Graffiti as Art

SOC 328
March 27, 2010

          Graffiti in America is often viewed as vandalism, which is technically correct in the eyes of the law.  However, there are those who believe graffiti, though usually illegal, is a genuine art form.  In order to determine the validity of graffiti as an artistic style, one must first understand the history and evolution of this form of expression. 
Art Crimes (2010a), an organization which works to educate the public about graffiti and promote a positive image for the artistic style, distinguishes the difference between the two main types of “writing”: tagging and graffiti.  “Writing” is the term used by insiders to describe all types of what the general public refers to as graffiti (Art Crimes, 2010a).  It is important to note that there are very distinct differences between tagging and graffiti. 
A tag is a writer’s signature in a public space using a marker or spray paint (Art Crimes, 2010a). This is typically done by a novice or beginner and doesn’t gain respect by seasoned graffiti artists (Art Crimes, 2010a).  It’s considered the most basic type of writing and is essentially the first skill one must master before advancing to graffiti (Art Crimes, 2010a). 
          Graffiti is essentially a mural in a public space.  The mural is designed to evoke an emotion in the viewer or has a personal meaning to the graffiti artist.  The artist translates their “emotions into rapid and smooth lines” using spray paint to achieve their design (Art Crimes, 2010a).  A graffiti design is often complex and requires planning on paper before the artist can begin their work (Art Crimes, 2010a).  Much like traditional painters, graffiti requires sketching and problem solving to work out any design issues before the artist begins their piece.  Art Crimes (2010a) notes graffiti artists are under pressure to finish their pieces before they get caught.  Traditional painters who use canvas instead of public spaces like buildings, subways and train cars may create their art at their leisure, returning to a piece time and time again over an extended period of time.  Graffiti artists don’t have that luxury.  They must have a plan, before they begin and complete their piece before getting caught by law enforcement or the property owner.  Graffiti art may be considered more difficult and require additional skills than traditional artistic styles.
          Graffiti is not a modern invention as some might believe it to be.  Archaeologies have found evidence of graffiti and tagging throughout ancient Europe and North Africa.  Some of the earliest graffiti art dates back to more than 30,000 years (Valladas et al., 2001). 
          Some of the oldest forms of graffiti can be found in the caves of Pech-Merle and Lascaux in France.  Graffiti art is probably the oldest art form in the world.  Pech-Merle is especially unique because it displays both graffiti and tagging, at least an early form of tagging.   The walls of the cave at Pech-Merle depict both animals and humans hands.  What’s interesting about the hands on the wall is that the people who created these images didn’t have a written language.  Essentially, signing the wall with their hand, the artist would place their hand on the cave wall, then blow pigment around it.  The result left a positive image of the artist’s hand on the wall.  The hand images can be considered the equivalent to a modern day tagging as written language had not been invented yet.  The caves at Lascaux show great hunting scenes that include large game animals.  Much like the graffiti that is seen in America today, graffiti of the ancient past were created to depict scenes that were relevant to the lives of the artist.
          Tagging has been found in Egyptian tombs where craftsmen would inscribe their names or carve distasteful images of the Pharaoh to express their opinion inside the tomb’s tunnel walls.  A recently found pornographic scene of perhaps Queen Hatshepsut in a compromising position is an early example of graffiti created to make a political statement (Ryan, 1994).  One might think that graffiti inside a tomb would not fall into the category of graffiti because it wouldn’t be seen by the public; however, created graffiti inside a tomb might be considered even more outrageous by the ancient Egyptians due to their belief in the after-life.  It is clear graffiti was used as a tool for protest even in the ancient world. 
          In an interview conducted by Art Crimes (2010b), the graffiti artist known as “Schmoo” describes illuminated manuscripts as an early influence on the elaborate lettering found in both tagging and graffiti.  While “Schmoo” acknowledges younger graffiti artists might not know there is a connection between the two art forms (Art Crimes, 2010b).  None the less the connection is there. 
          In the Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts were religious texts adorned with intricate paintings.  They were created with great care and attention to detail.   Sometimes an entire page would be devoted to a few highly stylized letters or a cross.  Intricate patterns and designs were used to fill the entire page.  The letters almost become abstracted much like letters and words are in modern day graffiti.  Comparing a page of an illuminated manuscript like the “Chi-rho-iota” page in the Book of Kells, to graffiti that abstracts words to the point they would be difficult for an untrained eye to read, one notices while the two styles are clearly different, they do share some similarities.  In both examples, the artist fills the entire space with color or a design and the letters are highly stylized.   It is evident that both types of art distort letters or symbols to create a unique style where the meanings of the words are enhanced by the overall feeling of the entire image.
          Véronique Plesch (2002) of Colby College in Waterville, Maine analyzes Medieval graffiti on works of art in the article “Memory on the Wall: Graffiti on Religious Wall Paintings” in the Journal of Medieval & Early Modern Studies.  According to Plesch, the graffiti found on historical religious paintings:
          [affirms] the importance of the work, its resonance for the viewers, whether in a negative or in a positive
          way.  Besides surviving as a response to a pictorial text, they also constitute an appropriation of the work, 
          which is transformed into a site intended to display the expression of certain ideas or feelings. (2002, p. 3)
So, by Plesch’s interpretation of graffiti on medieval religious art, one can conclude that graffiti may not always warrant removal.  In the examples Plesch gives in the article, it seems the graffiti gives the religious art additional meaning.  No longer are the paintings just interpretations of biblical stories made by the artist, but they become a dialogue between the artist and the viewer.  The same can be said about modern graffiti.  As soon as a graffiti artist defaces a sign, a building or other public property, they essentially are creating a dialogue between them and their preserved oppressors which the entire public can see.
          In contrast to the highly decorative illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, graffiti also includes an element of abstraction found in Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism and Surrealism to distinguish the style from other forms.  Cubists reduce the subject into its simplest form (Benton, 2008); graffiti can resemble some of the work created in the Cubism style.  It’s clear that these movements have influenced the graffiti style.  
          Graffiti can be found in probably every city in the United States, if not the entire world for that matter.  What distinguishes graffiti from murals in a public space is one is illegal and the other is not.  “Schmoo”, “Celtic” and “Cabal”, all three graffiti artists, agree graffiti must be illegal otherwise it’s just a mural or some other form of art (Art Crimes, 2010b).  The idea of graffiti is to comment on society or rebel against an injustice.  If a mural is commissioned can it really do this?  The attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 sparked many artists to create graffiti that commented on the events that unfolded.  Many are shown on the Art Crimes website.  However, it’s important to note that some of the work that was commissioned while others appear to have not been.  Art Crimes does reference these images as murals though they are in the graffiti style (2010c).    
          Graffiti is unlike other forms of art because it must be done in the public space.  Thomas K. Grose (2008), author of the article “Graffiti Writ Large” describes the work of John Powderly, an ex-robotics engineer now a large scale virtual graffiti artist.  Graffiti artists don’t have to be gang members or city vandals; in Powderly’s case, he’s an artist using the latest medium to create graffiti all over the world.  Using a protector, laser pointers and the help of software, Powderly creates virtual graffiti on large scale public spaces like buildings, or bridges (Grose, 2008).  While his graffiti isn’t permanent, neither is most graffiti.  They are often painted over by city officials or other graffiti artists and taggers.  Powderly has used his graffiti to publicize his political views (Grose, 2008).  Perhaps laser graffiti will become the wave of the future.
          Ex-robotics engineer, John Powderly and others like him don’t seem to fit what society views as graffiti artists.  They don’t fit the gang member or vandal stereotype society labels these artists.  Many are artists that came from other mediums.  Richard Lachmann (1988) examines the graffiti artist in his article “Graffiti as Career and Ideology” in The American Journal of Sociology.  Lachmann (2008) argues that graffiti artists are labeled vandals because society only sees the deviant behavior.  It seems that the appreciation for the artist’s talents is lost when the piece is not commissioned.  Graffiti artists may come from all walks of life yet they are all labeled criminals because the law doesn’t recognize their art form.  That doesn’t mean laws should change, it just means society isn’t ready to accept their public spaces are artistic canvases for anyone to express their art.
          In the Lecture, SOC 328 Unit 1 Module 1, it reads the artist has control over its subject (National University).  The power is with the artist.  They can portray their subject in any way they choose.  This could also be said about graffiti artists.  They, too, control the conversation.  They choose what to protest, where to do it and in what medium in order to express their feelings.     
          Graffiti also uses elements of art just as other forms of art do.  They use color to evoke emotion.  Thick and thin lines give weight to some areas and less importance to others.  They use the techniques of linear perspective to create a 3 dimensional appearance to their letters and scenes.  They use paint as a medium, though typically from a spray can and not a brush.  With all of these attributes, how could anyone say graffiti is not art?  It must be art.  The artist creates on a large scale just as any other would on a canvas.  The only different is the graffiti artist is breaks the law in order to protest their beliefs.  It’s typically a political issue otherwise it wouldn’t be worthy of protest.  Many feel “when it is illegal it is a political statement” (Art Crimes, 2010b).  So, would it be more accurate to say graffiti is political art?  Regardless, graffiti is art.
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Art Crimes. (Interviewer), Cabal (Interviewee), Celtic (Interviewee) & Schmoo (Interviewee).  (2010b). 
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© Copyright 2010. Alyssa Burley.