A prolific graffiti tagger was given front-page treatment by a newspaper six weeks ago but although the headline suggested he was sorry, the story painted a different picture.
The tagger was John McMillan, 46, who tags as Crew, Crew Connection and Johnny Crew. His Crew tags have blighted Brighton from Queen’s Park and Kemp Town to North Laine and elsewhere, without regard to businesses, iconic public buildings, private houses or street furniture.
It’s all in the name of his “guerrillaadvertising” hashtag and his video blog. His “vlog” largely comprises 30-second videos of self-indulgent musings.
It is roughly estimated that his one-man crusade to put the name Johnny Crew “out there” has caused damage to public and private property costing thousands of pounds – damage that businesses, council tax payers and the public purse will have to rectify.
Yet the newspaper article presented Crew as a bit of a do-gooder hero, something he delighted in on his latest blog.
“Spring is in the air,” mused 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.”
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 to 40-minute-long live-streaming commentaries via Facebook. The Argus article said: “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 said that he was unapologetic because his tags had 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 claimed 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 media channels.
However, he 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 saying that McMillan 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 has 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 said: “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 – the victims of crime – for not removing the acts of crime within 28 days? It simply makes no sense.
Both the police and 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 several residents about the Crew tags and his bragging on social media.
The council team, paid to follow up on evidence provided, were sent 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. 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 to be tackled through council tax and for enforcement officers’ salaries despite the fact that they are not even at work or not undertaking any follow up on evidence painstakingly provided.
Good citizens putting their own time into goodwill acts – gathering evidence and 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 co-operation with myself and Councillor Bridget Fishleigh, of Brighton and Hove Independents, Johnny “Crew” McMillan would be carrying on his tagging without a care in the world (while enforcement officers carry on doing nothing in similar vein).
BRAT stands for Business and Residents Against Tagging. To find out more, visit www.brat.org.uk.
These are the hallmarks of a city sliding into an ever-expanding pit of “no one cares” which will then breed 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 concluded: “One type of anti-social 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’.”
That would ring true in regards to our council – a cosy work-from-home culture populated by fully paid employees who seems entirely disengaged from the city they are employed to take care of.
And likewise our police force, largely absent from the streets, takes no follow-up action on what they consider to be low-level crime.
The council and police need to get a grip, get back to work and do their jobs – funded by law-abiding, council tax paying residents – before those residents demand efficient private services in their place.
Private tagging removal services paid on a daily basis would be far more efficient and cost-effective than the ineffective and largely absent enforcement teams are proving to be.
Adrian Hart is a candidate for the Brighton and Hove Independents in Queen’s Park for a seat on Brighton and Hove City Council.