On Saturday March 18th, the Brighton Argus gave front-page space to the vandalism caused by prolific tagger John McMillan, who tags as ‘Crew’, ‘Crew Connection’ and ‘Johnny Crew’. His various tags have blighted the city stretching from Queen’s Park to Kemptown, North Laine to the city centre and elsewhere without regard to businesses, iconic public buildings, private houses, street furniture and so forth. This is all in the name of his #guerillaadvertising hash tag and his Video Blog, which largely comprises 30-second videos of self-indulgent musings.
His one-man crusade to put the name Johnny Crew ‘out-there’ has caused damage to public and private property likely to cost thousands of pounds – damage that businesses, council tax payers and the public purse will have to rectify.
Other than his spray-can vandalism, which is indefensible, I have nothing against McMillan. His short bursts of ‘selfie’ phone camera video give the impression of an affable, albeit troubled, individual who craves engagement with the world around him. His videos can seem self-absorbed and at times narcissistic. At other times he mimics a TV news approach as he encounters police incidents or other street-life situations. Looking at his Crew Connection TV YouTube channel, a film shot four years ago reveals a very different persona. McMillan reflects on his addiction to prescription drugs and his bumpy road to recovery. Here, his desire to connect with others who have battled addiction and depression seems completely genuine.
Lately, he has begun 30/40 minute long live streaming commentaries via Facebook. The Argus article states: “As part of his ‘coaching’ of the people he meets, he encourages others not to ‘have neglect spread into your life’ and to ‘sort yourself out’”.
According to the Argus, McMillan says that he is unapologetic as he believes his tags have encouraged ‘about 300 people’ to reach out to him and talk openly about mental health. If McMillan really said this, he was surely joking with the reporter? It’s delusional to imagine that on sight of a ‘Crew’ or ‘Google Johnny Crew’ tag, people make contact to request his life coaching services.
McMillan claims to have recently been confronted by a council enforcement officer, as quoted:
“I received a call from a council officer a few weeks ago. He said the officer discussed the possibility of an ‘unofficial community service order’, which would see him go around the city, filming himself removing some of his tags and posting it online on his various social channels.
However, John said: ‘I told the guy from the council my story and he said he wasn’t going to take it any further and that he would get back to me.’”
Doubtless, there’s a powerful human story to tell about John McMillan. The Argus reporter evidently wanted to acknowledge that. My issue with extending sympathy and understanding in this instance is the tacit acceptance of his vandalism (there are, after all, few examples of petty criminality and anti-social behaviour that don’t invoke a backstory of this sort). Despite the Argus citing McMillan as having ceased his tagging a year ago (itself nonsense given his winter tagging spree), even in the weeks since this article appeared, fresh Crew tags have also appeared.
The Crew tagging spree continues with impunity. Residents and businesses have become increasingly frustrated at the indifference of the council and police enforcement officers whose appalling failure to prosecute an identifiable, self-confessed vandal has caused us thousands of pounds worth of damage. It is unfathomable.
And yet the same council team have the audacity to issue shop owners with letters threatening fines if they don’t remove graffiti. These are the shop owners who diligently remove tagging, only to find it reappearing a few days later. As reported in Sussex Live and national media, one letter to a shopkeeper from the council states: “Your conduct is having a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those living in the locality and your conduct is unreasonable”.
“Your conduct”!!! How can a council whose environmental enforcement officers are taking zero action against a known vandal issue threats to innocent businesses for not removing the acts of crime within 28 days! It simply does not make any sense.
Both the police and the council enforcement teams knew about McMillan as far back as September 2022 but took absolutely no action. In the case of the council enforcement team, an officer had hard proof and complaints from multiple residents about the Crew tags and his bragging on social media. The council team, paid to follow up on evidence provided, were issued with dozens of photos and video evidence, social media proof and so forth, delivered to them gift-wrapped.
However, it has transpired that the environmental enforcement team were absent from duty, off on extended sick leave, phones deactivated, emails neither monitored nor diverted, tasks not covered – for weeks on end – and hence all the ‘unpaid’ work of council tax paying residents went into an abyss. Likewise the 101 police reporting service results only in data gathering and an issue of a crime reference number swiftly followed by a ‘no further action’ letter. We all pay for that too. So, as law-abiding residents and businesses, we are all paying for vandalism clean up through council tax and for enforcement officers’ salaries despite the fact they are not even at work or following up on evidence painstakingly provided.
Good citizens putting their own time into goodwill acts (gathering evidence, painting out tags) in order to be supportive of an under-resourced service are being utterly disrespected. But for the combined actions of BRAT, a new anti-tagging group, in cooperation with myself and Cllr Bridget Fishleigh of Brighton & Hove Independents, Johnny ‘Crew’ McMillan would be carrying on his tagging without a care in the world (whilst enforcement officers carry on doing nothing in similar vein). BRAT stands for Business and Residents Against Tagging.
These are the hallmarks of a city sliding into an ever expanding pit of ‘no-one cares’ which will then breed more of same – and more anti-social behaviour and more crime. The connection between ever-more anti-social behaviour in environments plagued by litter and graffiti has been demonstrated by research. Summarised in the New Scientist the research concludes “one type of antisocial behaviour leads to others, because people’s sense of social obligation to others is eroded”. The results support ‘broken windows theory’. The New Scientist quotes Geraldine Pettersson, who co-authored a 2003 report on graffiti: “People associate the presence of graffiti with a lack of social control and management of their neighbourhood or environment, and it relays the message that no-one is ‘in charge.”
And that would ring true in regards to our council, a cosy work-from-home culture populated by fully paid employees who seem entirely disengaged from the city they are employed to take care of. And likewise our police force who are absent from the streets and who take no follow-up action on what they consider low-level crime.
The city council and the police force need to get a grip and return to work before the law abiding, council tax paying residents demand an end to work-from-home and replacement of ineffective departments with efficient private services. Private tagging removal services would surely be far more efficient and cost effective than our ineffectual and largely absent enforcement teams are proving to be.