In a city that hoards almost two miles of graffiti covered walls, St. Louis is the embodiment of modern day acceptance of an art still labeled as “vandalism” and “illegal.” Every year, over 200 individual graffiti artists come from all over the country to participate in Paint Louis, a city sanctioned event, where the approved applicants are given adequate space to paint on the mural. In a time of rapid cultural revolutions, the appreciation of graffiti art has also experienced an upturn, exemplified by the recent sell of Banksy’s Keeping it Spotless for $1.7 millions dollars.
Graffiti, defined as an act of writing or drawing on public property, should be considered as an art form because it spurs discussion about personal expression, aesthetics, empowerment and politics. Anyone could be an artist. All it takes is a hand to paint the surface or delicate fingers to sculpt the clay. By all accounts, if this is true, then why are art museums so notoriously elitist in their choosing of an artwork to display? Perhaps this can be traced back to the surprisingly long historical roots of graffiti.
The etymology of “graffiti” is actually derived from the Italian word ‘grafficar,’ which itself comes from the Latin word ‘graphire,’ or to write with a stylus. Graffiti is actually the plural form of this word, which connotes “drawings, markings, patterns, scribbles, or messages that are painted, written, or carved on a public wall or surface” (Stowers). Recently, a study found that the oldest known artwork in the world, an image of a hand, is actually spray painted graffiti in Indonesia.
The 39,900 year old piece proves the idea that graffiti is not just limited to present day graffiti on city walls, but it has been present from early scratchings in caves by European and Asian inhabitants to stenciling and drawings in American subways in the 1970s. Graffiti, as it is defined, appears to embrace a wide variety of artistic expressions, yet most artists seem to shy away from this label, as the word often has negative connotations in current society. Interestingly, this negative association has not always been there. In the 4th century, a group of “vandals” sacked and pillaged Roman cities and looted artwork; this defacement of public artistic expressions was deemed “vandalism.” As graffiti has been increasingly associated with deliberate rebellion and provocativeness, the affiliation with vandalistic actions grew.
As a result, graffiti artists have been pushed underground, often forced to make political or cultural expressions anonymously. Modern graffiti art began in New York City when stenciling and drawing on walls and subways became a way of artistic expression for non traditional artists. Using spray paint, or 3D lettering could be done by anyone, not just those who were classically trained in traditional artforms. These negative associations were not always there, and graffiti should be recognized by the public as a means to express oneself, not only by an image, but as a symbol whose meaning is beheld in the eyes of the viewer. Recently, a New York Times article written by Heather Mac Donald claimed that “Graffiti is something that one celebrates, if one is juvenile enough to do so, when it shows up on someone else’s property but never on one’s own..
.Whether particular viewers find any given piece of graffiti artistically compelling is irrelevant. Graffiti’s most salient characteristic is that it is a crime.” Throughout the passage she points out some reasonable arguments, asking the reader how they would feel if a graffitist defaced their property.
She outright states that even considering the question of whether graffiti can be viewed as art to be “meaningless.” In her dismissal, Mac Donald degrades the entire graffiti profession to a single concept, stereotyping those who do perform street art as ‘juvenile’ and ‘criminal.’ However, she fails to consider that graffiti art is one of the most beautiful and difficult art forms to master given the varied surfaces, styles and material available. But in the end, graffiti is still an application of human creativity, a product from the artist’s mind and hands’ hard work.Artwork is not limited in the forms it takes. Just look at any contemporary art museum today, and it will include 3D objects, modern dancing, and photo-realism. One can enjoy exhibits made up of sunflower seeds, animal balloons, or even a toilet seat (check out Duchamp’s Fountain). Behind every work is a story that highlights the spirit of life itself.
Graffiti was created to challenge the conventional norms in society and for the disenfranchised to fight back against the hierarchal and capitalist art world. Later in the passage, Mac Donald points to John Lindsay, a so-called “progressive” New York politician in the 1970s who believed that societal acceptance of graffiti would instigate further breakdown of public order and law in a slippery slope argument. MacDonald’s fear has no basis in reality; in fact, as graffiti art has become more mainstream in the US, crimes rates have decreased in recent years.
Coming from an authority figure, I understand why many may agree with his views to ban graffiti, yet the history behind the evolution of graffiti can be attributed to the government’s own actions. After World War II, the growth of public housing “projects” that often allowed the upper class to purchase these secluded houses separated the community not only physically, but also economically. The wide economic disparity created a systematic social, cultural and economic oppression of the lower class, spurred by the government. In rebellion, the oppressed birthed graffiti art, expressing their dissatisfaction and protest in pictorials and slogans of public walls in gentrified neighborhoods. Started as a form of protest, modern graffiti allowed people to anonymously share their political and cultural ideas, unifying a group of people who were often ignored in society.
Illegal art is still art. A forum for the local artists to express themselves beyond societal limitation, graffiti is much more than the public’s first impression. By classification, there are three types of graffiti applied by artists today. The most recognizable form is characterized by the simple bubble letters that are composed of slurs, names, or slogans, called the tag. This tag can be likened to the expression of one’s name or nickname to identify the artist.
Oftentimes, although these are technically considered graffiti, tags have no aesthetic appeal and are used instead to symbolize the artist’s presence, akin to a dog marking his territory. Shown below, is one of America’s first graffiti taggers from Philadelphia, Darryl McCray, who is known by the nickname ‘Cornbread.’ Interestingly enough, like all stories about the beginnings of graffiti, whether it be in New York or Philadelphia, he started tagging in high school in order to gain attention in a newfound way, to capture the heart of his crush.
Using the only resources he had, he made the most out of his situation in a culture that prefers art to be of the likes of Da Vinci or Van Gogh. All over in Philadelphia, the phrase ‘Cornbread Loves Cynthia’ became well known, and eventually he did win over Cynthia. This example displays how graffiti is like any other artform, as it conveys the messages of an individual. Graffiti, like speeches and songs, allow an individual freedom of expression in a nonviolent manner.
Artists use their art to move the viewer, to argue for an opinion. Cornbread is doing no different. He expresses his freedom of speech to convince the viewer of his love of Cynthia. And although be may have only been making his art for one viewer, it ultimately touched and moved other viewers who also romanticized the love affair. Another type of graffiti is the mural, which is usually commissioned for the beautification of the community. Many examples are comprised of bright and colorful complex structures that symbolize an important event in history.
Eduardo Kobra, a street artist, has long been commissioned to fill walls with large kaleidoscope-like murals all over the world, similar to the Mount Rushmore representation seen below. Appealing images like this can be painted in either a traditional pictorial scene or graffiti style. These artworks function in actually beautifying the community. In areas of abandoned buildings, dreary parks and vacant lots, graffiti art such as murals function to increase the aesthetic value of the environment.
Kobra carefully selects colors, figures and ornamentation, sketching and planning the geographic distribution of the mural. This requires careful planning and outlining like any traditional painter, sculptor, or movie director. Finally, the most debated form is graffiti art, created with spray paint in a graffiti style, but often contains more than just words.
Due to the illegal nature of this work, this type of work is very temporary. Although the pathway to gaining artistic fame in this way is often perceived as vandalism, which can in result in thousands of dollars in damage (and it is important to persecute those who purposely deface property), there are many times that this type of self expression can create new conversations in the community. Street art like this communicates an artist’s views on any subject matter in an accessible way for the masses to interpret and ponder. No longer is one required to pay the thirty-dollar admission fee to MoMA to see a striking piece of artwork.
Graffiti art is not filtered through organizations that may censor topics viewed inappropriate or controversial. Lifting the curtain between the artist and the audience to show us who we are, the good and the ugly, graffiti is just another form of expression. As mentioned, Banksy is one of the most prolific and well-known graffiti artist, remaining anonymous for over 20 years. Gaining a cult following, his artwork has projected graffiti into mainstream media, as countless celebrities have ironically been reported to purchase his work, which is sometimes removed from the walls themselves. He often targets to unveil social issues such as centralized power, anti-war, poverty, anti-consumerism, etc. In Keeping It Spotless, he attempts to shift the focus from ideation of important members of society to such as kings and queens to that of maids, to illustrate the democratization of portrayed characters in artwork in addition to the western civilization’s reluctance to fight the AIDs epidemic in Africa.
Points like these break down the stereotypes and rules against perceptions that the public may have had towards issues in society and the established gallery system. When considering the possible routes to producing a graffiti artwork, there has always been one common denominator: spray paint. Aerosol nozzles are adjusted depending on the style, such as wildstyle or blockbuster. Contrary to most assumptions, graffiti art is planned out carefully with lots of imagination and effort. Like the efforts of Da Vinci, sketches are often the first step in constructing the piece; it is not a spontaneous hobby as viewed in movies that is accompanied by random lines of spray paint and then running. In actuality, the graffitist must select the characters and colors to fill the space.
After planning the preliminary outline of the artwork, the surface or canvas is decided on and a preliminary framework is drawn on the wall. This process is finished by the spraying of the colors and embellishments on the final outline. Michelangelo, who was commissioned to create the The Last Judgement on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel, essentially utilizes the same method of producing the artwork as graffiti art. In the center of the debate is whether or not the intent and planning of a work qualifies graffiti to be an art. Imagine writing an essay with no research or preparation to execute the idea successfully, disregarding all rules of commas, introductions, and topic sentences. Would this disqualify the product from being an essay? The intent is still there, but the road to the destination may be different. Evidently, these unique characteristics pave the passage to a truly innovative and avant-garde form of art that can generate substantial value to the audience.
One argument against graffiti that some bring up is that the possibility of the art to spur violence or project a negative message on the community. Of course this is possible, as everyone has the freedom of expression including the graffist. However in reality, it has been determined by a researcher whose work was published by the US Environmental Protection Agency that only 10 percent of all graffiti is gang related. Furthermore, if street art is considered to be unnecessary and imposing, then advertisements in the form of billboards and flyers also attempt to occupy public space similarly. Ads sell us a brand new car, that necessary night of casino gambling, and ‘a taste that’s one of a kind’ Pepsi, all in an effort to convince us that we need these things to be pretty, to be happy, to have a better life. This form of manipulation by advertising companies in an effort to get us to buy products no matter if it drains us of money, cause us diabetes or cancer, has somehow become accepted in mainstream society, while graffiti art has been rejected for the very same reasons.
With such a rich history behind an art often written off as a public nuisance, graffiti is continually being established as a true mode of artistic expression. A culture within itself, graffiti has grown from a group of rebellious teenagers in New York to a now legalized activity in Rio on non-historical city property (the government even issued a 30,000 square foot mural called ‘The Ethnicities’ for the Olympics) . Exhibiting the unheard voices, graffiti in many cases is considered a legitimate form of expression, bringing those who walk along the same walls closer together. Maybe it is these voices that hold the untold truths of humanity.