free to create whatever they please, they often develop a style that is drawn from influences: whether that be where they’re from, where they’ve been or the type of message they’re trying to send.
This is a multifaceted and criminally overlooked subculture: from the classic bubble lettering, which has links to areas like The Bronx, to the angular and brutalist style of Pixação (or Pichação), a distinctive Brazilian form of street writing derived from heavy metal album covers, often cryptic and rooted in political protest.
“The Brazil scene has really inspired me,” Raphael adds, who took a trip there with Rahael in 2016, immersing themselves in the vibrant Brazilian graffiti culture. “I’m really inspired by the women writers, like Rxis and Baby Babi. They’re not trying to hide their femininity, they embrace it. Whereas, in London, some women writers try to be masculine in their style, which is fine, but for me, I’ve been inspired by graffiti writers who embrace their feminine side, and those writers, in particular, do it beautifully.”
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“Personally I’m a bubble-style girl. I’ve always loved it,” Raphael continues, admitting that her style goes against the grain of the often more angular graffiti seen in London. “I don’t think I have a particular style,” Ross shared. “But I definitely think it’s more angular than Verity [Raphael]’s. I try and change my letters up. I tend not to stick to the same thing as I find it gets boring. I often find myself incorporating other pieces of work into my own little bits.”
“All of graffiti is a reference to each other. It’s definitely okay to take influence from different styles,” Raphael agreed. “The beauty of it is, to start graffiti, you literally just need a pen—it doesn’t even have to be a fancy pen,” she continues, recalling the “learning curve” she experienced when starting her journey in graffiti just a few years ago.
“Then, once you’re ready to work up to a spray can, find a legal wall. Or don’t if you want to do it illegally, which I don’t personally encourage,” she added. “I’ve had a lot of friends being put in prison, taken to court and stuff, I’m not about that life personally but, obviously, I respect the real [illegal] graffiti culture.”
Although the act of graffiti is accessible at its core, the subculture and community surrounding it remains very masculine. And while there is a strong network of women flying the flag for diversity, both Raphael and Ross note there is still work to be done to increase the representation of women and marginalised genders in the scene.
“Looking back, I started my graffiti journey in a very masculine way, helping an operation that was made up completely of men,” Raphael admits, recalling how although the traditional scene in London has a lot of “toxic masculine traits,” there were also men who supported her when she was a toy—a term used to describe a beginner graffiti writer.
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“When I was just starting out, I had some great mentors like Cemer, Kaps, Bloke, Ingo, Ink, Skool, and Zonk who encouraged me, which was so important and powerful. I’m grateful for them, even if my path now has been encouraging other women and bringing them into the scene,” Raphael added.
More recently, Raphael has shifted her energy away from the masculine scene, preferring to paint with women who have never picked up a spray can before. “That’s been a beautiful experience,” she describes. “It’s almost like a whole new philosophy to the traditional [and more masculine] version of graffiti. I find it a completely different experience, different energy—it’s all about encouragement, and helping each other a bit more.”
Raphael likens the often hyper-masculine subculture of graffiti to a “competitive sport” where rivalries and beef are rife. And it’s true. Spend a week observing the ever-changing shutters on the streets of London and you’ll see just how ephemeral this form of art, and the subculture around it, is.
“It can get really aggressive, with people painting over each other all the time,” Raphael remarks. “You notice people often write nasty stuff too. This isn’t everyone [in the community] of course, but I think graffiti traditionally does attract people who have suffered from difficult pasts and don’t necessarily have the means to express themselves [in any other way].”
There is also space for the community to grow and diversify too, and “it’s important to encourage that,” Raphael adds. “A lot of the people who make up the traditional graffiti scene are white men, which is really interesting because they obviously have less of a risk with police than other groups,” she continues. “On the other hand, there are many people from marginalised groups who may not necessarily feel like the graffiti scene is a space for them. But, by creating a safe supportive environment, like meeting up at a legal wall, we can inspire them to pick up a can and write something revolutionary.”
With local authorities across the UK, and the world, continuing to crack down on graffiti and street art blanketed as vandalism, the rich and complex subculture surrounding the act of writing on walls remains misunderstood. In Ross’ eyes, though, that’s what helps shape the art form and the community around it.
“There’s definitely a stigma around graffiti writing, but I don’t think it needs changing. The stigma is what makes graffiti, graffiti. The fact that there is a stigma, and it is mostly illegal, is what makes it underground,” she notes.
“The communities involved in it wouldn’t be the same if the stigma was removed as well. I don’t think graffiti should be mainstream and liked by everyone—because then it wouldn’t be graffiti,” Ross concluded.
“Password?” a muffled voice asks from behind the door. I’ve arrived at the residence of Captain Beany, a man who has dedicated his life to baked beans—going as far as to transform his council flat into an operational baked bean museum. Taken aback, I reply: “Baked Beans?” The door, hanging a blue plaque plastered with the words ‘The Baked Bean Museum of Excellence’, swings open. I’m hit with a luminous wall of orange.
Captain Beany welcomes me into his home dressed in a tangerine suit, tinted glasses and high-heeled boots to match. His head is completely bald and his eyebrows shaven, replaced by tattoos of baked beans where hair once was. It seemed like he had prepared for my arrival—or perhaps this was just his everyday attire.
“Take a seat, Jack,” he says as he leads me into his living room. The space is, of course, mind-numbingly orange, littered with artefacts of his past achievements. A shelf running across the length of the wall displays countless trophies, newspaper cuttings and photographs. The wall adjacent hosts a large canvas of Captain Beany himself, akin to a historical renaissance painting.
He clocks my sensory overload as I slump back on the—you guessed it—orange sofa, offering me a cup of tea. “It’s a lot… I could write a book if I had the time,” he adds. Although his eccentric personality may have initially caught me off guard, his warm Welsh hospitality soon has me at ease.
“This museum is full of baked bean artefacts from across the world,” Beany beams, touring me around his flat. “To this day, people donate things to me, and I cherish them.” It’s clear Beany takes great pride in his home—with meticulous attention to detail paid to every object—from the orange toilet brush to the Heinz branded toaster.
His spare room, however, is the star of the show: hosting a collection of early 1990s bean memorabilia, countless limited edition Heinz cans and even his own baked bean-themed coffin—with the phrase ‘Rest In Beans’ etched into the wood.
The Baked Bean Museum of Excellence sits at the epicentre of Port Talbot, a small post-industrial town in South Wales. The town’s mammoth local steelworks, which is one of the largest in Europe, protrudes against the horizon. “I was brought up here and to this day embellish this town. It’s a lovely, tight-knit community,” he says.
“The Museum now has relevance, it has a special connotation—it’s the highest rated attraction on Trip Advisor in the local area,” Beany continues. “For me, it’s like a theatre: I’m the main actor and you are the audience. I love nothing more than entertaining people from all walks of life. I never know who’s going to walk through that front door, but I make it my mission to accommodate them and leave them full of beans.”
Captain Beany—formally known as Barry Kirk before legally changing his name back in 1991—found his life’s calling for beans, and with it his new identity, in the 1980s. “I’d always love drama, dressing up and stuff like that,” he recalls. “At the time, I was working for BP and wanted to put something back into the community.”
“I was walking down the street and saw an album cover of Roger Daltrey in a charity shop, he was in a bath of baked beans and I thought to myself ‘If it’s good enough for Roger, it’s good enough for me’.” Unknown to Beany at the time, this was one of the most formative moments of his life—unearthing his dedication (and obsession) to baked beans, all the while raising money for charitable causes.
Ironically, our meeting was 36 years to the day of his first baked bean stunt—spending 100 hours in a bath of baked beans to raise money for a local charity that helps children with special needs. “You can’t really rehearse that kind of thing,” he notes, recalling the moment in September 1986 when he first stepped into the bean-filled bath.
“You literally have to go in hell-bent on spending 100 hours in a bath of beans. I didn’t know what to expect, I just went for it. I managed to stick it out for the whole 100 hours. When I got out I was shattered. My mother grabbed me and said, ‘Son, don’t try anything like that again…’”
That advice, obviously, fell on deaf ears. Throughout the decades, Beany has since dipped his fingers into countless charitable events: from running marathons to pushing a can of beans for a mile with just his nose. He’s also had a notable political career too, running in a number of local and national elections across Wales since 1990.
“I thought it was time these politicians were taken down a peg or two… In 2015, I stood for Port Talbot in the local elections and managed to beat UKIP,” he continues, bellowing out with laughter. “We beat UKIP! The person standing for them was so embarrassed he didn’t even turn up to stand next to me.”
The tattooed beans covering his head glisten under the sun which peeks through the window. When questioned, I’m surprised to find they’re not just there for show but tell a deeper story about Port Talbot’s close-knit community and Beany’s abundant altruism.
“These beans have the initials of everyone who donated towards a local girl called Marlie-Grace Roberts to have a life-changing operation,” he remarks. “She has cerebral palsy, she was only four years old at the time and we pulled together, as a town, to raise £40,000.”
“I thought I’d do my bit by getting 60 baked beans tattooed on my head and offering the local community to sponsor the cause by spending £60 to have their initials on each bean. In the end, it raised £3,600. She had the operation and to this day she’s walking now. I guess there’s a price on my head after all,” he laughs, leaning forward to point towards the bean tattoo with the initials ‘MGR’ on the centre of his forehead.
It’s clear Beany is dedicated to not just baked beans but expressing the message that it’s okay to be yourself. “I always wanted to create a role model. It didn’t have to be baked beans per se—it could have been spaghetti. I always felt like I didn’t conform to the norm. I feel blessed that I’m content with who I am. It’s a message I want to put out to everyone who doesn’t fit in: do your own thing, don’t hinder your inhibitions, be flamboyant and the captain of your own boat. The world needs more people like that.”
He shows me the palm of his left hand and points towards the creases. “In life, I could’ve gone this way and lived a normal life,” he says while tracing his right index finger up towards his thumb. “I might’ve been married, I would’ve been settling down—but obviously, it went offshoot,” he chuckles, this time more diminished than before, tracing his index finger up another crease.
“Perhaps in a parallel universe, there would be a Barry Kirk living a normal life. But in terms of my legacy, I believe I was meant to be this persona, this character, until the end of my days. To be honest with you, I don’t have time for relationships,” Beany continues, letting out a brief sigh and eyeing the ground. “I’ve had encounters with tins of beans in a past life, of course, but I’m still very much a bachelor.”
He goes on to note how his parents have since passed away and his brother now lives in Scotland, where he works for the NHS. “We’re like chalk and cheese—he’s a state registered nurse. He knows me, I’m not completely mad but I am eccentric. He always embellishes the fact that I’m like this. Port Talbot is my family too—that’s what I love to say. The odd thousand people living around this town are my neighbours and my family.”
While leaving, I stopped to take a photograph outside Beany’s flat when cheers were heard from neighbours across the street as the bean enthusiast’s bright orange suit juxtaposed against the pebbledash. I arrived at the Baked Bean Museum of Excellence expecting a man with a questionable obsession with classic (but rather bland) British cuisine. I left with a deeper appreciation for Beany as a person, his altruism and his commitment to his community. It was clear he loved Port Talbot, but equally, Port Talbot loved him back.