The Question of Graffiti: Art vs. Vandalism

I’ve always felt rather conflicted about graffiti.

One the one hand, some of it can be really great. Colourful and skillfully painted (even when I don’t have a clue what it says) makes ugly walls interesting.

train track graffitti vienna

But on the other hand, it is, even when it’s beautiful, messing with someone else’s property.

A recent BlogTo piece, an ode of sorts to good graffiti, had many commenters raging.

“I guess as long as you like graffiti, it really doesn’t matter what the people that own those buildings or the taxpayers that own those public structures think. That’s the gist of it right?”

“Most of this “art form” are just creating visual pollution . . . 99% of it is crap and people should be punished for inflicting it in our public space.”

“Unsolicited graffiti is just disrespectful and narcissistic. The idea that you are so bloody special that you’re entitled to deface public and private property is just offensive and should not be encouraged. Paint your own damn walls.”

Of course not all of the commenters were against graffiti.  Many thought it actually enhances a city, while others supported the unsolicited paintings on the basis of public space.  The one thing all the supporters (also the author and me) agreed on is that some graffiti is better than others.  Some of it is “art.”

So where do we draw the line?

This is neat:
Courtesy of Toots Fontaine on flickr

But is this OK?

Dominic's pics'
Courtesy of Dominc's Pics' on flickr

If those are OK, then how about this?

The wall in front of Abbey Road Recording Studios in London

And is it still cool if it is commissioned like the these pictures from the East Side Gallery in Berlin?

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery "Don't Destroy History"

Berlin wall East Side Gallery

The issue of what is public space (if it even exists) and who should be allowed to own what is complicated.  And while I’m not likely to side with anyone who likes to fancy themselves an anarchist, I don’t want to take a hard lined stance against something I enjoy.

Quite simply, we have to decide: Do we respect personal property or don’t we?  After all, I’d be pissed off if someone spray painted my stuff, so I can hardly tell others (even if I dislike them) that they can’t be offended when their stuff is ruined too.

And if drawing that line isn’t hard enough, how do we decide what’s art and what’s vandalism?  Can we choose?

If I  support your right to paint because I support public space, art and expression, how can I limit one person’s expression while encouraging an other? Banksy is more appealing to some than a tag, but who gets to define art?

Apparently this guy does.



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