For nearly two decades, Gordon Gibbens was a familiar presence on the London graffiti scene, amassing an archive of more than 30,000 photographs. A new book collects dozens of his pictures, together with text by his daughter Jane describing how Gordon’s passion kept him going right to the end. Here is an extract from How Graffiti Saved My Dad’s Life (At Least for a While).
Dad was always a keen photographer. After Mum died in 1995, he retired from his job in a sports shop and began to spend more time out and about with his camera in London. And then one day — I’m not really sure when — he began to take more of an interest in the art he’d noticed springing up on walls around the city…
Dad always enjoyed chatting to the artists. And he loved watching them work. The ‘money shot’ he hankered after was of a spraycan-wielding artist putting the finishing touches to a new wall…
Stik was one of his favourites. Like a lot of the artists, he always seemed genuinely pleased to see Dad — and went out of his way to chat to him. He even sent Dad signed prints to thank him for being ‘such a big supporter of the scene’.
Dad got to know a lot more of the artists and fellow photographers through social media — and was always very flattered when people asked if they could use one of his pictures for a book, magazine or website. I loved Googling his name to find his photography credits on sites such as The London Vandal.
He would travel pretty much anywhere his Freedom Pass would allow in his bid to get a picture of some new graffiti. In the early days, he’d plot out his route beforehand — peering over an old A-Z with a magnifying glass. He swore he didn’t need reading glasses.
Dad was always completely fearless and intrepid. Nothing was out-of-bounds to him. He’d squeeze through fences, clamber up fire escapes and wander down dark alleyways in search of graffiti.
Dad didn’t like anything or anyone cluttering up his photographs. Wheelie bins were rolled out of the way. Dawdling pedestrians were encouraged to get a move on. Drivers were asked (politely — sort of) to park elsewhere. And on more than one occasion, artists agreed to stop work and move their ladders for him.
Dad didn’t differentiate between ‘graffiti’ and ‘street art’ — or legal and illegal walls. If it looked good, he liked it — and he couldn’t understand why anyone else would feel differently or overthink things.
The search was all part of the fun. Dad particularly enjoyed hunting out smaller pieces that the untrained eye wouldn’t necessarily spot, such as Pablo Delgado’s tiny paste-ups.
After Dad was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, he became more determined than ever to get out with his camera — no matter how he was feeling. A day with no photographs was a day wasted.
Whenever we’d been to one of Dad’s many medical appointments, we’d head straight out on a graffiti hunt afterwards. It helped him to feel better. It made him — made us — feel we hadn’t wasted the day.
One day, Dad had an appointment to see his consultant in Bromley at 5pm. Beforehand, though, we were obliged to head to Bethnal Green to track down an epic new mural by Roa. It was in an alleyway at the back of some flats, and took a while to find. Long after we should really have set off for the hospital, I was desperately trying to lure Dad down from the roof of someone’s flat when he was busy weighing up the best camera angle.
Every time Dad was unwell, it would feel like the end of the world. But within days he’d be back on the graffiti trail again. Should he have been wandering round Hackney Wick in freezing temperatures three days into a course of antibiotics and steroids? Of course not. But it was utterly pointless trying to stop him.
Besides, I knew it would make him happy. Graffiti gave our lives structure and meaning when everything else seemed to be falling apart…
All profits from the book will be donated to St Christopher’s Hospice, from where Gordon made some of his final graffiti expeditions. Buy your copy here, for £6.99.