Is graffiti art or vandalism?

Skateboarding, hip hop and graffiti have coexisted since the 1970/80s, to the point where it’s hard to think of one without the other. Many skate parks now double as shrines to the self-expression of graffiti, and nobody’s ever going to complain that it’s vandalism.

But in the wider world, it might not be so clear cut. Graffiti can be seen as a blight on communities, an eyesore or evidence of social breakdown. It’s considered an element of “Broken Windows Theory” – the idea that even small signs of disorder in a community lead to more disorder, which eventually escalates into gang warfare and breakdown of law and order (repeat: it’s a theory).

Surely the reality is somewhere in between. People who create graffiti see themselves as artists, expressing themselves on the public canvas. And the grammar of graffiti – its media and techniques – is now the basis of some of the most imaginative, beautiful and poignant street art out there, all with the blessing of property owners and communities.

So we thought we’d ask some artists and academics in the field where they thought graffiti stood in the art–vandalism spectrum. Alex Harvey is co-founder and project manager at Blank Walls, a group that commissions and manages street art projects in Australia and the UK. Dan Pearce is a mixed media artist who’s recently created work for Anthony Joshua, Rag’n’Bone Man and 50 Cent, among others. And Professor Andrew Kulman is from the School of Visual Communication at Birmingham City University.

Can art ever become vandalism?

The idea that a form of artistic expression could be considered vandalism is, unsurprisingly, not widespread among graffiti artists. “Graffiti is 100% art,” says Pearce. “It’s a symbol of rebellion, and it presents a fantastic new form of creativity, but what makes it art is an individual’s opinion. I believe that truly anything is art if it has a meaning to you.” But there is a moral line that shouldn’t be crossed. “Graffiti can fall into the category of vandalism or ‘defacing’ when it is a random tag on any old wall that has no meaning,” he accepts.

An important distinction needs to be made between graffiti and street art. “There are key differences between the two and a paradox between the way each is treated in the modern era, while both fluidly relate to ‘art on the street’,” says Harvey, pointing out that “It’s only since the birth of advertising that it has become illegal to graffiti in public.”

Kulman echoes Pearce’s view that there are moral boundaries, but insists that it’s ultimately down to the artist to decide: “The answer to this question is whether graffiti desecrates or destroys public property,” he says. “Many artists who create graffiti believe public property is the best platform for displaying their artwork, particularly if they’re making social or political comments.

“Interestingly, cities like Amsterdam or Berlin embrace graffiti as a cultural asset and tourists are given tours of the highlights. I think there needs to be a clear distinction between what we see as tagging, graffiti and street art. The latter is often commissioned by councils or communities. Attitudes to graffiti have changed considerably over the last two decades and cities like Bristol have capitalised on the fame and notoriety of Banksy, and of course his work commands respect from art critics.”

The credibility question

Can officially sanctioned street art and graffiti ever be considered culturally credible? Or does it need to have an edge attached to it by being illicit? Dan Pearce has no doubt: “You just have to take a walk around the streets of East London to see the scale of graffiti projects which have transformed the area into one huge art canvas and really helped graffiti become accepted. Graffiti artists have now been rephrased as mural artists as they specialise in huge projects.

“Artist like Shep Fairey and Retna are totally pushing boundaries and not just painting walls but entire building blocks over several floors. These huge murals are extremely complicated pieces and require planning, imagination and contain artistic elements like colour and composition, and often tackle social equality issues. They take huge organisation skills, involve local councils. They are 100% credible.”

Harvey once again emphasises an important distinction: “Street art is an extension of graffiti and we believe that it can be a tool to revitalise public spaces,” he points out. “Through many years working in the arts industry, we have learnt that by maximising the use of intricate designs and incorporating themes of broad community inclusivity and respect, the resulting artwork inherently minimises the likelihood of vandalism in that area. An example is the Remembrance Day mural in 2018 by Jerome Davenport [better known as Ketones6000].” 

Kulman does see the potential for a loss of credibility with officially sanctioned work, although it’s important to recognise that they can have value and don’t necessarily take away from the underlying art form. “I think the more we become accustomed to seeing it encroach into areas where it hasn’t been seen, the more it loses its impact,” Kulman says. “Designated graffiti parks or walls seem less effective than when you see it imaginatively used in derelict or neglected areas. The social acceptance of graffiti will only drive the more subversive practitioners to push boundaries and be more extreme.

“Like all socially engaged art there needs to be a purpose or intent, whether it is simply artistic expression or making a political, social, humorous or ironic statement. Tagging is a coded way of life for graffiti gangs and can seem arbitrary to those who aren’t aware of this culture. Some of the most effective graffiti has the power to surprise and move you as you walk or drive by.”

Is there such a thing as bad graffiti?

If all human expression is valid, it follows that there’s no such thing as bad graffiti. As Pearce says, “If time and effort has been put into making it a beautiful or abstract or a fascinating piece of art then it is an art form. Whether it’s good or bad, that comes down to the viewer who makes that decision, but anything is art if it has a meaning to you.”

Kulman agrees: “No, there is no bad graffiti, just graffiti, as a personal visual expression any graffiti is a valid gesture,” he says. “People may argue that the choice of space or surface could be ill-considered or antisocial but the fact it exists suggests someone had an intent to create the marks. Aesthetically we can all determine what we consider an accomplished piece of graffiti but we risk attaching our preconceived idea of Western art values into something that might be defying cultural significance.”

The writing isn’t on the wall

The main takeaway from the artists and academics is that it’s vital to preserve graffiti and street art as credible, valuable forms of expression. The vandalism question will always come up when discussing graffiti, but in reality, it’s rare to see graffiti that doesn’t add something to its environment. For street artists who rise to the top of the paint-splattered ladder, it’s all about social conscience, commentary, criticism, humour, talent and thoughtfulness.

Most of us could think of dozens of eyesores in our localities that have been paid for or approved by local government – ugly billboard constructions; thoughtless housing projects; sprawling road systems that are no-go areas for pedestrians. Yet somehow they are begrudgingly accepted. The hostility towards the expression of graffiti can start to look like something culturally more troubling.

If graffiti encroaches into criminal damage, that’s a matter for the law. But when it makes a statement, vents emotions and looks as vibrant and exciting as the best art can, critics shouldn’t confuse “I don’t like it” with “It’s vandalism”.

Some artists to look out for

So which artists are currently producing the most interesting work? Who better to ask than Alex, Andrew and Dan?

Alex Harvey

Jerome Davenport (Ketones6000) – Without being biased because he’s my business partner, he’s genuinely the artist I respect the most and is well respected in a lot of circles. His work never fails to amaze me and the meaning behind his work is always well thought out and makes a positive difference to the communities that get to see his work. 

Kobra – Just for everything he’s achieved on such a worldwide scale. One of the biggest and most respected artists in the world right now.

Vhils – Such a unique style, well respected globally

Joel Artista – He facilitates community-based art projects around the world which explore social topics and engage with youth to promote positive social change.

PichiAvo – A well respected artist duo from Spain.

Rosie Woods – One of our own and in my opinion one of the top female artists.

Andrew Kulman

Kid Acne and Phlegm – I like the work of these Sheffield graffiti artists. 

Space Invader 👾 – I enjoy coming across this artist, who uses mosaic [in their work].

Dan Pearce

Ben Eine – I am a huge fan of Ben. He is one of the most successful letterform artists in the world and is regarded as a pioneer in the exploration of contemporary typography art. He painted a mural so large that it can be seen from space.

Sen2 – From the golden age of graffiti during the 1980s, he was one of the founders of Mad Crew. He’s now moved from classical New York graffiti writing to a combination of graphic lettering styles with 3D elements, imagery of pop art, and abstract art techniques. He was recently commissioned to paint the tennis courts for the US Open.

Shepard Fairey – He has painted huge murals in most major cities and has always been open about controversial social and political topics. He often donates and creates artwork in order to promote awareness to social issues and equality.

Opake One – A London-based graffiti artist who has developed a distinct painting technique combining both illustrative images with elements of graffiti. (I am currently collaborating with Opake One on artworks for an upcoming joint exhibition at Artisan Gallery on 7th December, 1–5pm.)