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Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4491 words Published: 10th Aug 2021

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I am intending on exploring whether graffiti is art or vandalism. By exploring this research topic I will be breaking it down into different sections. The first section I will be defining what vandalism is, the perspectives of other researchers and the actions of vandalism. In the second section I will be defining art. I will also define graffiti and discuss its history and development. Researching about a well known graffiti artist will also be included to make my research more effective.

This debatable question is addressed to people with limited knowledge about graffiti. People claim that graffiti is an illegal act without getting their facts straight. I am hoping that my research would widen ones horizon of knowledge once they read my essay. At the end I will conclude and give my own opinion to this subject matter.


Graffiti is an interesting topic because it sparks conflict and debate all over the world. It is important or worth studying graffiti because to many people around the world graffiti is not a good sight to see, mainly because it is not normal to them, foreign, unknown and a problem to everyday organised living. The disliking of the writing on the walls by ordinary people has allowed for anti-graffiti laws to be created by politicians with little fuss and usually with the public’s support. In turn, the creators of the writing have become outlaws, simply because of the criminalization of the public act of getting up their names and messages.


“Vandalize is to deliberately damage things, especially public property” (Longman Active Study Dictionary- Elizabeth Manning). Not deliberately destroying things or damaging private (your own) property may not be considered as vandalism. “Vandal is someone who deliberately damages things, especially public property” (Longman Active Study Dictionary- Elizabeth Manning). Someone that damages their own private property cannot be classified as a vandal because he is not destroying it deliberately or destroying someone else’s property. A person damaging another person’s property with that person’s authorization can also not be classified as a vandal because he/she got the approval.

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The term vandalism was invented in 1794 by Henri Gregoire, the Bishop of Blois, to describe the destruction characteristic of the extreme phase of terror .The statement is correct because it is almost similar to the meaning in the Longman Active Study Dictionary. Destroying or damaging property is one of the destruction characteristics. The term ‘vandalism’ takes its genesis from the Vandals (an ancient Germanic people) who developed mailed cavalry and who were armed with long spears and bows. They are associated with unnecessary destruction as a result of their taking over of Rome under King Genseric in 455. The term was quickly adopted across Europe. Around AD 1700 their name became notorious with the idea that they were a barbaric group with a lack of culture, with rude behaviour and with the ruthless destruction or spoiling of anything beautiful or venerable.

There are reasons why people commit vandalism. Stanley Cohen has typified and outlined reasons why people execute vandalism. The six types of vandalism are ideological vandalism, acquisitive vandalism, tactical vandalism, vindictive vandalism, play vandalism and malicious vandalism.

  1. Ideological vandalism: property to gain publicity for a particular cause and is justified by long-standing grievances or political beliefs- Perhaps one of the most famous historical cases of ideology.
  2. Acquisitive vandalism: to acquire money or property.
  3. Tactical vandalism: a means of achieving some other end.
  4. Vindictive vandalism: to get revenge.
  5. Play vandalism: fun or high spirits.
  6. Malicious vandalism: the category which people fail to understand because it appears to be vicious, apparently meaningless.” (Vandalism & Graffiti: The state of the art- Frank Coefield Pg. 32-33).

Vandalism as Crime

Citizens commit vandalism when they damage or spoil the property of others on purpose. Some vandalism may qualify as culture jamming or sniggling. Culture jams changes logos, fashion statements and product images to challenge the idea of what’s cool, along with assumptions about the personal freedoms of consumptions. “Sniggling is a prankish act of social commentary, art, disruption, or protest” (Wikipedia 02/08/10): it is thought by some to be artistic in nature even though carried out illegally or without the property owner’s permission. Criminal Vandalism takes many forms. Graffiti is more common in many inner cities as part of gang culture on public property: however, other more serious forms of vandalism that may take place during public unrest such as rioting can involve the wilful destruction of public and private property .I believe a person without legally recognized excuse of destroying or damaging any property belonging to another should be punished or charged for their appalling behaviour.

Vandalism as art

Though vandalism in itself is illegal, it can also be an attraction or art to some people. According to Colin Ward (1990) “The vandalism of the last centaury becomes today’s tourist attraction” (Discussion Paper on Vandalism and Graffiti, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, London, 18 June, 1-10). What he means by this is that, the vandalism that had happened in the past will be a historic moment and some people may agree. Some people may oppose to this statement because deliberately destroying property on purpose is not a good idea to them or art to them.

What is Art?

To a historian trying to study at, growth of art, the knowledge of it and the history of it, it will leave him confused. Art doesn’t have logic. In science there is a progression but in art, you will keep going backward and forwards. To understand Art we have to look back at art history. If you apply logic to art, it is artificial. The philosophy of art is how you view the world visually. What is Art? Is a frequently asked question of the evident world by the visual sense, and the artist is simply the man who has the ability and the desire to renovate his visual perception into a material form. The first part of this action is perception and then you express what you perceived. The entire history of art is a history of modes of visual insight: of the diverse ways in which man has seen the world. The inexperienced person might not agree that there is only one way of seeing the world- the way it is presented to his/her own immediate vision. But this is not true-we see what we want to see, and what we want to see is determined, not by the unavoidable laws of optics, or even (as may be the case in wild animals) by an instinct for survival, but by the desire to discover or construct a realistic world. What we see must be made real. Art in that way becomes the construction of reality.

“Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations and modes of expression including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture and paintings. The meaning of art is explored in a branch of philosophy known as aesthetics.”(Wikipedia 09/08/10)

Since art is a very broad topic, breaking it down in types will make it easier.

Visual art

“Visual art is a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination. The term art encompasses diverse media such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, decorative arts, photography, and installation.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online)


“Graffiti is a form of visual communication, usually illegal, involving the unauthorized marking of public space by an individual or group. Although the common image of graffiti is a stylistic symbol or phrase spray-painted on a wall by a member of a street gang, some graffiti is not gang-related. Graffiti can be performed in order to gain attention or as a form of thrill seeking (antisocial behaviour), but it also can be understood as an expressive art form.”(Encyclopaedia Britannica online)

Graffiti and graffito are from the Italian word graffiato, meaning scratched. Graffiti is applied in the history of art to works of art formed by scratching a design into a surface. A related term is graffito, which involves scratching through one level of a pigment to reveal another underneath it. This technique was primarily used by potters who glaze their wares and then scratch a design into it. In ancient times graffiti was carved on walls with a sharp object and sometimes chalk or coal was used.

The term graffiti originally referred to the inscriptions and markings found on the walls of ancient sepulchre or ruins, such as in the civilizations of Greece and Rome (as in the Catacombs of Rome or at Pompeii). The most primitive forms of graffiti date back to 30,000 BCE in the form of prehistoric cave paintings and pictographs using tools such as animal bones and pigments. Graffiti was done by the ancient Egyptians, the Vikings and even the Mayans. These people communicated with each other about daily life, current events, etc: offering us a direct look into their ancient street life. It is tradition of communication. Even before this, there were caves in France where prehistoric man left markings on the walls to let us know who was there.

Modern-style graffiti

In the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) is where the first known example of modern style graffiti survives. It is positioned near a mosaic and stone walkway, the graffiti shows a handprint that vaguely resembles a heart, along with a footprint and a number. The ancient Romans engraved graffiti on walls and monuments, examples of which also survive in Egypt. Prehistoric graffiti displayed phrases of love declarations, political rhetoric, and simple words of thought compared to today’s popular messages of social and political ideals.

Modern History

Modern graffiti art originated in New York City, and it was known first as New York Style graffiti. This art movement began in the late 1960’s when adolescents used everlasting markers to tag or write their names, followed by the number of the avenue on which they lived and in subway cars. This style originated with the emergence of Taki 183 which was the label of a Greek American boy named Demitrius. After an interview with him was published, hundreds of children began to write their names all over New York. This was a start of getting recognized, when writers used their signatures to become heroes in their own communities. Tagging soon became a way to get one’s name known throughout the town. However, tagging appeared in Philadelphia before New York. The monikers, Cornbread and Cool Earl were well known in Philadelphia. They gained a lot of attention from the Philadelphia press and the community by leaving their signatures everywhere.

As graffiti became more and more popular and more noticeable, writers formed new styles and thought of new ways to write their names and make their tags only one of its type. Writers created many new scripts and scrawl styles and improved their tags with flourishes and symbols. Some symbols were strictly for visual impact while others had meaning, such as crowns, which writers used to proclaim themselves kings. They used arrows to show movement and underlining to show importance. Quotation marks and exclamation points became essential design elements. This time, between 1969 and 1974, is referred to as the pioneering era, when graffiti experienced a surge in styles and popularity. But it was still strictly tag- based.

The next major progress was scale. In addition to the growing difficulty and creativity, tags grew larger as writers increased letter size and line thickness and outlined their work. This was the beginning of the piece, short for masterpiece. It is difficult to be certain who did the first true piece, but it is commonly credited to SUPER KOOL 223. The thicker letters provide the opportunity for writers to further improve the name and to colour the interiors of the letters with patterns and designs.

Around 1974, writers like TRACY 168 and BLADE created works that had serious backgrounds, incorporating characters, scenery and other illustrations on subway cars. This formed the basis for the mural whole car, called the burner, when the entire car is covered.

By the end of 1974, the foundations were laid, allowing styles to develop that departed from the tag-styled pieces. This was a turning point in graffiti history, when graffiti made the leap from tagging to style-driven pieces. Soon arrows, curls, connections and twists ran all through the letters. These additions became the basis for semi-wild style and unreadable wild style lettering.

Writers such as RIFF 170 too got ideas from other writers and enhanced upon them, helping the competitive atmosphere, which is a necessary aspect of graffiti. Other writers, including FLINT 707 and CASE 2, made major aid in the advance of three-dimensional lettering by adding up depth to the piece, which became the standard.

Graffiti worldwide

The stretch of graffiti worldwide happened during the 80’s with the outbreak of hip hop subculture. Fuelled by music videos and films, images of New York street culture were channelled around the world. Almost overnight, everyone wanted to be a New York B-boy. Modern graffiti is often seen as being mixed with hip-hop culture. However, let’s be clear: modern graffiti predates hip hop by at least a decade. Graffiti was here before hip-hop, graffiti will be here after hip-hop, and if it wasn’t for graffiti, there would be no hip-hop.

Hip-hop and graffiti reached Europe together. European writers spent years studying letters, styles and New York Street culture. They copied the early styles, and then expanded upon them. Graffiti magazines documented early movements across Europe. And the printed media proved to be an additional catalyst for the expansion of graffiti art worldwide.

Also during the early 1980s, American writers began touring Europe via art galleries in cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Stuttgart. There was one major difference: European writers were focused on painting walls, not trains, which led to different styles. Europeans also wanted to paint in the birthplace of modern graffiti; so many Americans hosted them in what were called Pilgrimages to Mecca. American writers went to Europe to paint and Europe writers came to American to paint. By the late ’80s the European graffiti scene was in full swing.

Today Graffiti is influencing the works of creative individuals worldwide in areas as diverse as graphic design, photography, advertising, illustration, and fine art and even multimedia and technology. Why are we attracted to graffiti? I believe that part of it has to do with what I call the psychology and self-affirmation. There is something inside us that wants to take up space and announce our existence. Graffiti has always been about uprising, style and observation.

When you do your thing today, you will influence the people of tomorrow, and the observations they create will influence the next generation after that. And the pursuit of styles becomes a never ending expedition. We must all think about improvements, about getting better, because history will be watching. I believe everyone-taggers, bombers and pieces-needs to take their own style to the absolute limit, and then do it all over again.

Is Banksy a Street Artist or Vandal?

Banksy is low profiled British graffiti artist whose identity used to be unknown. According to author and graphic designer Tristan Manco, “Banksy was born in 1974 and raised in Bristol, England. He was a son of a photocopier technician. He trained as a butcher but became involved in graffiti during the great Bristol aerosol boom of the late 1980s. His artworks are often satirical pieces of art on topics such as politics, culture, and ethics. His street art, which combines graffiti writing with a distinctive stenciling technique, is similar to Blek le Rat, who began to work with stencils in 1981 in Paris and members of the anarcho-punk band Crass who maintained a graffiti stencil campaign on the London Tube System in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His art has appeared in cities around the world. Banksy’s work was born out of the Bristol underground scene which involved collaborations between artists and musicians. Banksy does not sell photos of street graffiti. Art auctioneers have been known to attempt to sell his street art on location and leave the problem of its removal in the hands of the winning bidder.” (Wikipedia 13/08/10)


Steve Wright says “Banksy started as a freehand graffiti artist in 1992-1994 as one of Bristol’s DryBreadZ Crew (DBZ), with Kato and Tes. He was inspired by local artists and his work was part of the larger Bristol underground scene. From the start he used stencils as elements of his freehand pieces, too. By 2000 he had turned to the art of stenciling after realizing how much less time it took to complete a piece. He claims he changed to stenciling whilst he was hiding from the police under a dumper truck, when he noticed the stenciled serial number and by employing this technique, he soon became more widely noticed for his art around Bristol and London.”

Stencil on the waterline of The Thekla, an entertainment boat in central Bristol – (wider view). (Wikipedia 13/08/10)

Are Banksy’s Graffiti Genuine Works of Art or vandalism?

Many of his graffiti work has been cleared off surfaces and remain now only in the photographic record. However some of Banksy’s art pieces have been said to be to be genuine works of art.

People who have removed Banksy’s graffiti works will come to regret these actions as the price of his works are fetching handsome prices at the auction houses. Bristol Council has allowed a piece called Naked Man which portrays a nude male dangling by one arm from a window sill, to be left in place by popular demand. His other art work Space Girl & Bird has made a record £288,000.Banksy’s stencils feature shocking and funny images occasionally combined with slogans. The message is usually, anti-capitalist, anti-establishment or anti-war. Subjects often include policemen, monkeys, soldiers, rats, children, and the elderly.

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One of the most common arguments for Banksy’s work as skill is that his works damage public and private property. Within the terms of the law this is absolutely correct and this simple argument does not deal with the question of Banksy’s work as potential art. Many of the most respected artists of the past met in their lifetimes as their art challenged common perceptions and pushed the boundaries of what people perceive as art. In effect, Banksy has taken his art out of the possession of the middle class gallery prowlers and returned it to the street and to the working class for whom it is targeted.

It’s important to take note that Banksy’s art has provoked debate in regards to whether his graffiti paintings are art or vandalism – specifically, this is important because provocation and discussion are two of the most important and desirable results of art, especially in this post modern era. While many people may not like Banksy’s art, the fact that it encourages debate and at times affects discussion of its subject matter means the works are effective as an artistic force.

Anyone can spray paint a wall and it doesn’t necessarily constitute as art. Anyone can also offend public values and that also does not constitute as art. Banksy’s paintings are very deliberate and they attempt to affect the landscape in ways that are both supposed to be positive and subjective, thus moving his paintings into consideration as possible artworks.

Not everyone will like Banksy’s graffiti work, although it’s hard to deny his work has captured and excited the imagination of many. While some people may be opposed to the idea of Banksy as an artist, Banksy’s popularity has arisen somewhat out of the fact that his art is offensive to some and creates controversy in certain ranks. So to a degree, the controversy surrounding his work to helps grow his success and popularity – without those people who consider Banksy a vandal, Banksy would struggle to gain the notoriety that makes many see him an artist.

Graffiti in exhibitions

Graffiti art is an emergent art form. Today, it is influencing the work of creative individuals worldwide in areas as diverse as graphic design, photography, advertising, illustration, and fine art and even multimedia and technology-moving away from the street and into private collections and galleries. The self-taught graffiti artists turned walls of public (and sometimes private) buildings into giant panoramas and subway cars into moving murals. Later, graffiti artists began to paint on canvas, walls or large sheets of paper, attracting the attention of art dealers and collectors. One of the first dealers to buy and collect graffiti was Sidney Janis. His heirs Conrad Janis and Carroll donated almost fifty works from his estate to the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. Graffiti is drawn primarily from this gift and added extra element by material the Museum’s Libraries and Archives. Graffiti in exhibitions explores the ways graffiti has moved away from the painted wall into the medium of printmaking, creating distinctive, exciting visuals along the way. I strongly think that Governments should in courage graffiti artist to take their artistic displays into exhibitions rather than preventing them from doing what they love doing. It is pretty difficult to prevent people from doing what they love (http://www.peeta.net/street_art_energy.html)

Graffiti-funded by council/organization

Graffiti is considered a crime in most places because of the risk graffiti artists, or writers take when they tag, and the speed and effectiveness with which they must create their pieces, have helped figure the form itself. Individuals however, in a variety of places around the world, are recognizing graffiti as an authentic art form and now grant legal spaces for it. Below are 8 places where tagging is legal, and in some cases, encouraged.

1. Hosier Lane, Melbourne, Australia

Photo by BlueBec

This is a famous place that is popular to tourists and other graffiti artists. This place encourages graffiti and it is also featured in travel guides and advertising campaigns. Banksy even tagged his work here.

2. Warsaw, Poland

Photo by *gorolla

The local police don’t have a problem with graffiti here. This space provides space for writers and stencil art.

3. Queens, New York, United States

Photo by rawmeyn

This place is free to the public and it is almost covered by graffiti. Graffiti artists that put their work here have to be granted permission by curator Meres One.

4. Paris, France

Photo by Gabriel Radic

There are many legal tagging sites in France. Graffiti groups are very territorial with their space and they are not afraid of being confronted.

5. Taipei, Taiwan

Photo by neogenova

The police only get involved here only when the owners of the space or place complain or property is destroyed.

6. Zürich, Switzerland

Photo by inthesitymad

This place is independently run by graffiti artists and is left out by the city. This place is now a cultural centre and is one of the few places where graffiti is legal and encouraged.

7. Sydhavnen, Copenhagen, Denmark

Photo by tobiashm

Here individual pieces don’t last long due to the popularity of the place.

8. Venice, California, United States

Photo by jakedobkin

This location is world famous for being an open and creative space for street artists


In a nut shell Graffiti cannot be precisely considered as vandalism. Graffiti can transform a horrid location into an attractive environment. Graffiti cannot be accurately classified as vandalism because the public property is not destroyed, but made to look stunning. Graffiti is art because it is deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. Graffiti can also be thought-out as an art that vandalizes property if it is carried out without permission. But if it is carried out legally (with authorization) it can not be thought out to be vandalism.

Vandalism is anti-social behaviour. Criminals carry out their anti-social behaviour during their leisure time. Graffiti artist should learn to carry out their work in places where they don’t vandalise. The government should spend money and provide legal areas where graffiti artists can continue with their work. The government prefers to spend money erasing an illegal piece of art, which could be recreated in that same spot, with little cost to the artist, and arguable harm to the community, instead of spending money supporting better education, which will have long-term results, and help the entire economy, not just the immediate area. The jobs created by that money could easily have spent to enable better jobs for today’s youth tomorrow. What a waste.

Most of the graffiti artists are prosecuted and even gone to jail, as cities get cleaner in order to attract big retailers and big money. Others retire and go on to work in the arts, designing clothes, ad campaigns, or selling paintings in galleries. Other groups of artists continue to paint in the streets and tunnels, disregarding the laws designed to jail them.


Elizabeth Manning: Longman Active Study Dictionary-Pg.823

Frank Coefield: Vandalism & Graffiti: The state of the art-Pg. 32-33


Encyclopaedia Britannica Online


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