Writing and drawing on walls is nothing new; it dates back to prehistoric times when cavemen invented the first form of visual/written communication. Nowadays there is a completely different stance on this form of expression – graffiti.
“Graffiti” means writing, drawing or scratching on a wall or public area, a custom that has been forbidden by the government. One of the main purposes of this practice is to state “I was here” by tagging a personal symbol or phrase; somewhat similar to animals urinating on objects to state their territory. These days it is seen as an act of vandalism and it is not unusual to see industrial buildings covered in colourful spray paint. Graffiti artists tend to target dark, secluded areas, for instance alley ways and places that youths tend to congregate.
Presumed to be a young person thing, graffiti is used to intimidate the authorities attempting to control teenagers, causing them to rebel and express themselves in this forbidden manner. Although it is disrespectful to private properties, the artists/taggers are undeterred especially as they can remain completely anonymous.
The introduction of the hip-hop scene at the beginning of the 1970s influenced the rise in graffiti artists, thus causing this vandalism to be associated with loud, noisy music, protestations and youngsters causing trouble. Graffiti is essentially a crime, however in recent years it has become an element of cultural appropriation often used by artists and designers when targeting audiences of a particular age group, i.e. teenagers. It is here that the definition of graffiti begins to blur.
Some may argue that graffiti has become an art form, but is it still entitled to have that name if it is produced for a commercial purpose? After all it is no longer illegal if it is being used to advertise a company or decorate a nightclub or some such.
Most people will have heard of the English graffiti activist Banksy, who has yet to be identified. He paints images with a political and social message onto public walls and visible surfaces. Many of his creations have been removed or destroyed due to the illegal choice of canvas for his detailed stencil paintings. Those that have not been taken down by unimpressed communities have ended up being sold for tens of thousands of pounds.This surely legalises the “vandalism” turning it into street art and dismissing the term graffiti? There have also been exhibitions of Banksy’s works, which after being taken away from their original location defeats their initial purpose and turns them into a commodity rather than a political statement.
It would be possible to argue for hours over what is graffiti and what is not. Entire books could be written on the subject without forming a conclusion. What it comes down to is personal opinion. Depending on the generation people were bought up in, their backgrounds and culture, graffiti means something different to everyone.
Instead of trying to find an answer, let’s play a game. Look at the following photographs and decide what is graffiti and what is art. There are no right or wrong answers, so everyone is a winner!
Ready? Graffiti or art. Discuss.