Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism ? Questions of Art, Advertising and Public Space

September 3, 2015

”Is it art?” A question sometimes said and heard in museums, galleries, movie theatres, concert arenas, any place of creation. One such place is also the street, where the spectators often seem to wonder: "Is graffiti art or vandalism ?" If we take into consideration that graffiti have been around since prehistoric times, it sounds as if this debate is all too hoary; however, we shall look at graffiti as the phenomenon of a much more recent period, and in that context, the debate is only about fifty years old. As a response to modernism and social segregation, graffiti became the means of communication and identity for young people in New York City in the 1970s. The famous story of the NYC subway graffiti culture and the almost two-decade long struggle of the authorities to eradicate tagging represent the starting point of the conversation, a hot topic of the art world even today.

is graffiti art people work new york does subway museum search like just style form artist considered
A building defaced by graffiti tags. Even within graffiti community, tags are considered as non-creative. Image by Casey Kelbaugh for the New York Times

Graffiti - The Art of the Outlaws

To understand graffiti, we shall observe it as a form of street art which usually involves tagging, but also the creation of more complex paintings. From its earliest days, it was done outside the law, with writers taking big risks when making their works, this sometimes leading to their arrests. The excitement of being a renegade and the fear of getting caught is what many artists consider the very core of graffiti culture, especially during the days of rough, growing competition and the willing to become as good at drawing as you possibly could. When caught in act, however, the writers get charged with vandalism, fined, and given community service hours during which they help clean up graffiti. By definition, it is “an action involving deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property”, and while we can’t argue that graffiti (mostly tags, considered a reductive form of art within graffiti community itself) often end up on someone’s walls, we do have to wonder if it really is “destruction” and if, perhaps, we’ve been asking the wrong question the whole time.

is graffiti art people work new york does subway museum search like just style form artist considered
Banksy's Graffiti mocking the city officials dedicated to tag removal

Is Graffiti Still Vandalism If It’s… Legal?

Let’s put it like this - someone painted over your house and, of course, you’re not too happy about it. No one has the right to do that without your permission and, without even looking at it, you can pronounce it vandalism. But would you feel the same way if you saw a really breathtaking piece of graffiti art on an otherwise dull wall in the city? The authorities wouldn’t care if it was a drawing in the range of a Picasso - if it’s painted on an owned property, it’s an act of vandals. So, does that mean that graffiti is art if it’s done legally? Or on a property, but with permission? That would surely explain the immense success it had within museum and gallery walls worldwide, with artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey having important exhibitions and making serious money from making their artworks. If created on canvas and placed on a wall at, say, Tate Modern, graffiti becomes a respectable form of art. Street art, in general, is a highly polarising matter, where contradictions create and depend upon themselves, yet what’s sure is that it’s called “street” art for a reason, and its public existence is still crucial for its spirit.

is graffiti art people work new york does subway museum search like just style form artist considered
Legal Graffiti walls and buildings in Stockholm. Image via

Paint the Picture of the Future

If graffiti’s only problem is the location, why not think about a universal solution? What if its purpose of being the voice of the young and the vibrant ornament of grey urban architecture became all that matters? Today, there are many urban art festivals around the world, created to promote street art everywhere and to encourage young creatives to pursue their dreams. Many of them are city-funded as well, with a scope of beautifying the environment with some extraordinary artworks. Even big corporations such as Red Bull, Adidas or 55DSL engaged graffiti talents in their advertising campaigns, over and over again. In cities like Stockholm and neighborhoods as Brooklyn’s Bushwick, you can find the world’s most famous legal graffiti walls areas, where tagging, bombing and writing are actually required. And just think of South America and its versatile art scene, where street arts are so embedded in culture and tradition that it’s impossible to imagine them otherwise. With all this in mind, we encourage you to think of graffiti as art and a public good, with its nuanced social commentary, splendid artistry and rebellious spirit - just like art is supposed to be.

   Editors’ Tip: The Popular History of Graffiti: From the Ancient World to the Present

The Popular History of Graffiti: From the Ancient World to the Present, written by artist Fiona McDonald, questions our culture's urge to do graffiti since 30,000 BCE. From the band Black Flag, Lee Quinones to Fab 5 Freddy, Dandi, Zephyr, Blek le Rat, Nunca and Keith Haring, the book promises to be an important and dynamic addition to graffiti literature, illustrated with stunning full-color photos of graffiti throughout time. When did graffiti turn into graffiti art, and why do we now pay thousands of dollars for a Banksy print when just twenty years ago, seminal graffiti artists from the Bronx were thrown into jail for having the same idea? Graffiti has not always been imbued with a sense of aesthetic, but when and why did we suddenly “decide” that it is worthy of consideration and criticism?
All images used for illustrative purposes only.