Is Graffiti An Art?

Published 22 Sep 2016

Graffiti Is Art or Vandalism?

You don’t have to live in an urban area to see graffiti in the United States. I can recall sitting in my car, waiting for a train to pass, and reading the graffiti on the cars as it went by. Acknowledging my ignorance, I couldn’t help but wonder how they could create something so visually appealing with a can of spray paint. The detail is usually amazing. Then my thoughts would drift to the street gangs that must be claiming their stake. Depending on the length of the train, I may even begin to wonder what their lifestyle was like. Eventually, I came to be disappointed when a train would go through town, and not be covered in this unusual art. Rather, it was just a train. Graffiti has been labeled as vandalism, with cities often going to extreme measures to eliminate it and prevent it. By the letter of the law, it is illegal. To the writer and to the admirers, it is art. As a form of art, it is not simply visually appealing or thought-provoking but an expression of the writer’s emotions, beliefs, and political stance.

Graffiti is not new, and in its current form could be found in symbols, and images on subway trains and public property in the 1960s. Graffiti has been dubbed as part of the hip-hop movement. The roots of this movement can be traced back to the mid-1970s in the South Bronx in New York City, as an African-American, Afro-Caribbean youth culture. From the United States it started in low-income Black and Hispanic inner-city neighborhoods, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., and eventually, like jazz and blues, spread into middle-class urban and suburban regions. (Rahn, 2002) From the beginning of the 1980s, angry or alienated youth from around the world began to make the transition from punk to hip-hop, being attracted to the union of a form (how it’s being said) and political content. Hip-hop has often been associated with gangster rap, which started in the late 1980s. Perhaps it is the

association with gangster rap that has resulted in the view of graffiti as unacceptable. In Rap Attack, David Toop (1984) contested the argument that gangster rap is a legitimate form of social activism. He wrote, ‘The contradictions of a money-minded craze for gory social realism and criticism of the Reagan Administration with its callous cutbacks in social programs are hard to resolve. The juxtapositions of protests about rape victims with rampant machismo or hard-times lyrics sung by kids in expensive leather outfits and gold chains can be hard to stomach.” (Rahn, 2002) Within this music, youth are able to detect some sense of hope and identity.

Within graffiti culture, a separate language emerges. Taki 183 in New York as the originator of the tag. Renaming oneself is an important part of the culture. The tag is a writer’s name that is drawn like a calligraphic symbol, usually with a marker or spray paint. “If he/she writes with a marker on a street sign, it is a tag; if the name is painted large with style and multi colors, it is called a “piece,” though it is still a tag name. In 1971 the New York Times ran a story on TAKI 183, a Greek teenager named Demetrius who wrote his name everywhere while working as a messenger, traveling by subway across the city. The article prompted a wave of copycats who also adopted a name/number pseudonym (EVA 62, ELSIE 137). Eventually, each tagger developed his or her own individual formal style to express identity and status among peers. (Rahn, 2002)

In New York City in the 1980s, tags became like an uninterrupted city-wide wallpaper pattern on moving vans, streetlights, bus windows, and buildings. As tags competed for space, they also competed for skills and style. The tag is considered the crudest and most prevalent form of graffiti. Most writers begin as taggers and graduate to larger pieces as they grow bolder and acquire technical skills. The practice began as “tag” in a game sense in New York City, where someone would hit a blank wall and others would follow, respect going to those who covered the most ground. Taggers who go on to develop elaborate painting styles identify themselves as writers. Taggers who never produce large pieces are called Scribblers and Toys and have little status. In the mid-1980s, graffiti writers set standards and mutually acknowledged a level of skills that had to be reached to merit the title of a writer rather than the inferior toy. A toy is a person who attempts graffiti without skills or the commitment to learn from other writers. A toy has not paid his dues and is not respected. A toy’s work is wack: lacking in skill and obviously inferior. Writers like to distinguish themselves from taggers. One becomes a writer when he or she has developed an individual style within the tradition of hip-hop. The writer has developed painting skills to a level where the community accepts his or her presence and work. A crew is a loose association of graffiti writers. A single artist or a crew can do large pieces. One writer may belong to any number of crews. Crews either paint together or acknowledge each other by citing the names of their crew or mentors around the edges of a graffiti piece. A crew is often mislabeled as a gang. Crews will photograph each other’s work, share drawings, compete with other crews, and plan painting trips to favored locations. Writers may steal paint if they lack the funds but other illegal activities are avoided. (Rahn, 2002)

“On the evening of July 3, 1976, three writers, came, mad 103, and flame one, entered the No. 7 Flushing to Manhattan subway line storage yard in Queens. Climbing through a hole in the fence, they brought along a huge quantity of (stolen) spray paint in precisely selected colors, as well as sketches for the “Freedom Train” that they intended to paint. They decided on a train and, during the next several hours, worked in the dark to paint all eleven cars, top to bottom, in a coordinated bicentennial theme, anticipating the city’s elaborate Fourth of July celebration. The final multicar work was approximately ten feet high and longer than two football fields. Caine, mad 103, and flame one’s Bicentennial Train was to fly through the shared public spaces of New York City on the morning of the nation’s 200th birthday like a patriotic streamer. By all available accounts, the Freedom Train was magnificent, consisting of several whole-car paintings of the earliest designs for the U.S. flag, symbols that usually decorate the covers of high school history textbooks. (Austin, 2001)

Although patriotic and reportedly grand in gesture, the Freedom Train never traveled through the subway system. Aside from the writers who painted it, no one but a few New York City Transit Authority (TA) workers and the Transit Police saw it. Their work was viewed as vandalism and the authorities did not want it to be mistaken as part of the official celebration. Authorities did not believe the work should be legitimized by allowing it to be part of the celebration. New York City’s transit authorities pulled the train out of service, uncoupled the individual cars in the yard, and destroyed all of the paintings. The three writers were arrested at their homes the next day. These writers had created a work of art, making a place for themselves in the public view, wanting to be recognized as part of the social and cultural life of New York. “While most writers were preoccupied with the everyday task of establishing and maintaining their reputation among other writers, the Freedom Train and innumerable other works indicate an equally powerful desire to speak to the entire city in new terms, and from a different perspective. Writers saw themselves as embodying an (illegal) urban beautification and education program for a fading city bent on denying its own magnificent cultural dynamics and destroying its own ‘local color,’ both figuratively and literally. In taking the trains, writers created a new mass media, and in that media, they ‘wrote back’ to the city. (Austin, 2001)

Graffiti, as all forms of art, is used as a form of expression, often a statement of resistance to public policy. Graffiti can constitute a way of resistance to imperialism by appealing to icons that are recognized unambiguously as revolutionaries. In Nicaragua, for instance, the image of Sandino was used to express rejection to Somoza’s dictatorship and to protest against U.S. imperialism in Nicaragua. Through wall painting, Nicaraguans engaged in a revolution of the walls, that is, the mere act of wall painting was conceived as part of the strategies of resistance to an oppressive regime.” (Benavides-Vanegas, 2005) Graffiti can also show the ambiguities of globalization. The wall in the former Soviet Union shows how American-like graffiti could be part of an imaginary in which the youth used U.S. cultural icons to reject oppression within the Soviet Union. There appears to be a connection between graffiti and crime, where youth construct a world of their own and contest the established authority. This culture they create carries over to their dress, to their language, and their opinions on the rest of society. Graffiti provides a way to reject traditional values and culture. (Benavides-Vanegas, 2005) Graffiti is a means to spread their word.

Arthur Stace had led a challenged life, was a man with no family to speak of, and spent forty years walking through Sydney, Australia, in darkness to chalk the one-word `Eternity’ in copperplate handwriting on pavements — some 500,000 times. In 1930 he was converted to evangelical Christianity. If that wasn’t miracle enough, on November 14th, 1932 an even more remarkable event took place in his life. Stace attended a sermon by the well-known Baptist minister Rev. John Ridley at the Burton Street Tabernacle in Darlinghurst. Ridley’s theme for the service was `Echoes of Eternity’, and part of the text ran as follows: Eternity — what a remarkable uplifting, glorified word once twittered to the Spirit glorified God … because there’s only one eternity, and the eternal God is in command of it … Eternity. eternity. Oh that I could shout and sound eternity all over the streets of Sydney. Inspired, Stace set out on a mission to spread the word of eternity. And so it was that his mission began, and so it continued, and so — for a number of reasons — it lives on, though Stace himself died in 1967. (Kirkpatrick, 1997)

The uniqueness found in graffiti can express individualism and gain permanence through a discourse that features uniquely created images. Interpreting graffiti has attracted individuals as diverse as entrepreneurs and sociologists. Some have labeled graffiti as illegal activity and view it as destructive in nature, while other individuals from similar groups view graffiti as a creative art form that merits analysis for a variety of reasons. Whether graffiti is seen as crime or art, it is, nonetheless, a human product and a form of communication. As a form of human communication, graffiti offers the opportunity for interpretation and, potentially, insight into its meaning.” (Gross, et. al., 1997)

Tags are used by contemporary graffiti writers to distinguish themselves from other writers. As such, they are unique and focused on styles. Tagging is a form of writing that emphasizes both form and content. Thus, it affords a unique opportunity to examine issues of permanence and change over distance, through time, and across cultures.

“Several distinctive features found in the representative samples distinguish tagging as a unique international discourse. First, the discourse features a unique simplicity. The statements are simple, one-of-a-kind phrases or words like ‘Bozz Doe,’ ‘Bone One 2,’ or merely ‘Zeb. Though they feature a unique simplicity as an isolated “tag,” taken together they reveal a complex, vague, secretive web of interrelated messages that reveals individual communicators within a discourse context. The unique simplicity feature spans international boundaries.” (Gross, et. al., 1997)

The location is a critical part of the communication process for graffiti writers. Generally, tags are found in highly visible areas, such as busy urban centers. This way they assure that many people will pass by these advertisements of individualism each day. Visibility is key in the process. Third, permanence is a major factor in the tagging discourse. Most of the tags are painted on the walls. The tagging discourse provides a means to express individualism beyond the fleeting spoken words of the masses in the urban centers. The paint will often stay on the walls for a long time speaking to the individual. Tagging expresses opportunism, social struggle, and points of tension. The tags are written on, over, alongside, in between, and above other tags. If the opportunity presents itself for individual expression, the tag “Secret” indicates that such opportunities are taken. The duck may dominate the visual impact; yet, the opportunity for “Secret” to be noticed via a contrasting image is seized.” (Gross, et. al., 1997) Taggers struggle for recognition. The goal is to reveal one’s individualistic identity, but also to be respected is another. The content also reveals the struggle. Features of the tags reveal levels of expression, a struggle for survival, and opportunism within tagging discourse that spans international boundaries. The tags are the creative expression in both content and form. The taggers are like creative writers expressing very personal information. Other forms of writing may have purposes other than personal. Tagging’s purpose is an individual creative expression. So, the tagging discourse encourages expressive “penmanship.” Overall the discourse is a unique combination of creative writing and abstract artistic expression that beckons yet does not completely reveal identities. (Gross, et. al., 1997)

The subway trains were the ultimate goal for any ambitious writer seeking fame at this time, and most writers who began writing between 1972 and 1988 cite the works on the trains as a motivating force and source of inspiration. “At the time when I would see [writers’] names pull up on a train, I remember thinking these guys must have been Giants. I think that’s part of the mystic of Graffiti. It all looks larger than life. As a kid, you fantasize about being larger than life and, Graffiti served as a happy medium.” (Austin, 2001) Graffiti is a symbolic and socially exaggerated form of expressing the self. Graffiti is the attempt to gain recognition in the public sphere, to gain an identity and to assert oneself.

What is it about an empty wall that causes people to feel the need to cultivate themselves or the compulsion to express it their frustrations, fantasies, desires, wisdom, their innermost secrets, things they would not ordinarily reveal to their closest friends or loved ones? One answer is that graffiti is a form of communication that is beyond everyday social restraints that normally prevent people from giving uninhibited reign to their thoughts and feelings. Graffiti is a means of expressing themselves and establishing themselves well outside the norm. “As an artistic work, even when created legally, any graffiti will have a certain renegade edge which has been bolstered by years of illegal work. In creating these public art works, graffiti writers experience a level of risk and adventure, artistic and otherwise, that anyone outside the graffiti community would have great difficulty comprehending.” Graffiti writers are often motivated to expand or create possibilities, by acting beyond the prescribed social rules. They are working to create a difference.

Trains are very important in the graffiti culture. Trains allow for the total and ultimate freedom of expression. Graffiti tends to be anti-establishment, used as a form of public protest by otherwise silent members of a community who lack legitimate, or more convenient means of expressing their grievances. Graffiti is, at least in part, a quest for identity. Each participant strives to have something special about the way they write their name in order to stand out. The goal is to create a design framework for the letters in one’s name which is so personally tailored that it allows for the expression of attitudes, opinions, emotions, and the self. Since the set of letters in the name that one paints do not change, the way they are painted is what conveys meaning. Style alone with not give meaning to a graffiti piece. The style is how one presents one’s ideas. It is the way one creates, the framework and the foundation for all of one’s work. Beyond that, it is the one true voice that exists within each of us, the voice that has often been buried by years of acting like other people. The framework of style is the framework of yourself. Style means fully knowing one’s self. Thus, once one’s style is firmly established, letters develop for the graffiti writer in a way that is meaningful. The design and shape of the letters mean something beyond looking pretty, all the arrows and connections used have a purpose.” (Austin, 2001)

Graffiti is a medium by which youth can create the socio-cultural world as individuals and as members of their communities, creating the potential for strong commitment and attachment. Graffiti communities allow writers to manage transitions, changing identities, and changing social relationships. For adolescent graffiti writers painting on walls, bridges, buildings, and subway trains is a private area that gives a great freedom of control over activities and objects than other spaces and this is an activity system where autonomy itself can be cultivated through meaning transactions with the paintings, sometimes co-constructively with other kids.

With the effort that graffiti writers inscribe in their work, their diligence in communicating their message, there remains a faction of the population that would rather remove it than understand it. As an art-form, graffiti has really been in existence since the beginning of time. It has been one of the artifacts that are frequently used to understand those societies who came before us. Graffiti writers are communicating their discontent with the world at large. As a society, it becomes our responsibility to work toward creating social change that not only responds to the needs of the youth of our society but responds to the communication they present. In the past decade, budget cuts in public education and public health, paralleled by the unprecedented growth of police and prisons, have further narrowed educational opportunities. Class inequalities continue and educational tracking, combined with the rising costs of education, are making it almost impossible for poor students to move up the educational ladder. Educators, students, and communities find themselves at a critical crossroads. This is a time when dialogue and alliances across disciplines and communities need to be forged so that gains from the past are not irrevocably lost and new strategies for teaching and learning can emerge. (Katz & O’Leary, 2002)

New pedagogies in institutions of higher learning should build upon the lived experiences and resources of working-class and historically underrepresented students. “Pedagogies are designed to facilitate academic success, as well as engage students in work for social justice. Overall, a spectrum of models for teaching and learning are proposed–from activism in the academy to community/university reciprocity–all of which are based on reflection, praxis, and critical thinking.” (Katz & O’Leary, 2002)

According to the new pedagogy, “educators cannot work successfully by themselves; they have to work collaboratively in order to succeed in integrating the cultural elements produced by the subordinate students in their educational process. Finally, these educators have to invent and create methods in which they maximize the limited space for possible change that is available to them. They need to use their students’ cultural universe as a point of departure, enabling students to recognize themselves as possessing a specific and important cultural identity. (Katz & O’Leary, 2002) Within urban communities, social change needs to occur, that addresses structures of power and teaches young people to understand how their opportunities are circumscribed by larger political, economic, and social forces, focusing on self-awareness, social awareness, and global awareness. Agents for Social Justice need to teach these adolescents that they are in fact agents of change. Use the graffiti wisely. Listen to the communication they are putting forth. Enable them to direct some of that energy into effective change for the community as a whole. Allowing for social change does not preclude recognizing art for what it is. All art is an expression of individualism, a reflection of the society as a whole.

Works Cited

  1. Austin, Joe. Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Questia. 22 Dec. 2006 <>.
  2. Benavides-Vanegas, Farid Samir. “From Santander to Camilo and Che: Graffiti and Resistance in Contemporary Colombia.” Social Justice 32.1 (2005): 53+. Questia. 22 Dec. 2006 <>.
  3. “Graffiti Artists Are Masters of Future.” Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England) : 22. Questia. 22 Dec. 2006 .
  4. Gross, Daniel D., Barbara Walkosz, and Timothy D. Gross. “Language Boundaries and Discourse Stability: ‘Tagging’ as a Form of Graffiti Spanning International Borders.” ETC.: A Review of General Semantics 54.3 (1997): 275+. Questia. 22 Dec. 2006 .
  5. Homer, Joe, and Alan Hunt. “Official Graffiti of the Every day.” Law & Society Review 30.3 (1996): 455-480. Questia. 22 Dec. 2006.
  6. Katz, Susan Roberta, and Cecilia Elizabeth O’Leary. “Overview of New Pedagogies for Social Change.” Social Justice 29.4 (2002): 1+. Questia. 22 Dec. 2006 .
  7. Kirkpatrick, Peter. “‘That Shy Mysterious Poet Arthur Stace.” Journal of Australian Studies (1997): 63+. Questia. 22 Dec. 2006 .
  8. Rahn, Janice. Painting without Permission: Hip-Hop Graffiti Subculture. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2002. Questia. 22 Dec. 2006 .
  9. Bleiker, Roland. “Art after 9/11.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 31.1 (2006): 77+. Questia. 22 Dec. 2006 .
  10. Fuhrer, Urs. Cultivating Minds: Identity as Meaning-Making Practice. New York: Routledge, 2003. Questia. 22 Dec. 2006.
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