Graffiti- Art or Vandalism?

Anything scribbled, scratched, or painted on the walls within public view is Graffiti (plural of Graffito). The word originates from Greek γράφειν — graphein — meaning “to write”. The first drawings on the walls appeared some thousands of years ago in the caves occupied by early men. This was followed by Greeks, Romans and Egyptians who took to the walls to leave their mark on history. A lot of information about the society and lives of the workers can be derived from these carvings. One such Graffiti on the walls of the Pyramid of Giza suggests that the workers during the era of the pharaohs enjoyed working for the king and were neither forced nor tortured in any manner.

Graffiti as it’s known today began in the late 1960s in Philadelphia. It was primarily used to make political statements and mark street gang territory. The history of Graffiti is not well known and different sources give different information about its evolution. However, most Graffiti writers (as they prefer themselves to be called), credit Taki 183 as being the mastermind behind this culture in New York. He worked as a messenger who travelled throughout the city. While he did so, he would use a marker and write his name wherever he went, at subway stations and also the insides and outsides of subway cars. Eventually, he became known throughout the city. In 1971, he was interviewed for an article by the New York Times. Kids all over New York, realizing the fame and notoriety that could be gained from “tagging” their names on subway cars (that travelled all over the city, naturally) began to emulate Taki 183. As kids competed against each other to achieve fame and recognition, the increase of Graffiti on trains was humongous. For tagging on the insides of trains, permanent markers worked, but using spray cans of paint quickly became popular as well, especially for tagging on the outside of trains. Graffiti became so much more than simple tagging, however. Graffiti writers, in addition to getting their name around as much as possible, would try to outdo each other in terms of style.

Among the paraphernalia used to create this art on walls, spray paint in aerosol cans is considered to be the best. From this commodity comes different styles, technique, and abilities to form master works of graffiti. Spray paint can be found at hardware and art stores and comes in virtually every colour. Modern graffiti art often incorporates additional arts and technologies. For example, Graffiti Research Lab has encouraged the use of projected images and magnetic light-emitting

diodes as new media for graffiti artists. Yarnbombing is another recent form of graffiti. Yarnbombers occasionally target previous graffiti for modification, which had been avoided among the majority of graffiti artists. It may take 30 minutes to a month to complete a piece.

Various styles of Graffiti have their own roots and names. While ‘Tag’ is the most basic writing of an artist’s name, ‘Piece’ requires the artist to incorporate stylized fonts with a wide range of colours in the alphabets. ‘Pissing’ involves the use of a fire extinguisher instead of a spray can and is used for making tags as high as 6 metres. A more complex style is wildstyle’, a form of graffiti usually involving interlocking letters and connecting points. These pieces are often harder to read by non-graffiti artists as the letters merge into one another in an often-undecipherable manner.

As all the other forms of art, Graffiti, too, has its own share of uses. Graffiti artists (read: writers) usually use it as a medium to showcase their views and opinions on an issue. Graffiti still remains the one of four hip hop elements that is not considered ‘performance art’ despite the image of the ‘singing and dancing star’ that sells hip hop culture to the mainstream.

Products and services are also advertised on walls using Graffiti. This form of art is also frequently used by individuals or organizations to express their political views. Graffiti artists constantly have the looming threat of facing consequences for displaying their graffiti. Many choose to protect their identities and reputation by remaining anonymous.

The debate over whether Graffiti is art or vandalism is still going on. In most countries, marking or painting property without the property owner’s permission is considered defacement and vandalism, which is a punishable crime. Peter Vallone, a New York city councilor, thinks that Graffiti done with permission can be art, but if done on someone else’s property, it becomes a crime. ‘I have a message for the Graffiti vandals out there, your freedom of expression ends, where my property begins’, he quoted. On the other hand, Felix, a member of Berlin based group, Reclaim Your City, says that artists reclaiming cities for the public from advertisers, and that Graffiti represents freedom and makes cities more vibrant. “If art like this is a crime, let god forgive me!” — Lee, member of Fabulous Five crew.

Graffiti’s motives stem from the dehumanization of the working class. Agitated youth took to the streets to protest the ways in which they were categorized not as people, but as a resource for production. The basic survival instinct, which pushed them to use any means necessary to leave a significant, lasting impression on their own culture or community. The artistic creativeness and originality of graffiti art catches the eye of potential artists that are looking for new ways to express themselves.

While this act is condemned in my countries, it is interesting to note that authorities in China have allowed tourists to graffiti on a specific section of the Great Wall of China. The Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network was founded in 1984 to fight the spread of graffiti. The agency is backed by the city of Philadelphia and provides resources to businesses who need help eradicating vandalism of their property. They also have a Mural Arts Program which allows youth to express themselves by creating murals throughout the city. Similar agencies have popped up in cities around the U.S.

Graffiti has been immortalised in many documentaries and movies such as Stations of the Elevated (1980), Wild Style (1983), Bomb it (2007), and Graffiti Wars (2011) amongst others. Considering Graffiti artists as vandals is a crime itself. Like every other form of expression and speech, Graffiti is also a powerful medium for people to bring forth their ideas and opinions. Graffiti has always been somewhat political, but it has come a long way from simply tagging one’s name to parodying world leaders to make a statement. If the authorites still tag it as something illegal, it is imperative to state that Graffiti is no less than a beautiful crime!

MS CS @ Columbia | Ex-Citi | DTU ‘19

MS CS @ Columbia | Ex-Citi | DTU ‘19