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Graffiti As Art Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4027 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Although graffiti and street art have only been made publicly popular for about thirty years, they have raised many critical issues within neighborhoods as well as within the art community. It is technically illegal in most cities to deface private property but many graffiti artists would argue that it simply provides a positive addition to the cityscape. Does this then make it an acceptable art movement? Also, is graffiti only art when it is placed in an official gallery and put on display or does this completely take away the whole point of street art, which is supposed to be some sort of social liberation? My argument is not whether or not graffiti on public property is vandalism but whether it should even be considered an art. Is graffiti post-modernism or neo-expressionism? Or is it just vandalism? I am also digging a little deeper into the subjects of graffiti and street art and looking into what happens to the authenticity of them when it is taken off of brick walls, buses, and trains and put onto canvas and into a gallery. Does it only become art when it hits the galleries? And then if so, do only elitists have the privilege to see these works of art? Again if so, is that not going against everything that graffiti has ever stood for and continues to stand for? In this paper I will be hitting information about what is graffiti, who is doing it, why they are doing it, and what makes graffiti in a gallery space so much more acceptable than on public property.

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What Exactly Is Graffiti?

The topics of graffiti and street art have interested me for quite some time. My own work is highly influenced by this controversial art movement and yet I have found myself less educated about the subject than I had liked. I knew that I believed that graffiti was its own art movement but I was never really sure what the official definition of it was.

On the official graffiti.org website, graffiti is defined as a “…term applied to an arrangement of institutionally illicit marks in which there has been an attempt to establish some sort of coherent composition. Such marks are made by an individual or individuals (not generally professional artists in an academic sense) upon a wall or other surface that is usually visually accessible to the public.” [1]. This is the definition of graffiti in the simplest of terms. Graffiti is, in my opinion at least, an art form that has been established and developed for hundreds of years and continues to grow in popularity today.

The beginning of the street art and the graffiti phenomenon started in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York. But graffiti has been around since the ancient times. Examples of graffiti have even been found on ancient Roman architecture. Graffiti art has also been seen as an influence and interest to the earlier artists such as Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet [2].

The original purpose of graffiti during the late twentieth century was to inform the public about social and political problems that were arising in the area. Graffiti was

considered to be a silent but highly effective protest against whatever problem that society

[1] Oxford Art Online

[2] Http://www.graffiti.org

was facing at the time.

Some graffiti artists are even given permission to work on public spaces. These are often referred to as murals and generally have a message and its ideas are shared by the owners of the space being used. Murals are any pieces of graffiti on a public space that encompasses more than the writers basic tag. They range in size, context, and location depending on the artist and the message they are trying to convey. These murals require a high level of skill and experience. These murals are not to be confused with the more well known “art” of tagging and bombing which require little to no skill at all [1].

Tagging As Art?

There is a large difference between graffiti art and tagging or bombing, however. Tagging and bombing are stylized signatures or logos unique to each graffiti writer. These are simple attempts by artists to easily and quickly gain recognition and to visually put themselves out there. It is no more a piece of art than an autograph of a celebrity is. It is merely a calling card of sorts and should not be looked upon as proper art. An unknown graffiti artist was even quoted as saying “…Not one in a hundred taggers have ideas and style enough for even one mural.” [3] It seems that even in the graffiti and street art world, there is a definite difference between artists and taggers.

[1] Oxford Art Online

[3] Lachmann 1998, pp. 231

One form of tagging, rightfully known as “pissing”, is the act of taking a refillable fire

extinguisher and replacing the contents inside with paint. This allows for tags to be as high

as around twenty feet. Aiming and keeping the hand steady in this form of tagging is very difficult and everything usually comes out wavy and sloppy [2]. Anyone can do this act and therefore it loses its value as art to me. It requires no initial thought or skill and can be done by almost anyone with access to a fire extinguisher.

The Cons and the Criminals

There is also some controversy that follows graffiti and street art. Graffiti has always had a bad reputation and has been linked to gangs and other criminal activity. The purpose of gang graffiti is to specify gang territory and to indicate memberships and enemies. Does this then completely devalue the art? Should an artist’s personal life completely dictate the value of their work? If this is the case, should Caravaggio’s work become void? The talented and highly influential artist seemed to have a rather large rap sheet. Many of his crimes were minor but he was prone to having many brawls. After one particular brawl, Caravaggio ended up committing murder [4].

Does this make him any less of an important artist? My answer is no. Also, if Monet or Picasso would still be alive today and decided to paint a masterpiece on the side of a public building, would that work be immediately removed because it is technically an act of


[2] Http://www.graffiti.org

[4] Http:// baroquerococoart.suite101.com/article.cfm/caravaggios_criminal_history

vandalism? Again, my guess would be no. But why would these artists have any more right to do such a thing than an ordinary street artist?

Another thing that helped interest me in the subject of graffiti is the anti-graffiti and buffer laws in Chicago. Aerosol paint cans are the number one used medium for street art and so it is illegal to purchase any paint cans in the city of Chicago. Also, as soon as a piece of graffiti is found on public or private property that was not previously permitted, it is immediately buffered off of the space and painted over. These laws were created in order to contain the amount of graffiti and vandalism in the city. The idea is that graffiti artists will see that their work is completely removed before anyone can see it and interpret the message; therefore it is just the artist’s waste of time and thus has decreased the amount of public defacing for the past few years [5].

The biggest con with graffiti art is that the public has no say in where it is placed and ultimately some of their tax dollars go to cleaning it up and getting it off of the streets in order to discourage continuous vandalism. Graffiti is virtually forced on the public and can invade on their personal space and comfort level. However, I do not seem to think that is any different than being bombarded by millions of advertisements on billboards, in magazines, or on television yet somehow these forms of personal invasion seem to be completely legal and certain large corporations continue to grow every day. It makes absolutely no sense to me why this type of advertisement is allowed while beautiful graffiti art is not.



Gallery Space

Another aspect that needs to be carefully looked at is the idea of graffiti art moving into a gallery space and if that then completely voids the entire message behind graffiti art. In this section I will take a more in-depth look at what makes a piece of graffiti art gallery worth and why everything else gets pushed to the side. It is no doubt that the graffiti art movement led to professional artists cultivating a certain graffiti style. The move of graffiti art from the streets to the gallery was heralded in its first major museum exhibition at the Boymans-Van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 1983 and graffiti art in galleries has been continually growing ever since [6] Some galleries are even claiming that by putting graffiti art in galleries, it will help stop the vandalism on the street.

Graffiti art in galleries is much more of a commercial thing. It is almost like a sell-out of sorts. Graffiti is supposed to be in an area where it confronts the audience and the public whether they want to see it or not. It screams a message out to the public rather than being safely confined in an area where only a select few many visit at a time. Not to mention that artists that have graffiti art in galleries are getting paid for it when it is sold while real street artists are doing it for other reasons which generally do not involve receiving a compensation. Money, unfortunately, is one of the largest motivating factors behind most art that is displayed in galleries. This, however, is not the case with street art. Artists who have their work in a gallery are not real graffiti artists; they are simply artists who have


[6] Hughes, “ART: The Graffiti of Loss,” pp. 1

adopted the street art style and looking for a way to make a buck or two off of it.

Graffiti art to me has always encompassed some sort of rebelliousness to it. What is so rebellious about framing a work, placing it in a gallery, possibly charging admission, and allowing only the privileged to see it? The thrill of seeing a piece of work in an unconventional space is gone and then ultimately becomes boring and very conventional to me. It loses its magic and the dangerous and exciting qualities of it. It becomes another pretty picture in a highly conventional gallery space.

Many street artists are aware of the serious consequences that come with displaying their work, so most try to stay anonymous which is the complete opposite of what is happening in gallery spaces. The artist flaunts his work and opens it to the select public, hoping to receive some sort of recognition or even compensation. Art is generally subversive but once a piece is bought and hanging on a rich banker’s wall, it loses its subversive qualities. It becomes another pretty picture that is bought and sold and the message then becomes void.

Figure 1 Figure 2

Above, I have incorporated two photos of graffiti art. One work is contained in a gallery in Charlotte, Virginia [fig. 1] while the other is illegally placed on a public wall in

Palestine by the artist called Banksy [fig. 2]. While they are both harmless looking, only the work depicting two children playing is considered illegal and destructive. Why is the work with much more of a pleasing aesthetic not considered a piece of artwork while the other is? Is it because of where it is contained? Does the frame of the piece determine whether or not it should be looked upon as art? To me, the Banksy piece is much more pleasing to the eye but because it is plastered on a wall illegally, it is only frowned upon and seen as a burden.

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Banksy is one of the most recognizable and popular street artists in the entire world yet he remains faceless in order to avoid arrest. He is mostly known for his political and anti-war work in England but can be seen all over the world. Banksy’s work is one of the most predominant and prime examples of the classic argument of vandalism vs. art. Art supporters world-wide endorse his work distributed in urban areas as pieces of art while city officials and law enforcement have deemed all work by Banksy to be vandalism and property destruction.

Banksy, much like many authentic street artists, gets no compensation for his work because he remains anonymous, unlike the faux street artists whose works hang up in galleries [7] He does have many books, posters, and other merchandise out that promote


[Fig. 1] Http://www.designcharlotte.org

[Fig. 2]Http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4748063.stm

[7] Wright, “Banksy Bristol: Home Sweet Home,” pp. 25-27

his work but none of them are endorsed or even created by Banksy himself, therefore is not profiting from his work.

Elite Vs Underprivileged

Most graffiti has a specific purpose: to force a social or political message onto the public by the people who otherwise would not have a voice. Some argue that moving it indoors and changing its scale compromises its integrity and mission and that the artist loses touch with their original intention. When a piece of work that has a street art style enters a gallery, it no longer is for the disenfranchised people but it now caters to the elite. The elite are the very people that most street artists are trying to protest against.

Popular targets for graffiti include light poles, street signs, newspaper vending boxes, alleyways, garbage cans, as well as public restrooms, elevators and parking garages. These are all areas that most elitists are not associated with. School board member of the Pico Youth and Family Center in Santa Monica, California, Oscar de la Torre, once pointed out that “…graffiti is often an attempt by under-privileged and frustrated youths, usually between the ages of 16 and 26, to gain recognition and some source of pride in a rich society that excludes them… it’s like a cry for help” [8]. If these works are a cry for help and have obvious ties to the struggle between the under-privileged and the rich, why then would legitimate graffiti artists allow and wish to show their works in galleries?


[8] Marbet, “Graffiti is on the Rise,” pp.1

Graffiti as a Commodity

What also seems to happen with graffiti artists whose work ends up in galleries, is that they sometimes get their work transferred onto things like shoes, t-shirts, and handbags. Graffiti art then turns into a commodity and an object. Artists get paid for designs so that large corporations can manage to get a few more bucks.

Marc Ecko, creator of Ecko clothing line, has stated that “…Graffiti is without question the most powerful art movement in recent history and has been a driving inspiration throughout my career.” [9] In this statement, he acknowledges that he has been using the popular culture of graffiti art as a means to catch more people’s attention in order to sell more clothes. This, to me, is almost worse than moving street art into a gallery. This act is to exclusively make a profit.

Keith Haring is another well-known graffiti artist who brought Pop Art and graffiti to the commercial mainstream. In the 1980s, Haring opened his first Pop Shop. A Pop Shop is a store that offered everyone access to his works. The Pop Shop also offered commodities like bags and t-shirts. Haring explained that, “The Pop Shop makes my work accessible. It’s about participation on a big level. The point was that we didn’t want to produce things that would cheapen the art. In other words, this was still art as statement” [9]. Of course producing t-shirts and other commodities doesn’t cheapen the art. In fact, it isn’t cheap at all and brings in the extra bucks.


[9] Ganz and Tristan, “Graffiti World,” pp. 22-24

Artist Statements

It is to no surprise that most legitimate graffiti artists think that it is wrong to showcase street art in a gallery. Most street artists risk their lives, freedom, and reputation in order to create profound graffiti art so it is no wonder that they take what they are doing very seriously. There are even activist groups around the world that are uniting to protest the exploiting of graffiti in galleries.

One group that stirred up a lot of commotion in Brazil is the Pixadores. Pixacao is a tagging movement that a lot of disadvantaged youths in Brazil seem to identify with. They display their work in a controversial way and use a unique tagging style in order to gain attention from the public. In September of 2008 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a gang of 30 pixadores launched an attack on Choque Cultural, the city’s premier street art gallery, and defaced many works that were being displayed at the time. The group somehow managed to descend into the gallery and tagged up the walls, paintings and ceilings of the small space [10]. They did all of this in their unique and highly distinguishable calligraphy in a protest move against what they saw as Choque Cultural’s involvement in helping to commercialize the art form which they believed should stay on the street[10]. This act caused a lot of controversy but rightfully so. What else is as effective as fighting for what you believe in by using the very practice you are trying to protect?


[10] Spear, “Choque Cultural Art Attack,” pp. 1

So Is It Art?

In my opinion, there is no doubt in my mind that graffiti and street art should be considered art. The definition of art is very hard to define and is very personal and different for everyone. What art is to me is something that shows a certain level of intent and skill. The piece must have some sort of meaning or reflect the artist’s emotions or what he or she is trying to express and lastly it should be capable of being formally analyzed.

Here is why graffiti and street art should be considered an art form: they both can be analyzed according to the elements of line, color, structure, and narrative content which is exactly how you approach a piece of fine art. It is just as appropriate to go about analyzing graffiti’s composition and style as you would with any other piece of fine art.

Also, both graffiti art and fine art have had an established history of development. Graffiti has evolved into a flourishing art form over many years. What started as simple scribbles and wall etchings in the ancient times has grown to become a cultural phenomenon.

Lastly, both graffiti and fine art have multiple steps in the creation process. A certain level of skill is essential when accomplishing a mural as well as a painting on canvas. Also, the intent and message must be made clear and logical in a visual sense. The message that the artist is trying to convey should be fairly obvious at first glance and would ideally make an important impact on the viewer.

Instead of choosing a canvas, the graffiti artist must find a specific location for the piece that satisfies the intent of the piece. Just like sizes of canvas, the location for a mural can range from a bathroom stall to an entire exterior of a building or under a bridge.

As well as choosing a canvas, a medium must be chosen. Most street artists use spray cans or large markers because they are fast, easily portable and efficient. This is much like an artist choosing acrylic over oil or photography over painting. Once that is decided, a sketch is most often produced. A sketch helps the artist the most when the piece is larger and covers more area which leaves much more room for error.

A lot of planning goes into a single piece of street art and it must be done quickly but still be effective and profound. The work has to be in a visible spot but the artist must not get caught. There is a certain amount of respect that should be accredited to a street artist unlike an artist who can create a graffiti-esque painting in the comfort of his or her own home.

Tagging and bombing, however, to me should not be considered art. Although there is somewhat of intent behind tagging as well, these are just quick and easy ways to get your name out there and they require no real talent or skill.


“I think graffiti writing is a way of defining what our generation is like.

Excuse the French, we’re not a bunch of p—- artists. Traditionally artists

have been considered soft and mellow people, a little bit kooky. Maybe

we’re a little bit more like pirates that way. We defend our territory,

whatever space we steal to paint on, we defend it fiercely.”

-Sandra “Lady Pink” Fabara

I believe that this quote is a perfect note to end on. The artist Fabara perfectly states that graffiti artists are indeed still artists but that they just are a little rougher around the edges as opposed to some traditional artists who seem to be softer and considerably less controversial. Besides the previously stated difference, Fabara acknowledges that graffiti is in fact an art form and deserves to be treated as such whether it is hanging on a wall or painted out on the street.

In conclusion, I believe that graffiti has every right to be addressed as a fine art. Personally to me, the criteria of what is a piece of fine art has been met in every aspect from analyzing methods to the creation process. It undoubtedly takes a level of skill and intent to create a successful mural piece that fits into my definition of what art is. The only exception to this rule pertains to tagging and bombing on public property. Again, tagging and bombing serve no purpose but to flaunt an artist’s name which has no context or underlying message.

I do believe that the certain credibility is lost when these works are moved into a gallery and an artist is only replicating that graffiti art style. I don’t think that these people are real graffiti artists; much less understand the intent of a street art piece. The whole point of a piece of graffiti is that it is there for the sole purposes of forcing the public to see it and to give the unheard people with a message a voice. When it hits a gallery, only a select few are able to see it and thus makes it less about the message and more about just making money. This is not the case with street art because like I stated before, most graffiti artists are anonymous or use a stage name.

While studying and researching this topic more in-depth than I normally would have, I have discovered the pros and a couple of cons about graffiti art. While my opinion about the matter did not change throughout the entire process, I was able to see both sides. I feel very strongly about graffiti being an art form and how everything, including the initial meaning and message of a piece, can be lost the moment it enters an institution and is regarded as a commodity. I am hoping that in the future people will realize the importance of graffiti art and accept it for the beautiful art form that it is.


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