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Graffiti: Vandalism or Art?

Watch any movie set in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, or even Montreal and you are sure to find it in the background. Should it be considered good art direction to include these forms of vandalism in a movie? First we have to understand what art truly is and what constitutes graffiti. When did graffiti start and how was it used? Has it changed from its original implications? Who is responsible for continuing the art form? In my opinion, graffiti is only considered art by the intended audience. To everyone else, it is just vandalism.

Before we can decide if graffiti can be classified as art we have to first understand how to define art. It’s a very lofty concept because art can be anything. It can be an upside-down urinal, a tapestry, finger-painting, etc. But the real question should be; can anything be art? Just because someone writes their name on the side of a building with their urine doesn’t make them an artist. Therefore, why should it be different if the milieu is spray paint or stencils? Art can be absorbed in so many ways with various intentions that it is very difficult to nail down exactly what art is. Graffiti has a very concrete definition but leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Use of the word graffiti has been expanded to basically capture any symbols illicitly scrawled onto any surface in a public place. With that said most things that are considered vandalism by law fall into the bucket of graffiti.

The beginnings of graffiti are difficult to determine with such a wide understanding of the medium. In the ancient Greek city of Ephesus one can find a handprint that slightly resembles a heart and a footprint from centuries ago, symbolizing that a brothel was nearby.

Graffiti in ancient Greece was much more cartoonish; caricatures of politicians, poetry, and declarations of love were more common. The difference between the cartoons in Greece and Egyptian hieroglyphics is that in Egypt, the drawings were used to record history as opposed to Greece where writing on the wall wasn’t as much recording history as it was acting like a symbolic soap box for anyone with a sharp rock.

It is easy to see that graffiti is hard to nail down as a specific type of drawing or symbol as it can encompass any and all of them. French soldiers carving their names on Egyptian monuments during the Napoleonic Campaigns of the 1790’s can be considered the same as in Hollywood when a famous actor leaves their handprints or when someone decides to write their name in a newly cemented sidewalk. Someone can spray paint a sign of protest or simply a funny nickname. Names, dates, R.I.P., ILY, and thousands of various gang signatures all fall into the same bucket. More recently it has been used as viral marketing for various movies or video games while the concept of pledging allegiance to a particular 1970’s rock band or social hero has been around even longer than the invention of spray paint in 1949. There is even a new type of graffiti called “reverse graffiti” where a wall is stenciled using a high-powered water hose, leaving the cleanest part of the wall to be the picture.

But if all graffiti can be art, why are there so many community clean-up projects solely aimed at painting over long murals? Why do other neighborhoods take pride the same types of murals?

Perhaps it has something to do with the artist. Some pieces have led to their creators becoming noteworthy. Most recently, the world has been introduced to Banksy, a modern graffiti “artist” from England whose works have been shown in exhibits, a documentary made about him, and some of his art has sold for thousands of dollars and yet no one even knows who he is. The most likely reason for his anonymity is that if he is caught “making art” he can go to jail for a very long time for all of the pictures he has painted, despite being a world renowned “artist.” His name itself is just as important as the images he creates.

“Tagging” a form of graffiti which started with just a basic nomenclature has evolved into beautiful multicolored pieces. What was once just a way to buck the system and show pride in one’s abilities with a spray can slowly became more than just marring the background of mundane lives. Anarchistic punk band Crass spent the late 1970’s and early 1980’s stenciling in the name of feminism, pacifism, and anti-consumerism and were considered “art-punk”. Today, it is hard to walk past a train yard without reading years of messages, hastily painted onto the metal sides of the railroad cars.

In our highly polarized political climate, graffiti has taken on a role of protest. Gone are the days of “Clapton is God” or “Black Flag”. Today graffiti has its own art exhibits, auctions, and even photographs of graffiti are considered art. In Libya, graffiti was used to signify places to meet to fight rebel militia. In New York, Occupy Wall Street was canvassed with all sorts of graffiti. Now more than ever graffiti is being considered as not just vandalism but also art as well as a form of communication. Not every form of communication of course should be considered art. For every stunning memorial to a fallen celebrity that can be seen in California there is an equal and opposite “For a Good Time Call…” lurking in some bus station.

So, who decides that when Banksy tags a building it is art but when someone carves “Obama Sucks” into the wall of a public restroom it is considered vandalism? Were soldiers during WWII creating art when they wrote “Kilroy Was Here” or were they just trying to show future citizens that they were there? Most importantly, is there a difference? Art can be interpreted in many ways by many different people. In fact, 100 people can look at the Di Vinci’s Mona Lisa and each one of them can come away with a different reaction. Some of them could even believe that the Mona Lisa isn’t art. Some of them could just see it as a painting of some androgynous woman while others believe it is one of the most highly recognizable pieces of fine art in the world.

I believe the answer lies heavily on the intended audience. That is what art is ultimately about, finding an audience. Even if an artist is painting a picture for posterity or a commissioned mural for a local school, defining the result as art is up to the audience. For example, think of any raunchy limerick that could be scratched into the underneath of an old school desk. The principal of the school, of which that desk is private property, will undoubtedly call that kind of artistic expression vandalism. To other students that discover it years down the line, it could be considered an artistic statement.

When a graffiti artist “throws up” an overnight piece that coats the side of a building in vivid colors with striking lines, even if the message is as easily relatable as “Cookies Are a Sometimes Food”, the owner of that building might not see the beauty and delicate finesse that it takes to create such a message. What is considered art to one is just as easily vandalism to another. Today’s Banksy could be tomorrow’s juvenile delinquent. It just depends on how big into the art scene the police are.

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