“I don’t want to be the graffiti man – just Simon Sunderland the artist.”
Those were the words to The Star of the man once described as Britain’s King of Graffiti, following his release from a jail sentence during which his case became a national cause célèbre.
Sunderland was locked up for five years in 1996, aged 23, for daubing the tag ‘Fista’ across South Yorkshire in the most eye-catching places he could find - from public buildings and walls to motorway flyovers and lampposts.
But the lengthy prison term - coming after several months spent on remand - sparked outrage, with supporters including MPs and musicians leading calls for him to be freed. He was eventually released more than a year later when his sentence was cut on appeal.
Sunderland later vowed to put his criminal past behind him, and concentrate on legitimate fine art, enrolling on a course at Barnsley College and even enjoying the distinction of a solo exhibition at the Archipelago gallery on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield.
Some of Sunderland’s handiwork was colourful and eye-catching, apparently intended as a protest at a world dominated by greed and big business.
The rest consisted simply of his hastily-scrawled tag.
Other, darker, reasons for his compulsion emerged too.
Sunderland was sent to a mental hospital suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and he also racked up convictions for petty theft and burglary. And it would appear he was unable to resist the temptation to pick up his spray paints again.
He relapsed in 2002 and was jailed for 11 weeks for painting bridges with the word ‘Ajax’.
Then in 2010 British Transport Police and Network Rail appealed to catch the culprit behind a new and worryingly prolific graffiti tag, ‘Bloodaxe’, which appeared on walls, bridges, signs and fences beside railway lines in South Yorkshire.
Now Sunderland, at the age of 41, has come clean and admitted responsibility for his part in the ‘Bloodaxe’ campaign, causing over £90,000 of damage from January 2008 to October 2009 around Sheffield, Rotherham and Chesterfield.
The mysterious figure Banksy proved graffiti could gain respect when his works attracted critical acclaim and began selling for huge sums.
But troubled Simon Sunderland, who also longed to be considered a serious artist almost two decades ago, seems to be drawn to a more destructive path - one that once again has left him languishing behind prison bars.