“Speak softly, but carry a big can of paint” – Banksy
Graffiti is undoubtedly something we are all familiar with. An urban cityscape scattered with varying clusters of scribbled drawings and painted words is a sight many see, and sadly loathe, on a daily basis.
In a contemporary world, the debate about whether graffiti is vandalism or art is incredibly polarising and highly debated – and even in the most unsuspecting of environments, the divide is often clear. On the one hand, there are the vibrant, colourful and expressionistic designs – and the other we see starkly sprayed text communicating blunt profanities. The question is, can one be considered art and the other vandalism, or rather are both merely illegal eyesores that need to be erased?
Modern graffiti is closely associated with its ‘tagging’ origins, which began in the late 1960s in Philadelphia – this being the practice of writing a name or title in a prominent location, which then acts as a sign of ownership of that space. Many consider this to be why graffiti still holds such negative connotations, because the fundamental ‘ownership’ of public spaces which tagging represents is so closely ingrained in vandalism. To many, tagging is also interpreted as an indication of the presence of gangs, which is something that continues to immerse graffiti in negative public perceptions.
Like many art forms however, graffiti has evolved throughout the years, gaining acceptance as an artistic form of self-expression – from stark black and white stencil pieces protesting against politics and police, to vibrant murals advocating diversity and freedom. Throughout this time, we have also seen graffiti spill into established gallery spaces – something which British artist Banksy is undoubtedly credited with, along with helping to legitimise graffiti as a recognised art form.
Back in 2003, Banksy famously snuck his work into the Tate Modern – and yet years later the Gallery gave ‘street art’ the stamp of approval, after covering its riverside facade in giant murals created by six urban artists. Banksy’s work – characterised by his distinctive stencilling technique and bold political satire and social commentary – now also sells for six figure sums, with many celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt purchasing his pieces.
Could it be then, that graffiti which has something to say, and has real intent, draws the line between whether it is art, or in fact vandalism? Many believe that, alongside the intent of a graffiti piece, its aesthetic qualities also need to be taken into consideration. Enthusiasts passionately advocate that larger pieces of work – ones that require imagination, planning and hold artistic quality – can be considered art, as opposed to the simple scribbles that hold little aesthetic appeal.
There are numerous books and blog pieces that discuss art and graffiti, and reference an essay by George C. Stowers which focuses upon the recognition of some forms of art as graffiti. Stowers explains in his essay that graffiti cannot be disregarded because it is not presented in conventional locations – and that even if graffiti has been created without permission, while it may be vandalism it should still not be disqualified as art.
That being said, would a home or business owner be more accepting of graffiti on their home or commercial premises if it were beautifully intricate and meaningful? We’re thinking this is highly unlikely. In an article published by the New York Times in 2014, this very point is cited immediately, followed by the statement that “The question ‘when does graffiti become art?’ is meaningless.”
Shortly after, the article goes on to explain that “Graffiti is always vandalism” and “whether particular viewers find any given piece of graffiti artistically compelling is irrelevant.” The article also surmises that there is nothing ‘progressive’ about allowing public amenities to be defaced by graffiti – but surely if this were true, places such as London’s popular Leake Street Tunnel and Miami’s Wynwood Walls, where graffiti is not only legal, but celebrated, would simply not exist?
American artist Elura Emerald, insists that artists who paint on the street are merely expressing themselves, not hurting anyone, and should not be punished – but should be ‘appreciated and celebrated’. However, given that graffiti is punishable in the UK through fines, or even prison sentences – it’s hard to ignore the importance of the specific location of the graffiti in whether it can be considered art, or the punishable crime of vandalism.
Ultimately, whether beautifully crafted with intricate detail, a powerful message and the best of intentions, graffiti, if on public property will be considered as vandalism. Sadly, as long as this illegal activity continues, graffiti’s power as an art form will long continue to be questioned, rather than collectively celebrated as a highly influential form of inspirational creativity.
As designers, we are captivated by graffiti as an art form and we think that anyone creating these masterpieces illegally should be encouraged to put their creativity to better use in a commercial environment and make some money from their work – but perhaps the illegal aspect is the reason they do it in the first place! It’s an interesting conundrum which will continue to divide opinion – and on the subject of ‘divided opinions’, in our next Blog post we’re going to talk about tattoos, which should certainly generate some interesting debate!
In the meantime, our discussions in the office inspired Rich to create his very own (legal!) graffiti offering on a builder’s hoarding near our office – take a look at the video below to see a short time-lapse of him bringing it to life . . .