thoughts on our urban future

What is so wrong with graffitti?

Graffiti in London's Bethnal Green

A quick Google search for the word ‘graffiti’ reveals a number of websites and application-type resources which can help you create your ‘own’ graffiti. You can even pay for someone to design you a ‘tag’ (your name or nickname in graffiti style letters). Then there’s of course Wikipedia, who describes graffiti as:

‘Graffiti is the name for images or lettering scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in any manner on property. Graffiti is any type of public markings that may appear in the forms of simple written words to elaborate wall paintings. Graffiti has existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

The search also produces some further information and resources on worldwide graffiti archives, where you can find photographs of ‘art crimes’ or ‘street art’, as they call it. Banksy is also not far down the list. Nothing on the first Google page may make you think this is an activity that is basically a crime punishable by law.

What prompted me to write about graffiti is a perception of mine that in the UK in particular it appears graffiti is something a lot of people feel really quite strongly against. It’s vandalism, and somehow this justifies dedicating some serious time, efforts and money to remove or paint over it.  Now whilst I’m not advocating for graffiti to be acceptable everywhere (public monuments seem like the obvious place I would oppose it), I find there are plenty of places which look much more interesting precisely because of the graffiti on the walls.

It seems to me that graffiti is nowadays more or less recognised as an acceptable art form. It’s easy to find books, posters and magazines about it, with photographers (and tourists) all over the world marvelling at the creativity of often unknown street artists. So why is it that whilst there is a section of the population that seem to enjoy graffiti, there’s other significant quantity of people that feel offended by it? Is it possible that it’s much easier to enjoy graffiti when it is not on your own wall? I can understand that someone may feel that people have no right to paint over private property. However, and because of the very fact graffiti is illegal, more often than not it appears on walls that aren’t necessarily terribly well taken care off, such as fences protecting unused land, derelict buildings themselves, railway arches, that kind of place. They are precisely the type of places that are often bland and not very nice at all, which feel as it belongs to no one, so it makes sense that someone has decided to take over by writing on the walls.

Graffiti is often used as a form of protest. Political statements are common as are satires and even insults. So it is a way people find to express themselves in urban environments and, according to historic records, very much part of urban life throughout history. What better way of expressing your feeling of ownership within an urban place than to leave your mark on a public space? Because whilst a particular wall may belong to someone, it’s outer face is part of the public realm. It is an issue of public space.

Indeed, there is perhaps a fine line between vandalism and street art. Because clearly, not all examples of writing on the wall can really be called street art. Whilst I wouldn’t even attempt to define where the line is on that division, I do recognise there are instances where graffiti is mainly vandalism, the defacing of buildings and walls with marks that have nothing to offer the city or the public realm. But this is not the focus of this post. What I find interesting is the act of taking part of the city as a medium on which you can express something, whether it is a personal feeling or view or a criticism of something that may affect a larger section of society. I don’t quite see why this should be seen as a negative thing.

Above I speak particularly about the UK as an example of how graffiti is perceived as a negative activity and an eyesore to public realm, but that is perhaps not fair, as this attitude is probably found elsewhere. It is perhaps though that it is in cities like London where amazing graffiti can be found on the city’s walls where it becomes more apparent that there is a contradiction between the appreciation of street arts (and graffiti is only a section there) and the negative connotation it has – and furthermore, where significant resources are being channelled to fight against these manifestations of manipulation of the public realm.

I question the use of public resources that indiscriminately target graffiti regardless of type, content or quality – at the same time I appreciate the difficulties in assessing those. But mainly I find fascinating the idea of people feeling the need or the freedom to intervene upon their urban environment, and I wonder the potential of what could be done if the idea was taken further. There are examples out there of citizens taking on tasks such as the provision of street furniture or street planting, taking over the local authorities’ right and obligation of providing such amenities. If these initiatives are celebrated, why would the action of taking over the city’s walls be considered so differently? What is the difference between providing a seat and a making drawing for all to see?


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  1. Perhaps the difference lies in the consultation that creates the product. A group of persons (broad representation of society) may come together to provide seating or planting, but with certain graffiti, the group may be not as representative of the whole society.

    As part of the planning/urban design, real estate development process maybe certain walls of the city/town/village could be encouraged to be used as blank canvases, to encourage interesting street art.

    I like the Banksy art. If I had a blank wall in need of some love, I would put out the word to request a worthwhile funny piece of street art. I think its the response the art evokes in the majority of passers-by that is the final judge of good or bad graffiti. If my building could contribute to enlivening the general public with a smile or curious stares, I definitely would not oppose the graffiti. Would actually encourage the art if I thought the general public would enjoy the effect.

    In sum, there is a place for the art form… some will love it, others not.

    What is the origin of the word “graffiti”? Latin roots? what roots?

  2. Wikipedia again: Graffiti and graffito are from the Italian word graffiato (“scratched”). The word originates from Greek graphein meaning “to write.”

  3. It’s a hard one I think. Probably every person has some internal measurement of when a nuisance becomes acceptable art. I know I have this internal judgement. Some graffiti I see is just someone’s tag. It’s not interesting, or particularly well placed to enhance it’s surroundings. It takes one of those tired unloved places you discuss and make it seem even more so.

    And then there is the graffiti that is entirely different. It’s clever. Or it’s beautiful. Or it’s both. This work I enjoy seeing. Interestingly, the artist in your photo- ROA, always seeks permission for the work he puts on walls which is perhaps not something people think about. And was the cause of some Council consternation late last year:

    I don’t think that graffiti needs to be community generated (then I’d call it a mural), but it does need to be community responsible. As with many things in life, there probably needs to be more of a middle ground than an all or nothing attitude.

    By the way, one of the more clever graffiti endeavors that I’ve come across is the ‘reverse graffiti’. Now, how do you argue with that one?

  4. If the owner of the property agrees to the graffiti, then its fine–then it’s merely a matter of aesthetic taste. However, if the owner does not agree, whether you or anyone else thinks its “interesting” is beside the point. People have a right to decide how their own property looks. I’m a professional artist, and in general, I hate graffiti. But the question is of criminality and a lack of respect for others–that’s the root of it. That’s what I despise most.

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