How Graffiti Saved a Man’s Life (At Least For A While)

For this evening’s post we would like to talk not about a particular piece of recent Street Art in London or an exhibition, but about a photographer and how in some small way the public art in London helped him and his family through the most difficult of times – a story which is so movingly told in a beautiful book entitled ‘How Graffiti Saved My Dad’s Life (At Least For A While)’ compiled by the daughter of the photographer in question – namely a Gordon Gibbens – someone we had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions around London whether he was out on his own with his camera snapping pics of street art and graffiti around the East End, or around South London a little closer to home accompanied by his Daughter Jane and her husband Tom.

The pictures featured in this blog post are some of the many great pics in the book and were kindly provided from Gordon Gibben’s vast collection by his daughter and her husband Jane and Tom Murphy which we are privileged to share here and wish to say thank you for. We have also featured extracts from Jane’s story in the book and these will appear “in blue” throughout as Jane tells the story way much better than we can.

back cover

Work by Banksy fresh with no tagging or plastic cover. “It wasn’t all about Banksy, though. Dad loved most graffiti, including the throw-ups and tags he spotted from the trains window during the half-hour journey into Central London.”

16. last train to lisbon

Bombed train in Lisbon. “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 different or overthink things. To his mind, anything was better than staring at a blank wall”. Something we very much agree with.

Gordon had always been a keen photographer which would of come to little surprise to anyone who saw him out with his camera and for nearly two decades he documented Street Art and Graffiti around London and beyond. This man was photographing Graffiti way back before it was cool to do so. Following the death of his wife from Breast Cancer in 1995, he retired from his job in a sports shop and began to spend more and more time around London with his camera, photographing people and events until one day at some point Gordon began to take more of an interest in the art he started noticing on the walls of the city, in all its forms. Gordon enjoyed chatting with the artists and always loved watching them work. Sound a little familiar to anyone reading this?

42. stik

 Stik and Gordon in front of Stik’s fresh work in Hackney Road.

Gordon got his first PC at 69 and in his early 70s set up an account on Flickr so he could showcase his graffiti pictures from all around London with his most regular port of calls being to Shoreditch, Hackney Wick, Camden, Stockwell, Leake Street and pretty much anywhere else that would have some fresh graffiti to be seen “Dad was always completely fearless and intrepid. Nowhere was out-of-bounds to him. He’d squeeze through fences, clamber up fire escapes and wander down dark alleyways in search of graffiti”.

In 2012 at the age of 81 Gordon was diagnosed with prostate cancer, now making for the second time in his life having beat skin cancer some 40 years earlier. However Gordon wasn’t someone who would let something like this keep him from getting out and about London to see some fresh art no matter how difficult it was for him on his own or whether he was accompanied by his daughter Jane and her husband Tom. “he took the news, as he did most things, stoically. Oh well –  you’ve just got to get on with it , haven’t you?”. From then on Gordon became more determined that ever to get out with his camera, no matter how he was feeling “whenever we’d been to one of Dad’s many medical appointments, we’d head straight on a graffiti hunt afterwards. It helped him – made US – feel we hadn’t wasted the day”.

21. roa

Work by ROA in Bethnal Green – “Once, in the spring of 2013, Dad had an appointment to see his consultant in Bromley in the late afternoon. 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 where he was busy weighing up the best camera angle. Not for the first time, he’d scuttled up a fire escape while I was briefly looking the other way”.

Life was made a bit easier though this period with more graffiti beginning to appear closer to home in South London with both Dulwich and Sydenham hosting street art festivals in 2013 with a Dulwich also hosting a follow up festival in 2014 and then 2015 brought the first Brockley Street Art Festival. “I worried less when I knew Dad was staying South of the river – simply because I could get to him quicker if he felt unwell. Or more often than not, I’d go along with him – knowing we weren’t going to be out all day, so I could fit in any work around the edges. Still, I often thought how much simpler life would be if all Dad’s favourite artists made it as far as West Wickham – or even just to Penge, where Tom and I live”.

As time continued life was far from easy for the family and Gordon faced way more than his fair share of trials and tribulations with his health “Both life itself and our graffiti trips were fast becoming a series of ever-decreasing circles. Dad still made it up to Shoreditch whenever he could. But it was such an effort to get him there on public transport that he didn’t have the energy to walk very far when we arrived”.

34. pure evil

Work by Pure Evil in Shoreditch.

In July 2016 Jane and a friend rushed Gordon to A&E for exploratory tests where he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, which had also spread to his lungs. At this point Gordon was to weak to undergo treatment, fitted with a PEG feeding tube and left nil-by-mouth. Within days he contracted C-Diff which led to him been isolated in a tiny room before developing pneumonia. At this point Jane and Tom faced a wave of uncertainty in their search for some clarity on Gordon’s condition, “a constant parade of people came and went – each saying something that sounded vaguely plausible, only to disappear into thin air shortly before someone else came along and said the exact opposite”.

36. airborne mark

Work-in-progress by Airborne Mark in Penge. “Dad first met Airborne Mark in Leake Street around 2010 I think. They hit it off immediately and bumped into one another regularly after that. If Mark was working on a new wall, Dad had to go and see it. Even if it was in Birmingham. Yes, Birmingham. Dad was also very impressed and intrigued with Mark’s rap career. And when he played a short set at Meeting of Styles  in Shoreditch’s Nomadic Community Garden in May 2016, Dad was in the front row – albeit sitting on a deckchair – taking photographs while gradually becoming engulfed by smoke flares. Now, six weeks later, Airborne Mark was on Maple Road – just five minutes’ walk from our home in Penge – working on a magnificent portrait of a roaring lion, modeled on of his amazing origami creations. I popped up there to see him at work before I went to the Hospital each day, taking progress shots to show Dad. And all the time, I felt utterly heartbroken and defeated because Dad would never get to see it in person”.

While Gordon was in hospital his daughter Jane and Tom went up to Shoreditch one Saturday morning to take pictures of her Dad’s old haunts to show him at the hospital that day “and then I sat on a wall and cried as it hit me I’d never go on a graffiti hunt in Shoreditch – or anywhere – with Dad again”. But Gordon wasn’t one to give up and after 8 weeks he left the hospital and was moved to a nursing home in Bromley, which sadly immediately presented itself as a place to Jane and Tom that Gordon couldn’t stay. However Gordon’s medical needs were far to complex for him to immediately go live with Jane and Tom, “for the first time in months, someone – the nurse, in this case – turned to Dad and asked him what he wanted. His response? ‘To go home.’ And why didn’t he want to stay in the nursing home? ‘There’s no graffiti nearby’.”

Thankfully it was agreed that Gordon could go home and live with Jane and Tom, however this took another two weeks while Jane and Tom prepared the array of tasks that needed completing before they could with the right support and equipment care for Gordon. “In the meantime, we hired a wheelchair from a shop in Penge and took Dad out from the nursing home. On our first trip, we covered the perimeter of a nearby park in light drizzle, while Dad bemoaned the lack of graffiti. The next day, we took him on the bus to Penge. So Dad did get to see Airborne Mark’s roaring origami lion after all – as well as a number of other brilliant works that recently popped up in the area…And when we got back to the nursing home, Dad opened the laptop we’d brought in for him and put the pictures on Flickr”.

Once Gordon left the home and everyone acclimatized to a chaotic life before settling into a routine and Gordon and his family had once again showed none of them would give up “and the improvement in Dad since he’d escaped from those four blank walls was incredible”. Gradually Gordon was able to go visit his favourite graffiti spots around London and as he was now in a wheelchair (as frustrating as he found it effecting his ability to get the shot he wanted) Gordon was able to travel with Jane and Tom and cover more ground than he had been able to a few months earlier. “Throughout rest of the autumn and the winter that followed, I must have wheeled Dad past the spot in Shoreditch where I’d sat and cried during the summer at least 20 times”.

43. dale grimshaw

Gordon and Jane posing with work by Dale Grimshaw in Shoreditch.

47. any colour you like paint jam

Works-in-progress by Ali Hamish, Tom Blackford, Elno, Aspire, Airborne Mark, Olivier Roubieu & Giusi Tomasello in Croydon for the Any Colour You Like Paint Jam. Now we organised this paint jam with our friend M_Frenchi and we have to say of all the walls or paint jams we have organised or even been out with someone painting, this was the coldest few days we have spent, with arctic winds and snow flurries, it was bloody freezing. But Gordon and his family came back every day to see the works develop and then catch them finished. That’s real dedication as a photographer, especially in such a condition with his health.

In early March a few weeks after attending the paint jam in Croydon, Gordon was rushed to hospital with aspiration pneumonia. On arrival the medical staff were able to stabilise his condition and Gordon found himself in another stuffy room again with four blank walls. Gordon was only in the hospital 36 hours and caught C-Diff again before Jane and Tom could get him home. Over the coming week Gordon’s condition declined and eventually he was admitted to St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham, the same place where his wife had died 22 years earlier. Despite all of this it wasn’t the end of Gordon’s ventures out around London with his camera to see some fresh graff.

48. irony

Work by Irony in Camden Town.

Two days after being admitted to the hospice the most recent course of antibiotics for Gordon’s various infections began to kick in and he was up and dressed, with a bit of colour in his cheeks, ready to go out and see some graffiti.

50. aero

“He was in the hospice for two weeks – but most days, we’d take him out to see old and new favourites in Sydenham, Penge, Forest Hill, Dulwich, Crystal Palace…On his 86th Birthday, Tom and I wheeled Dad out of the hospice, up through Crystal Palace Park and along to the central hill estate in Gipsy Hill, to see a beautiful new mural by Aero and Dope.”

51. dzia

“One day, DZIA painted a beautiful hare at the back of a shop. I told Dad as soon as I arrived at the hospice, and we were obliged to go straight out and see it. Heaven could wait.”

Gordon came home from the hospice on a Thursday and he, Jane and Tom went up to Shoreditch and Hoxton on the Saturday, followed on the Sunday by a trip to Croydon and then to Brixton and Stockwell, which was followed by a visit to Dulwich to see a new work by Joyce Treasure before culminating with a tour of some fresh work in Penge.

53. airborne mark

“That’s when disaster struck…Dad’s camera stopped working. he’d forgotten to charge the battery after the prolific Shoreditch trip the previous day. But there was still so much more graffiti to see including a new star-spangled mural by Airborne Mark on a garden wall in Penge. Dad was inconsolable. So I suggested he use my camera instead. And we kept on going…”.

Six days later Gordon was readmitted to the hospice and despite consistently beating the odds sadly Gordon passed away in April 2017 and in memory of such dedication in documenting the scene to the very end Gordon’s daughter Jane has compiled a moving and inspiring book entitled ‘How Graffiti Saved My Dad’s Life (At Least For A While)’ featuring some of Gordon’s many photos accompanied with his story which reads in a much more inspiring, loving and humorous manner than our version above. Truly shining light on the most strong willed of characters to not give up doing what they love. The beautifully presented book is only £6.99 with all proceeds being donated to St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham, South London, from where Gordon made some of his final graffiti expeditions. So not only is it a moving and inspiring story full of great pictures and superbly written, it is also for a good cause. Should you be interested you can purchase your copy here: 

inside back cover

RIP Gordon Gibbens.

It was a pleasure to meet Gordon on occasion, we always admired his spirit when seeing him around town snapping away and hope to have that much strength when we reach our limits. We would like to say thank you to Jane for sharing this story with us, it melts our hearts to have in some small way been able to make life a little more fun and interesting for Gordon and his family through the worst of times. We do what we do firstly because we love it, but also because what we believe street art and graffiti can offer an individual or community as a whole, we never thought it could bring so much though. While we haven’t done any of this for this purely for the reasons here, it instantly makes it all so much more worth while. Lastly we would like to thank all the artists who have painted for us in Penge and elsewhere, our friends who constantly help behind the scenes and everyone who has given us a space to paint. Look what public art can do, such as motivate a dying man not to give up and allow a family to hold on a little longer.

5 comments on “How Graffiti Saved a Man’s Life (At Least For A While)

  1. What a legend! A man after my own heart, and what a loving family to help him enjoy his passion until the end.

    Thanks for posting I’ll buy the book as a tiny tribute to Gordon, and look forward to seeing more of his pics.

  2. A lovely tribute guys. You don’t have to young or even trendy to appreciate the great art in the streets. It also shows these artists are approachable and keen to talk about their work.

  3. Just received and read this wonderful book I ordered thru the above link… Such lovely photos and what heart-warming text…. Jane has produced a real stunner here and what a fitting tribute to her dad, a most remarkable man indeed…. Love this book, one to treasure for sure…. I hope we see another book of Gordon’s photos.

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