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Nat has herpes
Photograph: Time Out

How a neighbourhood meme went global: the fascinating story of Nat Has Herpes

From the backstreets of Hackney to downtown LA, a three-word graffiti captured our imaginations, but remains a mystery. We set out to get to the bottom of it

Written by
Alex Sims
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A man in a grey hoodie and black baseball cap is glaring at me. He flinches at the question I’ve just asked, threatening to send the collection of spray cans at his feet flying like skittles.

I ask him again: ‘Do you know anything about “Nat Has Herpes”?’

After an uneasy pause, he steadies himself and cracks a smile. ‘If I did, I certainly wouldn’t say anything more about it,’ he says, and continues spraying powdery white paint. 

Nat has herpes Joe Epstein LDN Graffiti
Photograph: Joe-Epstein / @LDNGraffiti

Around a decade ago, this three-word phrase – Nat Has Herpes – started popping up among the tapestry of aerosoled artworks that cover Hackney Wick. It was splashed across shop shutters, building sites and along the towpath of the River Lee Navigation. It was written in huge letters on a warehouse on White Post Lane and dotted on flyovers in Mabley Green. It appeared and spread seemingly out of thin air. The phrase itself made sense but everything else about it was inexplicable. And there was no clue as to who had put it there. The only distinctive thing about the words as they appeared thick and fast across E9 were the ‘Es’, written like backwards number ‘3s’.

No one knows who the person behind it all is. Unusually in our internet age, they’ve remained an enigma despite their work being plastered across social media. But, now we’re finally going to get to the bottom of the mystery. Whatever it takes.

So, who has herpes? 

Alex, who moved to Hackney Wick in 2011, remembers seeing the phrase all over the place during his first few years in the area. ‘You couldn’t miss it,’ he tells me. ‘I remember it was painted in massive writing along the side of the canal, you could see it from everywhere.’ Verity, who lived in a property guardianship in Hackney Wick between 2013 and 2016 also saw the words peppered across east London. ‘It was like a rite of passage to spot it,’ she says. ‘It summed up the area at the time, kind of rebellious and fun.’ 

Before long, Nat’s medical misfortune was documented on shopfronts down Brick Lane, squeezed on junction boxes in Chelsea, peppered across tiles in Soho toilets and spotted on Streatham wheelie bins. Tumblr feeds, Instagram accounts and Facebook pages were set up to track it down, with groups like ‘Shit London’ keeping tabs on its appearances across the city. The visceral combination of a stomach-churning virus and puerile humour seemed to capture our collective imagination. 

There were sightings from even further afield, too: Edinburgh, Sheffield and appearances on buildings in downtown Los Angeles, in a bar in Chicago and in Perth, Australia. It caught the eye of the media, with The Daily Mail musing on what it was all about. In the blink of an eye, this little piece of Hackney Wick humour had gone global.

I still remember the first time I spotted the slogan. It was around seven years ago, inscribed in spidery black letters on a wall in Bethnal Green. My friends and I took pictures any time we caught sight of it in the urban wilds and sent them to each other. At one time our phones were flooded with images taken all over the city, especially in east London, but as time marched on our Nat Has Herpes sightings started to dwindle.  

In the blink of an eye, this little piece of Hackney Wick humour had gone global

It wasn’t until the Covid pandemic of 2020 that ‘Nat Has Herpes’ started popping up again in earnest. This time written as ‘Nat has Covid’ and ‘NHS has heroes’. There was a spurt of collective joy on the internet when someone posted a photo on Facebook of the phrase with the word ‘herpes’ crossed out and ‘recovered’ written above in huge writing. ‘Thank God, I’ve been worried,’ wrote one commenter. ‘The good news we didn’t know we needed in 2020,’ said another. 

When Glastonbury Festival returned in 2022, squiggles of ‘Nat Has Herpes’ peppered the festival site. One particularly bold specimen was sprayed in giant black letters across a cream canvas that fenced off the luxury bell tents. There were even rumours that condoms with #nathasherpes written on them were being given out. Alex, who was at Glasto last year, said the phrase was sprayed around so much of the festival that someone asked him about it when they heard him joking about Nat with a friend. ‘It was nice to feel like you were in on the joke,’ he says. ‘It was like a little bit of home.’ 

The mystery that sends you mad 

As I set out on my mission to find out who instigated the whole Nat phenomenon, I swiftly discover that London graffiti circles are extremely secretive and getting answers proves far from simple. When I ask the founder of a popular London street art tour about ‘Nat Has Herpes’ they launch into an impassioned speech about it, before stopping mid-sentence, telling me they’ve ‘said too much’ and asking me not to print anything they’ve just let slip. I message the person behind an Instagram account that documents London graffiti about it. They reply frostily about having to check first before giving me any information and then ghost me. 

In exasperation, I take to the streets of east London, pouncing on anyone holding a spray can to ask if they know anything about Nat. After meeting plenty of graffers (including the unforthcoming baseball-capped man) I realise information is scarce, but what I do learn is that I’m not the only one who’s curious about Nat having herpes. A woman covering a carefully taped-out section of wall along the Lee Navigation Canal in bright lilac spray paint laughs with excitement when I ask her. ‘I used to see that everywhere,’ she says. ‘I think it’s brilliant. Tell me when you find out who’s behind it.’

The secret art of graffiti 

Why all the secrecy? Well graffitiing is an extremely risky pastime. Under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, anyone caught drawing on property that’s not theirs can face up to ten years in prison or a huge fine depending on how much damage their scribbling is deemed to have cost. And punishments can be harsh. In 2008, eight members of London’s DPM crew were sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison for causing an estimated £1m in graffiti-related damage – the biggest prosecution for graffiti ever in the UK. For many years, the Home Office ran a campaign called ‘Name That Tag’ offering people a £500 reward to grass up prolific public scrawlers.

This severity may seem surprising in a city that claims to accept, or even encourage and promote, urban art. Waterloo’s ‘graffiti tunnel’, Leake Street Arches, is a major tourist attraction; illicit works by the likes of Banksy and Stik are protected like precious frescoes and murals are commissioned by councils and businesses to brighten up dull areas of town. But, if there’s one thing you need to know about urban scribbling, it’s that there’s a massive difference between street art and graffiti.

Street art is outward-looking. It’s there to engage, communicate a message and make people want to take pictures of it for posterity. Graffiti, on the other hand, isn’t there to look pretty. It’s insular, done to speak to the rest of the scene and impress them with technical skill and daring. In essence: street art is accepted and considered attractive, graffiti is its wrong ’un half-brother and clamped down on.

Nat has herpes wall east London
Photograph: Anonymous

‘Graffiti writers are generally unknown because what they’re trying to achieve has a lot of illegal connotations,’ explains Joe Epstein, who runs LDNGraffiti, a database of London graffiti artists which chronicles the work of both established and up-and-coming writers. Whereas street art and murals can look similar no matter in what country they’re painted, graffiti usually has its own idiosyncratic local flavour. ‘London letter style is very specific,’ explains Epstein. ‘It’s very sharp with pointy edges. Commonly, it uses silver paint that looks like chrome with an outline in black to make it stand out. It’s different to the European style which uses bouncy, funky letter forms.’ 

For Epstein, ‘Nat Has Herpes’ is hard to categorise, because it has more of a story to tell than traditional writing-based graffiti you might see in London. ‘There’s an inherent message in it,’ he says. ‘It raises questions: maybe it’s a joke? Maybe it’s people taking the piss out of each other? It has an intrinsic human interest, maybe that’s why it’s caught on.’ 

Human hands have been inscribing witty, rude and random thoughts on walls for millennia. But the modern-day graffiti we see in towns and cities today has its roots in ’70s and ’80s New York. During these decades, subway-painting culture spread like wildfire through the city as writers tried to outdo each other with ever-more-complicated designs and colourful tags in daredevil locations. This new wave of graffiti culture made its way to London and The Westway flyover – that grey stretch of elevated dual carriageway running from Paddington to North Kensington – became its epicentre. In the ’70s, this great hunk of concrete and its labyrinth of underpasses became a sea of tags, colours and painted scrawls. The Westway tore through Notting Hill, which became a scribblers’ paradise thanks to its burgeoning communities of artists and countercultural squats. 

As gentrification took hold, these creative types gradually moved east and the graffiti followed. In fact, it’s fitting that ‘Nat Has Herpes’ should have its roots in Hackney Wick – now one of the most famous street art spots in the capital. Geographically isolated (there was no station here until 1980) the area was full of juddering factories until the early twentieth century. When these hives of industry were forced to close, the cavernous empty buildings were catnip to artists looking for airy studios at cheap prices. This creative atmosphere opened the graffiti floodgates and let loose a tidal wave of colour through the streets. Today, aerosoled jokes, painted murals and sprayed pithy political satires confront you as soon as you step out of Hackney Wick Overground. Tags reflect off the surface of the canal and the soft psssh of spray cans can be heard along the towpath. Graffiti is encrusted on the streets of Hackney Wick and woven into its DNA.

How did the virus go viral? 

So how did ‘Nat Has Herpes’ make it out of its east-London enclave to achieve global domination? Well, perhaps unbeknownst to the artist, the slogan actually ticks a lot of boxes that make for a successful city story. ‘London has a long history of urban legends,’ explains Dr Ceri Houlbrook, a lecturer in history and folklore at the University of Hertfordshire. The capital’s folk tales range from the stories of Spring Heeled Jack – a Victorian devil figure who leaped from rooftop to rooftop assaulting people in south London – to the Highgate Vampire – an apparently supernatural beast that left blood-drained animal corpses around the cemetery in the ’60s. What do they have in common? Well, they contain a specific set of ingredients that all but ensure cultural relevancy.

‘Urban legends spread because they’re a bit creepy or repulsive,’ says Houlbrook. ‘They elicit a strong reaction that keeps the story going. We love to be entertained and horrified. The same psychology that makes us watch gory horror films plays out with these disgusting urban legends.’ Blistering herpes sores definitely fall into this category. ‘Nat has herpes’ is also anonymous, another feature of urban legends which are usually full of mystery and intrigue.

These local myths also have a strong sense of place. ‘They’re often things that have happened recently, just around the corner to somebody you might know,’ says Houlbrook. ‘It brings it a lot closer to you and makes you feel part of the story.’ How many of us could know (or have known) a Nat?

Nat has herpes NHS has heroes
Photograph: Doug Gillen

‘The information we receive and pass on to people isn’t random, there are certain biases that make things more likely to draw our attention,’ says Dr Joe Stubbersfield, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester. ‘We’re more likely to remember stories about other people doing stuff. It’s an idea based on the theory that human intelligence evolved to keep track of complex social interaction.’ Humour is also a factor. ‘You tend to get more fun urban legends than scary ones,’ says Stubbersfield. ‘Quite a lot of these disgusting legends that evoke emotion are also funny.’  

It feels like ‘Nat Has Herpes’ was always destined to go viral. In the ephemeral world of graffiti, where a constant conveyor belt of tags are drawn, scrubbed away, painted over and overwritten, the legend of Nat was fated to outlast the physical words.

After weeks delving into Nat’s gnarly genital affliction, I know more than ever about it, apart from the most important thing of all: who’s behind it. ‘Nat Has Herpes’ starts to haunt me. It floats around my brain like white noise when I’m walking to work or watching TV. It’s all I can talk to my friends about when I see them. I even start to dream about finding ‘Nat Has Herpes’ scrawled on my bathroom mirror.

The plot thickens

I spend days trawling through Facebook groups and Reddit message boards looking for clues. My hopes are dashed when I see a Facebook comment saying someone remembers seeing ‘Nat Has Herpes’ written on a wall in London when he was a boy in the ’70s. Maybe there is no ‘artist’ behind it all. I start to feel like I’m on a wild goose chase. Then everything changes. 

A friend tells me they know a street artist who used to live in Hackney Wick and puts me in touch in the hope they can help. Their hunch proves correct. Jane Mutiny is a painter and street artist specialising in conservation and wildlife art. Her latest project, and most ambitious to date, is a collection of vivid animal paintings covering the wall of a former aquarium in London Zoo. Jane lived in Hackney Wick from 2011 and 2017 and began painting her own street art in 2015. She’s also a member of WOM, a female street art collective making space for themselves in a creative community that can be extremely male-dominated.

As a muralist, Jane asks for permission before she paints a spot. ‘I have a trolley and lots of paint, so I can’t move fast enough to be anonymous,’ she says. ‘Graffiti writers can easily get in trouble with the police. So you don’t want to be seen doing it and you don’t necessarily want to be known. That’s the case for “Nat Has Herpes”. They’re painting illegally, so that’s why they're anonymous and it’s just a rule to respect that.’ 

Like most of the Hackney Wick locals, graffiti experts and street artists I speak to, Jane says she knows the artist behind it. But surprisingly, this time I strike gold. She agrees to contact the artist and before I know it, I have their email address and they’ve asked me to get in touch. In keeping with the stubborn need for anonymity, ‘Nat’ (as they refer to themselves) sets out some firm rules: we can’t speak over the phone, just email and I must promise not to reveal the email address that’s been covertly passed on to me. I agree. 

Nat has herpes Joe Epstein LDN Graffiti
Photograph: Joe Epstein / @LDNGrafitti

It’s immediately clear there’s a collective of artists behind ‘Nat Has Herpes’ – as is often the case with prolific graffiti. The person (or people) answering my questions refers to ‘we’ and ‘us’ and the answers are as enigmatic as the graffiti itself; pithy and droll, half joke, half serious. 

When did you first become interested in graffiti and how did you get into it? I ask. ‘Like most kids, we started scribbling on walls, unlike most kids, we never stopped,’ is the reply. They confirm that Hackney Wick is where Nat had its origins. ‘Hackney Wick was a place where all our friends either lived, worked or partied. That was where the slogan was first done and it radiated out across the world from there.’ They describe the graffiti as ‘a love letter to our friend Nat’, who they say does indeed exist. When I probe more and ask if Nat is male or female, the reply is vague. ‘We find that this subject comes up a lot. It’s fascinating to see how much gender can shape people’s response to the work,’ they say. ‘Everyone is bound to bring their own experience and lens to the interpretation anyway. We don’t want to let the truth get in the way of a good story.’

Despite the slogan’s ubiquity, no one has ever been caught spraying it. When I ask if they plan places to write it in advance, another wry reply follows: ‘Everything is very organised. We hold weekly meetings in our Knightsbridge office. Dave keeps the minutes; Dorothy brings the tea and I’m the brains of the whole operation. Unfortunately, we had to let Steve from accounts go, he kept stealing company pens so we’ve been finding it a bit hard to balance the books recently.’

It’s fascinating to see how much gender can shape people’s response to the work

The responses become more earnest when I ask how it feels to be entirely anonymous while their work becomes increasingly legendary. ‘We never had any intention for it to get as popular as it has,’ they reply. ‘It was immediately noticeable that onlookers were bringing their own histories and theories to interpret the statement. Everyone knows a Nat and everyone thinks it’s their Nat.’ They find its success as ‘a mix of bewilderment, curiosity and pride’. There’s even a book of exclusive photos and memoirs about the graffiti due to be published in the spring. ‘It reinforces to us how uncommissioned public art can be something that people actually enjoy and connect with,’ they expand. ‘Today’s mural-saturated streets, with large corporate ads masquerading as art, are so prevalent that viewers have become desensitised. It’s refreshing to see something so ephemeral be treasured by as many people as it has.’

They say that ‘Nat Has Herpes’ ‘sits completely separately’ from other work they might be known for and they’re comfortable with that. ‘There has never been a want to be personally known for this,’ they continue. ‘In 2015, the Telegraph newspaper reported that the top three job aspirations for young people was to be either rich, famous or a police officer – none of these will bring you any happiness. Plus, there is something pretty special about sitting in a pub and overhearing honest feedback from people talking about it.’

A community on the edge 

As we converse, what shines through most of all is their love of Hackney Wick. ‘Generations of artists have called Hackney Wick home. Fashion, art, music and madness collided and fused together in the fringes and shadows of the city,’ they say. ‘From Banksy and Burning Candy to the Bridget Riley Studios and the Chapman brothers, the Wick has been a place of refuge and growth for London’s contemporary art community over decades. The culture being used to promote the redevelopment is the same one that will be lost because of it.’ 

The writing was always on the wall for the Wick, given its prime Zone 2 location, but regeneration arrived with gusto when the 2012 Olympic Games came to town, which along with shiny sports arenas, landscaped parks and suddenly re-paved streets also brought glamorous apartment blocks and rapidly rising house prices.

Nat has herpes Hackney Wick
Photograph: Anonymous

In some ways, ‘Nat Has Herpesis the story of London’s gentrification. ‘You used to see “Nat Has Herpes” everywhere, but you don’t see it as much, if at all, here now,’ says Alex.

Nat has similarly bleak views on gentrification. ‘Some of the things, for us, that made the Wick a place of immense creative outlet and such a close-knit community, have gone. The nights of solitude on dimly lit streets and the ever-present hum of drum and bass from warehouses are a distant memory,’ they say. ‘In certain pockets of the Hackney Wick and Fish Island, the artistic community seems more like museum attractions than the naturally occurring phenomenon it once was.’

The creative community that found a home in this harsh industrial landscape in the ’80s and ’90s ‘is increasingly harder to see’, they say. Still, Jane is optimistic. ‘There’s always going to be people out there keeping it raw and real,’ she says. ‘There’s always going to be subversive stuff that goes against gentrification because we need it.’ 

The more I’ve learnt about graffiti on my Nat Has Herpes journey, the more I’ve realised how essential an act it is. There’s a reason humans have been making marks on walls from time immemorial. It’s a way of branding ourselves on to the world, marking our existence. It’s inherently anarchic, a revolt against the neat, tidy, corporate city streets and a celebration of the chaos it is to be human. These messy tags, slogans and words tell the stories of our city – layers of human thought encrusted on our streets. As long as Nats are still risking it all to write about herpes, it’s proof that London is here, thinking, breathing, living.

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