Last November, as winter began to bite, my walks to and from the city centre and Carlton Hill created something of a dismal narrative. For the first time since I moved here in 2003, I began to notice an extra layer of urban squalor to which epidemic levels of ‘tag’ graffiti seem the perfect sour-tasting icing on the ugly cake. The problems of rough sleeping, drug addiction and begging, crime and unkempt neighbourhoods deserve special attention but this post is about tagging and the failure of our council.
This picture (below) which I took as I walked down Edward Street toward the Pavilion seemed to sum up the challenge facing any of us still clinging on to some semblance of civic pride.
But it was also in November that the ‘Crew’ tags caught my eye. More a case of spray-can handwriting than a typical tag, this graffiti extended to ‘Google Johnny Crew’. And so I did. The persona of ‘Johnny Crew’ (who we now know is John Mcmillan, 47, originally from Edinburgh) exists on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. His seconds-long mobile ‘selfie’ films are entries in his ongoing video log and contributions to his channel ‘Crew Connection TV’. He comes over as amiable and self-reflective (a lot of Johnny’s commentary to camera are off-the-cuff reflections on self-empowerment and achieving personal goals). Yet what immediately strikes those of us who’ve been prompted by Johnny ‘Crew’ Mcmillan’s graffiti to search out his social media is the complete absence of self-reflection on the hundreds of Crew tags he has plastered on buildings (including shops and homes) amounting to thousands of pounds of costs. As Mcmillan goes about the business of advertising-via-tag his Crew Connection brand, its the rest of us who pays for it. To John I want to say good luck to you and all that you do – but not the tagging, you’re going to have to put that right.
An Argus front page and p5 profile (plus editorial) from March 18th – all about Johnny Crew – reassures readers that Johnny stopped the spray-can wing of his enterprise last May. Perhaps this was miss-reported. Crew tags exploded late last year with these (below) appearing in my neighbourhood (White Street and Islingworth Road) early this year.
The Argus feature also reassured readers that Johnny half regrets but half doesn’t regret his spray-can adventures. He is sorry about it but at the same time needs to point out to the reporter that his graffiti helps people. Hidden behind his enterprise is, says Johnny, his true mission which is to make contact with the disenfranchised – the rough sleepers and the addicts he meets every day – and remind them that he wants to instil in them his self-empowerment message.
Again, I want to say that I’m 100 percent for the Johnny Crew enterprise if it’s helping people but no one buys the idea that the graffiti is a good thing because it advertises his coaching services (even if the Argus buys it) – the idea that his tags have encouraged “about 300 people” to reach out to him and talk openly about mental health” (as the Argus puts it) is for the birds.
For all the good his tagging has done “John was unapologetic” continues the Argus feature:
“As part of his “coaching” of the people he meets, he encourages others not to “have neglect spread into your life” and “sort yourself out”.
“Some people think street life is for them but you have to remind them that they are just having a breakdown and they can get out of it and there is hope,” he said.
“I try and remind people who they were and that they can change.”
In this V-Log entry from a few days after the Argus feature Johnny is clearly very pleased with it. “Spring is in the air” muses Johnny, “…goals and aspirations, you know what I mean? I got an interview with the Argus group recently, the Argus in Brighton. It was good, I think they done me alright”.
The Real Crew Connection
Most Argus readers would have been screaming by the time they finished the article (plus the editorial) – largely as a result of this paragraph:
“Following complaints about his tagging, John said he 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.”
Johnny’s account or the reporting of it may be unreliable given the false claim of ceasing all tagging last May but the description of the guy from the council is all too believable. I’m sad to say that council and police enforcement officers have been worse than useless in dealing with the Crew spray-can spree vandalism (I want to say it again you and I are paying for this).
The only good news is that shoulder to shoulder with myself and Bridget Fishleigh of Brighton & Hove Independents an impressive resistance to Crew and other prolific taggers has now formed across the city. And they are organising. Already this assortment of residents, shopkeepers and small business owners have shared their experience and built up a bank of intelligence and proactive ideas. They will remain anonymous but a website and a campaign launch are imminent. It was this formation of citizens unwilling to give up on the city, furious at how we pay for the tagging epidemic, who submitted evidence to the council on numerous taggers. It’s hard to know what the word ‘enforcement’ means to our council’s Environmental Enforcement Officers (EEOs) but it’s clearly something different.
On the tagging activities of Johnny ‘Crew’ Macmillan, citizens sent in detailed reports – photos, CCTV, screengrabs from his social media – as far back as September 2022 but police and council officers did not act. In the case of the council, it seems EEOs were either on vacation, on long-term sick or distracted in some other way (working from home?) to the extent that the WhatsApp pictures and messages they’d asked us to send in were frozen via “deactivated” work mobiles. It wasn’t until I contacted senior directors at Cityclean that the Crew saga came to their attention. Incredibly, it was this contact from me in March – just a few weeks ago – that elicited the claim that my account of Crew’s online presence was the first the council knew of it. This was followed by reassurances on how the EEO team were extremely active (on regular patrols in the city, conducting joint operations with the police). Yet this claim is hard to believe unless patrols were blindfolded as they passed the many dozens of crew tags (including ‘google Johnny Crew’).
Yesterday I walked down Carlton Hill past the police station on my left and Milner Flats on my right:
A few seconds later I turned onto Circus Street:
The real Crew Connection isn’t about Johnny its about how a tagger hiding in plain sight was known to enforcement officers and they did nothing; it’s about connecting the existence of hard evidence on a number of Brighton’s prolific taggers and the utter failure of salaried council officials to act on it.
The hallmark of a City sliding into an ever-expanding pit of ‘no-one cares’ breeds more of the 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’s cosy work-from-home culture: fully paid employees entirely disengaged from the City they are employed to take care of. And likewise our police force, absent from the streets, who take no follow-up action on what they consider to be crime too ‘low-level’ to bother with. This City Council and its Police force need to get a grip.
By Adrian Hart
First published on my personal blog.