IT'S HARD to imagine that six graffiti artists armed with ladders, brushes and gallons of paint would find a warm welcome in the hills of rural Argyll after stating their intent to transform the appearance of a tiny village overlooking Loch Fyne.
But if that village was a Brutalist concrete dump then perhaps you'd see why the presence of Derm, Rough (aka Remi), Timid, Stormy, System and Juice126 invoked a surprisingly positive response among locals and passers-by who saw them decorating the grey walls of Polphaill over the weekend.
Three months ago two of the six well-established artists – known collectively as Agents of Change – saw a BBC news report about Polphaill, known as the Ghost Village. It was built in the 1970s to house oil-rig construction workers but was never inhabited and later abandoned. It became news when its demolition, due to occur in December, was announced. Timid and Remi knew immediately that they wanted to paint it. But how to make it happen?
Luckily Timid's former career was as a BBC researcher who regularly scouted for locations. He knew what was required to get things moving. Having identified businessman Alan Bradley as the village's owner, he wrote, briefly explaining what Agents of Change were all about and requesting permission to paint Polphaill. 'Within 24 hours I got an e-mail back, saying: "Absolutely, as long as you're insured and you protect yourselves – go for it, guys!".'
So what does Polphaill look like now, I ask Remi over the phone as the Agents of Change head back to their respective homes in Edinburgh, Birmingham, London and Australia. "Colourful," is his reply. "One guy who could see the village from his house came over daily to see our progress. He said: 'I've had to look at this place every day and it's horrible. You've really brightened it up.' It's ironic that he's resented it for such a long time and now we've been able to transform it into something he loves looking at."
"The contrast between the architecture and the natural landscape was the kernel of our reason for doing it," Timid says. "There were a lot of blind alleys and blocked areas, so you could be walking along, turn a corner and there's a Stormy character right in front of your face, but you hadn't seen it coming because the line of sight was blocked."
"It's been incredibly exciting working in such different surroundings," says Derm, "miserable, cold and wet at times, but that's added to the project. Polphaill has been a point of contention for years, so anything happening at the village was bound to stir up annoyance. The locals didn't really understand what we were there to do at first, but in the end most were pleased to see something so colourful come out of it."
"Almost everyone reacted positively when they saw what we were doing – they loved it and started taking photos of themselves, posing with Stormy's characters in the background," says Timid. "It was a challenge working there," he adds, "but the challenge was what fuelled us and kept us going through a day of torrential rain – and the deep, all-pervading smell of sheep shit. Coming across sheep carcasses became a routine experience; there was a lot of broken glass underfoot and manholes 15ft deep. So we had to be careful, but it was workable."
Timid and Remi emphasise that they don't believe in ghosts, but both separately describe an eerie atmosphere and one inexplicably chilling discovery. "On the last day we cracked open a sealed door," says Timid. "We found a series of rooms that went back, getting progressively darker, until we reached the last one. I know when a room feels wrong. It's probably a feeling you produce in your own mind, but it was very, very dark and suddenly my torch picked out a small aperture in the wall. It was a three-foot high space with more rooms radiating off it.Then I noticed another closed door in the corner. It turned out to be a pristine bathroom, untouched, with immaculate washbasins and urinals, not even a single footprint on the tiled floor. And lying in the middle of the room was a dead sheep."
Graffiti has come a long way since the early 1980s, when American hip-hop culture inspired teenagers to spray-paint bus shelters with their "tags". They were making their presence felt, expressing individuality, but at the same time signifying allegiance to a fresh, exciting movement that incorporated new music, dance and fashion, all of which evolved on the streets.
The six Agents of Change – "We're all around 40 now," Remi says – were part of that movement and have matured with it, each one earning himself a high profile on the international scene. They may be exhibiting in galleries and undertaking professional commissions now, but the Polphaill project has the core qualities of graffiti, being both spontaneous and short-lived. So what is its value as a work of art?
For Timid, "the experience of doing it is central. You do your painting, you photograph it, you walk away. The photo's in your book, you show it to a friend, you tell them the story of how it was created – the storytelling aspect is a fundamental one. It creates its own history in the wider world. Long before the internet, these artworks were moving around on trains and people could look at them – there was an element of privilege in having seen it and I think there still is."
"Part of me thinks we didn't do enough and part of me's really pleased," adds Derm. "It's a good feeling to come away having contributed something to the area."
"When I think back on this, what I'll remember is us having a drink in the pub and people telling us how much they loved what we did," Timid says. "To know that the locals like it – that's the cherry on top."
• Matthew Lloyd's ten-minute film Pollphail will be screened at the London Film Festival in its landscape as character/short cuts strand on 26 & 27 October. www.bfi.org.uk