DRUGS: detail from the dressing floor. Botallack, West Penwith, Cornwall

The dressing floor group

The dressing floor group has four distinct slogans and are listed below in order of appearance from left to right with your back to the sea-

The work stems from a desire to create a visual debate that engages with the issues of what we do and don’t preserve, how we present them and what the implications of this are. Investigating different ways of presenting visual research and how this could underline in some way the importance of graffiti as a relevant cultural activity [retrospectively perhaps] and assist the interpreting of social contexts at historical sites, was an important part of this.
The background for this work emerged from my experiences working as a warden from 1999 to 2002 for the National Trust on the North coast of West Penwith. The areas I covered stretched from Levant and Botallack down to Maen cliff at Sennen, lands end. Part of my responsibility during this time was the management, maintenance and interpretation of various sites of industrial archaeology.
‘research/record/remake’ takes its inspiration from 3 examples of 'unsanctioned cultural activity' [mark making/graffiti] at 3 different archaeologically and geologically renowned sites that form part of the wider Cornish mining World Heritage site. They are to be found within a 2 mile stretch on the North coast of West Penwith, Cornwall. These groups, starting with the most westerly are to be found at Botallack, Levant and Geevor tin mines. [See map].


On Botallack cliff overlooking the famous and iconic Crowns engine houses there exists amongst the recently consolidated calciners and associated mine buildings, a collection of graffiti from the 1980’s spray painted onto 2 partly rough cast concrete walls that enclose the Crown’s dressing floor. This graffiti is sprayed from the same can of paint [a cream or English Rose colour?] and appears in 4 separate parts. I first saw them about 13 years ago. The subject matter to which it refers relates to the 1980’s and so a probable age for the group would be around 25 years old. A number of the texts are hardly discernible now. Reading from the left to the right the first slogan in the group reads –‘SEX+DRUGS+MAGGIE THATCHER’ [SDMT]. The contentious nature of the graffiti and its humour made them stand out from the conventional ‘I woz ere’. It was a very evocative if not provocative [and funny] statement that for many could sum up this period. The conceptual and visual focus of the project is centred on the remains of this graffiti.
Such a striking set of texts added much to the interpretation of the sites context during this devastating period of mining history in Cornwall. In view of this, and the increasing delapidated state, I started to formulate a variety of visual strategies that would allow other formats to emerge in the presentation of interpretation and photographic documentation of historical and socuoiological activities. Further to this is a desire to see how this can assist their survival in some way [if only in a virtual context] and highlight the importance of recording such activity occurring in the landscape. The graffiti occurring at the dressing floors happens in a dynamic and uncontrollable way. It doesn’t appear to be done in a way as to censor or dominate that which has gone before it. The writing or pictures are being continually eroded, drawn or scratched over by those who indulge in such activities. The incredible inclement weather appears at times to be its biggest censor. The main tool for inscribing on the walls, other than spray paint, appears to be debris from the site.This type of anarchic order is important if you wish to see the development of a sociological context still occurr at a site like this. To actively seek to preserve a particular set of texts at the site would lead to the end of this interaction and the destruction of others. Signs would go up, graffiti cleaning equipment would have to be bought, a budget allocated to ensure that certain texts would be restored and the perpetual application of contemporary graffiti at this site would be perpetually removed.
On a recent visit I watched absent minded school children scratching the floor and walls with an old piece of brick or concrete while listening to an ex miner recounting tales from the past. These scratches will last out a good few years and are not just their names and stuff but drawings of engine houses too

In order to record the graffiti I chose to adopt a purely non invasive approach avoiding any activity that would lead to the [partial or full] re-in statement or further deterioration of the graffiti. The resulting enquiry struck me as being particularly relevant considering the substantial interest in the preservation of Cornwall’s mining heritage, in particular the much needed and much used practice of consolidating derelict mine buildings. If these methods were not employed we would not be able to safely experience these sites as we do. These sites now form part of a heritage park. The engine houses and chimneys and other architectural relics have been consolidated and are now in a state of preserved dereliction and will no longer perceptibly degrade. Graffiti is important to such site that is heavy in consolidation. It represents a continuing link in the use of the landscape and the development of a site stopping it from becoming static. By taking into account how the 'Dressing floor group' enhances the interpretation of the sites sociological history, The National Trust had previously decided not to remove it.

I had initially only intended to remake the SDMT text but the fact this group had come from the same hand and spray can made them the harder to ignore and the need to single one out from the other became unnecessary.
The physical remains of this post industrial activity can be viewed as an unofficial document chronicling the on going cultural change of use and meaning of such sites. It becomes an unexpected [and uncontrolled] addition that further facilitates the interpretation of the sites transition from work place to one of leisure. Each of these groups substantially enriches the interpretation of the historical sites they occur in. The particular way in which they do so is both subtle and extreme. Some are hard to ignore, some now barely noticeable at all.
My aim was to record this graffiti before it is lost completely by using non intrusive means. I began this process two years ago by digitally photographing the site. Since May 2007 I have been extending the initial results of this survey by building up a visual database of the graffiti in order to clearly define the outline of the text.
The graffiti is now in a much degraded state. ‘SMDT’ is no longer legible and is hardly discernible from the other layers of text that encroach on it. The remainder of the group are suffering a similar fate. ‘LOOK AT THE SUN’ and ‘CONSERVATIVES!’ are in a similar predicament to ‘SDMT’. In some cases just a vague outline of the text [all of them upper case] or a small number of grains of spray paint now exists. More than one, for all intents and purposes, is non existent. ‘ENGLISH OUT’ has been re-emphasised in white spray paint at sometime in the past which is also in an advanced state of decay. ‘KERNOW VYS BY KEN’ is the largest and most prominent of the four and is in the best condition. A likely reason for this is that it is in a more sheltered position saved from the worst of the inclement weather and protected in part from being in the left hand corner.

Where is the ‘X’ in ‘SEX’!?

I had some difficulty in identifying a number of the letters especially in ‘SDMT’. I had to return on many occasions taking hundreds of photographs. It was a confusing and misleading process. I kept thinking of classical mural restorations such as the Sistine Chapel or Last Supper and how you could be fairly certain about how to interpret the changes of direction in brush stroke and perhaps be able to take educated guesses more assuredly. While down at the dressing floor with my eye pressed up to the concrete no such presumptions could be made. The work at the Sistine chapel was a work of beauty and craftsmanship but here I was trying to recover a clumsy, ugly script with little acknowledgment to form of any kind. Where is the ‘X’ in ‘SEX’!? Where does the cross bar of ‘A’ go or where has it gone! Is that really an ‘E’ or is it an ‘I’. Where does one ‘G’ end and the other one begin?

one slip of the brush can change history... LONG LIVE ELVIS!!

For as long as I can remember ‘CONSERVATIVES!’ had always been somewhat vague and consequently due to its eroded state appeared to read or indicate, to me at least, something like ‘(LONG LIVE?)...ELVIS!’ or ‘ELVIS LIVES!’ With this in mind it took sometime time to realise [and to my disappointment] that it actually said ‘CONSERVATIVES!’ it seems obvious now that it would say that. However, in the defence of my imagination, I would say that it seemed in context with the more nutty ‘SEX and MAGGIE’ part. I remember feeling that I really didn’t want it to say ‘CONSERVATIVES!’ I wanted more nutty stuff to balance out the more serious nature of the plot of words. The interesting part about this little episode of me trying to make history fit in with my intent, illuminated how when care is not taken the personal bias of the individual/organisation etc, though perhaps unintentional may take precedence over fact and perhaps underlines the difficulty of presenting historical research. This photo is the artists digitally remastered impression of his own delinquency.

In some cases the evidence of the paint is so miniscule that it is hardly discernible from the surface of the concrete. Using digital software to enlarge the prints back in my studio proved fruitful and yet frustrating. Adjusting contrast, saturation, colour balance etc helped to emphasise some parts but not others and when viewed under digital magnification the image was slightly out of focus the grains of paint became unidentifiable. I wanted to ensure that the text was as faithfully recorded as possible without resorting to drawing on the surface of the wall as I didn’t want to add or interrupt its cycle avoiding permanent damage to the graffiti but still allow a faithful reproduction to be recorded. I wanted to adopt a similar approach to perhaps an archaeologist working in the field and utilise this process as a tool for my arts practice. I considered using chalk as a last resort to lightly draw around the outline of some letters re-mapping them without too much of an ingression. [This is a technique used at Geevor to arrest the demise of the chalk graffiti in and around the Dry]. I returned to the site and began to point with my fingers/hands/thumbs at those parts that were proving most difficult to pinpoint and photographed these positions. Once catalogued these images of the painted surface along with the more detailed close ups formed the resource from which the digital reconstructions were made.
While closely examining the spray painted words I became conscious [irritated is another word] of further degraded texts surrounding the group and cutting across it in such a way as to mislead the discovery of the actual positions of the text being examined. In some cases the paint had been grown over by lichen keeping patches of it in place. A thin blue spray paint had a similar effect in some places too. Although they were now indecipherable they became no less interesting. Consequently on further examination of the walls and concrete floor it then occurred to me that if you do start to attempt to preserve graffiti sites such as this then you run the risk of stopping it happening at all. Once a bench mark has been set then all things past this point could quite possibly be removed to ensure the survival of the previous.


Half a mile north along the coast from Botallack another interesting example of graffiti [barely] exists at Levant mine in the re opened (2002) access tunnel that leads to the man engine shaft. The man engine shaft, used for taking the miners up or down from the surface to work, was the scene of a fatal mining disaster. In the 1960’s when the tunnel to the Man Engine shaft was still open an ex miner now living in Marazion used a lamp to leave a carbon inscription on the wall of the tunnel that read ‘21 Oct 1919 31 men died in this shaft when the man engine broke’.


The Geevor graffiti is interesting too. The iconic 'THE END' on a locker in the dry sums up the end of a part of the mines history all too well. But what is fascinating is that the graffiti continues to the present day in one form or another. Theres lots behind the scenes that you won't see but its worth looking out for the examples are on view as you progess on the tour of the mine. Notes, impromtu signs, messages, jokes and obsecnities are chalked up here and there around the site. This really helps in a subtle way to ensures that the mueseum still has the atmosphere of a work place albeit for another purpose and is important because of that.

The graffiti in the tunnel leading to the man engine shaft was at first thought to have been written in the period following the accident which led to the deaths of the 31 men in 1914. On its discovery the National Trust commissioned a team of conservators for advice on the best way of preserving it. When the man had heard about the interest surrounding this discovery he returned to Levant with the lamp he had used and demonstrated how he had done it. Once he had owned up to his handy work the interest in the graffiti diminished. Perhaps this was due to the contemporary age of the graffiti, the practicalities of conserving the graffiti and the relatively low value in which this kind of activity is widely regarded, sadly it now barely exists. With the practicalities of conserving it aside, I would argue, given that someone had returned to the site some 40 years later to ensure that the event would still not be forgotten, makes it all the more interesting. It reveals the importance of cultural history and their need to reaffirm it in some way.
But does it warrant some after care? Here a situation arises similar to that of the dressing floors at Botallack. Should this get a coat of aspic? Do we suspend this in time? I think this inscription is a relevant addition to the interpretation of an historical site. Particularly in terms of its relevance to the tragic circumstances that occurred there. Consequently I believe the conservation of this singular inscription, where practical, would be no bad thing given that the sensitive nature of the site would not allow for further graffiti exchanges, as the time for commenting on this particular disaster in this way has perhaps passed.

Change is inevitable – tidying up is wholly avoidable.

Preserve in aspic then? Do I want to reinstall Maggie to her place of honour? No I don’t think so, the process of change will have been lost and with it the air of discovery. [The practicalities of this would prove to be the limiting factor as at Levant] An attempt to preserve the graffititi now may prevent the development of this social record on the site emerging. It all tells a tale and should continue to do so, unhindered and undirected. The preservation of Graffiti will bring inertia to a site. It would also bring out censorship and a biased view of history.

‘Just Relocated’

The decision to display part of the documentation of the project came about through the opportunity to contribute to the ‘Just Relocated’ exhibition at the Count House Workshop at Botallack in July. Previously I had only expected to take it as far projecting the remade work into its original position at the site over the original text [ ironically the projections have yet to be projected due the heavy and unpredictable showers of late - its hard to see a rain cloud approaching in the dark]. Through 'Just Relocated' it made it possible to extend this work to enable me to use a site specific display of documentation material and the structure of guided walks as a way of presenting the project informally and visually at different levels and sites such as Levant and Geevor.
Research/Record/Remake concludes with a series of site specific digital projections of remade graffiti in their original setting and a display of documentation material in the ‘Just Relocated’ exhibition from the 29th June to the 8th July.

Text from the exhibition

Text from the exhibition

Self guided trail

Self guided trail

Contemporary response

Contemporary response
Prediction - digitally imagined graffiti


Digitally remade graffiti


Digitally remade graffiti