Is graffiti art or vandalism?
What are your feelings about graffiti that boldly crops up on bridges, subway cars, walls, etc.? Graffiti makes statements about identity, politics, and art, but it has also been associated with destruction and vandalism.
Graffiti refers to the writings, scribblings, markings, drawings, sketches, spray paintings, or initials made on public property such as sidewalks, walls, public restrooms, transport stations, etc. It has been around for a long time. Some associate graffiti with defacing property, while others regard it as art. You have probably walked by graffiti hundreds of times, sometimes admiring the artist’s talent and sometimes ignoring it or even getting annoyed by it.
In the US, it is one of the establishing components of the hip-hop culture and its origins can be traced to the 1960s. However, people often view graffiti with a negative connotation, associating in part areas that have lots of graffiti with being overrun by criminal activity. However, to others and most artists, it is an expression of identity, community, artistry, and politics.
It can be said, therefore, that whether graffiti is art or vandalism lies in the eyes of the beholder. While in most places graffiti is illegal, graffiti artists remain anonymous but still take risks to create murals and designs that express what they feel. On the other hand, vandalism is defined as the intentional mischievous or malicious destruction of property.
As mentioned earlier, graffiti is not a new thing; in fact, it has some ancient beginnings and an important place in culture. The word ‘graffiti’ comes from the Italian word ‘graffere’, which refers to ‘scratch on a surface’, something that can be done with almost any media such as pencil, stickers, spray paint, charcoal, etc., and can either be temporary or permanent.
Historians trace graffiti back to the Paleolithic Age when cave art and paintings were made over 10000 years ago. Though the purpose of cave art is largely based on theories that historians come up with, such as documentation of important events or a way for ancient humans to pass time, this conversation is eerily similar to that of modern graffiti.
What’s the purpose of graffiti? This is an important question because while some people are not inclined to view graffiti as street art because of the illegality associated with it, it raises doubt that we may have given graffiti a bad rep before giving it a critical examination.
Fast forward from the Paleolithic Age, etchings and paintings continued to be a way for people to document their diverse stories and an interesting insight into human history. For instance, in ancient Greece, ancient graffiti included a brothel advertisement to a depiction of Jesus. Graffiti in Pompeii ranged from sexual imagery and stories to graffiti telling of important events or simply stating the equivalent of the modern “X was here”.
The further we head into the modern era, the more graffiti appears in many different cultures, from the Vikings to Asian cultures, African cultures, Indians, and many more. Today, the evidence of graffiti artists’ work remains and these comments, paintings, drawings, prose, poetry, etc., tell of love, identity, community, experiences, politics, art, and social issues of the day.
Perhaps the reason graffiti took on a negative connotation, especially with the authorities, is partly because from the early days to today, graffiti has served as a voice for the people who stand in opposition to the choices of mainstream society and the government.
What’s graffiti to the artists?
It has been a tool to not only express personal stories but also, to express cries for revolution and react to social injustice. It can also be an attempt to reclaim spaces, among other ideas. And to complicate the topic even further, the debate regarding whether graffiti is art or vandalism also varies and depends on many factors ranging from the location of the graffiti to the quality of the graffiti and the message in the design, making it hard to have a clear answer.
In the US, since the 60s, hip hop, graffiti, and skateboarding peacefully coexisted, with most skateboard parks and hip hop communities doubling as areas for self-expression using graffiti and no one complains about it. However, beyond these areas, people have been socialized to see graffiti as an eyesore or evidence of social breakdown.
For graffiti artists, it is their way of expressing their imagination and the beauty of their art with the blessing of the community or on public property. So while one would argue that graffiti is an artist’s right to their freedom of expression and appeal to an audience beyond the artistic elite, not everyone would want to have their property painted on without consent.
So, does this mean that graffiti is only art when there is consent or when it is legal? That’s yet another facet of this complex debate. We’d argue that though there are exceptions and there’ll always be exceptions, graffiti deserves to be regarded as art because of the following reasons:
It takes technical artistic skill
We bet you have come across incredibly intricate designs that span over large areas. Like any art, it takes time, effort, talent, and skill to create brilliant artworks and graffiti is no exception. Indeed, some graffiti made in hard-to-reach areas or covering entire buildings require an immense level of artistic talent and technical ability.
The complex achievements made by graffiti artists require great strategic planning, imagination, and understanding of color and composition while also evading the law, which is no mean feat. While this is not true for all graffiti created in the world, just like in other areas, there is always bad and good art, depending on the beholder.
Some graffiti artists are renowned for their exceptional works and impressive skills. For instance, the artist Retna has a distinct calligraphic style and has gone on to cover entire buildings with this style, such as the 21-story Cuahtemoc building in Mexico City.
It’s an affirmation of freedom of expression
Graffiti is art combined with freedom of expression. Graffiti is one of the art forms that exercises freedom of expression even more than other forms of art. Expressing artistic freedom and creativity in the streets means that the artists do not have to worry about critics, buyers’ art curators, etc. and can therefore be at their most unrestrained and anonymous selves.
As a result, no subjects are off the table for graffiti artists and this freedom of artistic expression helps them create more authentic, exciting and unconventional works of art.
It is a form of political and social expression
Many graffiti works are a powerful commentary on the political and social issues of their time. For instance, the graffiti artist Banksy has become world-famous due to his subversive and often-times humorous statements on the political issues and social climate around the world.
His art on Palestinian rights, Syria’s situation, and the healthcare workers during the pandemic have been thought-provoking statements that shed light and draw attention to the plight of the people involved. That graffiti artwork can resonate with the people involved, is because they are created on the streets where the target audience of the social and political issues live.
Graffiti, therefore, tends to relate to ordinary people, making it a valid form of art that is not created solely for the artistic elite or a potential buyer’s appreciation.
Graffiti adds life to drab spaces
Art has meaning and is beautiful and a large share of graffiti is incredibly beautiful, transforming drab spaces and even resulting in street art tours worldwide. Some of the magnificent graffiti works in different cities feature gorgeous designs, bold colors, shapes, and patterns.
These creations transform previously dull spaces into places with a pop of color and life and are exciting to see and be in. We use art on canvas, paper, and frames to transform our homes and it is only fair to see graffiti as art that decorates and transforms the places outside our homes too.
It has drawn huge sales
There is money in graffiti art, which is another demonstration of the artistic value of graffiti. For instance, art by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Banksy, Retna, Mr. Brainwash, Keith Haring, and other graffiti artists have made huge sales.
While artistic value shouldn’t only be determined by the price a piece of work fetches, it is undeniably clear that for graffiti works to fetch high sums of money proves its prestige, respect, beauty and value in the artistic community.
Indeed, such is the prestige and appreciation of graffiti as a form of street art that many cities have programs to support young artists pursuing this form of art. Big corporations also engage graffiti artists in their advertising campaigns.
Barcelona or Berlin, for instance, has famous legal graffiti walls and South America makes it to the top of street art tours due to its magnificent graffiti scene where graffiti is embedded into their culture and tradition, resulting in truly spectacular artistry. It, therefore, would be wildly inaccurate, not to mention reductive, to state that graffiti is vandalism.
Graffiti as art
You encounter paintings and drawings all the time but do not consider them vandalism because they are confined to the canvas, open space, room, or frame. Most art is viewed as a passion for the artistic elite and the privileged class who can visit museums and debate on artworks, then head to a galley to pay vast amounts of money for the art pieces.
However, this is very exclusionary, which is not what art is meant to be. Art is art and just because an artist has chosen a wall space as their platform for their expression does not take away their artistic value or talent.
Not to mention, graffiti is a way to make the public in their own spaces see the good and ugly of society, and its rebellious spirit and freedom of expression and commentary make it get a bad rap from most authorities and the elite. We can say that graffiti is up close and personal with societal and political issues and the impact of these issues. As such, this is art that is not snobbish.
It is an art form that does not care to be liked by buyers, critics, curators, etc., but art that is raw and as real as can be. With the various graffiti artists gaining recognition and appreciation, slowly, people are beginning to realize that graffiti is not as bad as it has been made out to be. The bad rep it has acquired only serves to detract from what it is – art.
Graffiti as vandalism
Graffiti is expressed on public property, which authorities in many areas and cities find to be the destruction of said property. This view trickles down to people and, in addition, makes it seem as though graffiti is a distraction from work. The money used to revamp and reclaim the spaces that graffitists have made marks upon reinforces this notion because this use of public funds could be directed elsewhere.
Another reason why graffiti has long gained the tag of vandalism is because of its controversial history. In its early days, graffiti was often associated with gangs and crime, which is a tough association to shake off. However, as graffiti continues to become more intricate and gain social acceptance, there is a connection with the general public and ordinary folk. The debate continues. And besides, people will always argue about what constitutes art without coming to a unanimously acceptable decision. Perhaps that is what makes street art interesting.
For street art such as graffiti, some artists revel in its illegality, some enjoy the challenge of competing where there are no rules and the freedom of expression is exhilarating. We can enjoy seeing graffiti gain public support and in collaboration with artists. Maybe over time, the laws will follow suit to recognize graffiti as a legitimate and legal form of expression, thus bringing the anonymous artists out of the underground to stand proudly by their works of art.
In a nutshell, most people who view graffiti as vandalism may do so because they have been socialized to believe so due to its illegality in most areas. However, before you take this as the truth, we encourage you to take another stand and keep all of the above in mind.
This will help you see that graffiti are art and benefits the public with its nuanced and mostly personal and social commentary, stunning designs, political and splendid artistic statements, and essentially rebellious spirit that embodies the very essence of art. After all, to the graffiti artists, it is freeing and their commentary, expression, and colors know no limits.