Graffiti: Art or Vandalism?
Graffiti is a street declaration of pride in one's name, neighborhood, or culture. It can also reflect the graffiti writer's political or social views of society. Those who study graffiti and can decipher its cryptic letters confirm that graffiti tags, throw-ups and pieces contain complex and multi-layered messages. Many argue that graffiti causes fear in those who are not part of the subculture. This fear is generated because of the passerby's inability to read the letters or understand their meaning.
Frustration over determining artists' hidden meaning has long been synonymous with gallery art as well. Visitors to modern art museums often become agitated when there is no information provided concerning the ‘meaning' of the work. It would not be uncommon for a visitor to step back from an art composition as intense as Pollock's She-wolf and struggle to decipher the message Jackson was trying to convey. Because of this many visitors to modern art galleries have expressed feelings of anxiety, frustration, and exclusion.
In many ways viewing graffiti art on the street, is much like viewing contemporary art in a gallery. Most graffiti artists, especially post-graffiti artists, claim that their work should make people stop and think. However, unlike in a museum or a gallery, there is no one on the street to provide interpretation of the art.
An Age-old Question: What is Art?
When trying to define what we see, we often want to attach a label to something in order to give it substance. Unfortunately, labels aren't always accurate. On the street a passer-by could identify graffiti as urban filth or as simple vandalism. Others might argue that graffiti enhances the urban landscape and provides telling depictions of society. These people often compare graffiti with gallery art.
The graffiti city officials often label as destructive vandalism are often a person or group's forum of outcry towards the political or social institutions that the city officials represent. One man's trash is another's gold. There will always be a difference in defining what graffiti is, unless people learn to see it as both.
What's in a Name?
The word graffiti tends to evoke a sense of illegality. Some people do not consider works created on canvas or other legal medium graffiti. However, since the art world accepted graffiti as a legitimate art form, more and more young people have begun creating graffiti art. Many of these young artists and designers do not want to be associated with vandalism and for that reason; new words for describing graffiti art have popped up. Today, you will hear people refer to graffiti as graffiti art, hip-hop graffiti, public art, street art, or post-graffiti.
While graffiti artists strive to detach themselves from the negative connotations associated with the term, many people continue to classify everything from bathroom scribbles to gang graffiti to elaborate pieces as graffiti. However, gang graffiti serves a very different purpose than hip-hop graffiti and both gang graffiti and hip-hop graffiti serve a different purpose than spontaneous scribbling.
Those who have worked with graffiti artists know that few writers create graffiti for destructive purposes. Susan A. Phillips in Wallbangin, Graffiti and Gangs in LA says, "All illusions to the contrary, it is not the main goal of hip-hop graffiti artists to destroy... Hip-hop graffiti is about creation, not destruction. Writers are hip-hop producers first, vandals second. Vandalism is what they wind up doing during the course of their work, but their main goal is not generally that of the vandal".
The Medium is the Message?
So, why is graffiti considered vandalism? In many ways the medium is the problem. Instead of canvas, graffiti artists chose train cars, bridges, telephone poles, and public walls. Anything public (and sometimes private) is open game. Viewers are not afforded the choice of choosing when and where to view graffiti art. The artists' seeming lack of consideration as to the placement of their work is a problem for many people - especially when the medium happens to be private property. People who view all graffiti as vandalism argue that its presence leads to increased crime and urban decay. It has also been cited as a cause for decreases in property value and loss of business and industry growth.
If caught, graffiti artists can face stiff penalties, including large fines and jail time. Currently, cities across the globe spend millions of dollars per year removing graffiti. Many cities have enacted graffiti abatement programs. These programs generally target ‘at-risk' youth and provide alternatives to graffiti writing, such as painting murals on city-commissioned walls or joining art clubs. A good example of a graffiti abatement program is Graffiti Hurts.