The Dark Arts: Graffiti walks the line between petty vandalism and complex art form

Is graffiti strictly vandalism? Or is there some hidden merit? // Photo by Dan Branovan

Provocative bursts of bold colors. Wild, distorted lettering. An urban canvas full of lines, shape, and form, soon to be wiped away—reconditioned to a beige, gray, or whitewashed surface. It’s the nature of the art—atypical, public, transient. It’s graffiti.

But is it art? Building an identity in Philadelphia in the late 1960s, graffiti truly exploded when it found its way to New York City in the ‘70s and then penetrated the culture of hip-hop in the ‘80s. The medium was also adopted by gangs across the country as a way to mark their turf, most notably embraced in Los Angeles. Throughout time and the upsurge of monikers on sprawling city walls, bridges, billboards, and trains, graffiti has spawned polarizing reactions. Thoughts on its use and proliferation have run up against considerations of style and application of the law. Is it strictly vandalism? Or is there some hidden merit?

“People are going to have one opinion or another,” graffiti artist and art instructor Peyton Scott Russell says. “You can see it as beautiful. We have all these bland surfaces. With graffiti, it’s communication as individuals in unorthodox ways that tell stories and may inspire people to think about life. Or to think how did that get up there? It engages the artist to create, but also engages thoughts in the viewer. Now you’re in dialogue. That’s the argument and beauty of it.”

Part of the argument begins with what it’s called in the first place—namely, the distinction between “graffiti” versus “street art.”

Graffiti writers are focused on letter structure—this is where you find “tags,” scrawling one’s name or pseudo-name as many times and places as possible, in the hopes of being seen.

Graffiti in Duluth, Minnesota // Photo by Dan Branovan

“As humans, we live, we exist, and we have a need to be recognized. We all like to be seen in some way, graffiti writers included.” Peyton says. “The biggest general consensus is ‘how famous can I get this name?’”

Graffiti artists take “writing” one step further, using additional art—murals, themes, and backgrounds—to support the creative typography.

On the other hand, street art is graffiti’s more often tolerated cousin. It merges art and commentary using posters, images, stickers, stencils, spray paint, and other media. The prime example of the form is Banksy, the anonymous England-based artist, with his distinctive stenciling technique and socio-politics. Locally, an artist calling himself Mows has generated attention and controversy by installing tiny doorways on buildings and alleys. Whereas graffiti draws power from a persona, street art usually reflects a broader message. It makes public the gallery but claims kinship with gallery art.

Graffiti artists take “writing” one step further, using additional art—murals, themes, and backgrounds // Photo by Dan Branovan

Regardless of the artist’s intention, done without permission it is also vandalism in the eyes of of the law. In 2016, 8,059 graffiti cases were reported in Minneapolis, and the Graffiti Abatement and Enforcement program, spent a whopping $539,420 on graffiti prevention, removal, and enforcement last year alone. City of Minneapolis’ Clean City Coordinator Michelle Howard says that graffiti lowers neighborhood appeal, decreases property values, drives away prospective homebuyers, and  attracts criminal activity.

“Worst of all,” she says, “gang members use graffiti to promote themselves. Covering up this graffiti takes away this gang tool and improves the overall look of neighborhoods. […] Aerosol or other artwork and graffiti are not one in the same. Artwork is done with permission. Graffiti is done without permission.”

Next page: Duluth’s “Graffiti Graveyard”

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