"Vandalism in the Name of  Art"
by David Luu

Graffiti artists,  taggers, painters, writers, etc., are they artists or a bunch of vandals? The dispute on the issue of graffiti goes on, an issue that is difficult to avoid because graffiti is almost everywhere: buses, walls, windows, stores, billboards, museums, etc. Some view it as being art, while others, who are forced to clean the mess, think it is vandalism. There are three types of graffiti - political graffiti, gang graffiti and graffiti art (Phillips). According to the American Heritage Dictionary (Second College Edition), gang graffiti is considered to be vandalism, "The willful or malicious destruction of public or private property," while political graffiti and graffiti art are a form of art, "The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty; specifically, the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium" (American Heritage Dictionary). Nevertheless, just because it is art does it make it legal and not vandalism? Despite the qualities that graffiti has favor being an art form, graffiti is vandalism because it damages the property and the community.

         Graffiti is an art form because it has artistic characteristics. The two types of graffiti being referred to as having artistic qualities are political graffiti and graffiti art. These types of graffiti are colorful, picture-like and sometimes meaningful. Phillips writes, "An example of this cross-culturally prevalent genre of graffiti, political graffiti may combine with other artistic and expressive forms such as poster and comic book production, mural paintings, and newspaper and pamphlet productions, and political art exhibitions." And Phillips describes "graffiti art" as "work ranging from simple monochrome lags' (the artist's 'name tag' often represented in an exaggerated cursive style) to elaborate multicolored works called 'pieces' (derived from the word 'masterpiece) which are considered in some circles to be of museum quality." These two types of graffiti are forms of art because they arrange colors and lines to form pictures and fancy designs, illustrating creativity. These two forms of graffiti are different from gang graffiti because they require a lot of hard work and time to create each 'piece' (Phillips) and not a few seconds of scribble like in gang graffiti. Graffiti is a form of art because it is also expressive by telling something about the community like the murals and art exhibitions of political graffiti. As written in That Tired Old Graffiti Advocate Strategy, "The majority of graffiti artists were young boys from the city looking for some way to express themselves, painting graffiti became an artistic form of rebellion." Graffiti is a form of expression just like art has been for centuries. Even though people may not like what it is expressing or how it appears, graffiti is an art form because it is creative and expressive like any other works of art in museums.

        However, just because graffiti is a form of art, does not mean that graffiti is not vandalism. Graffiti is vandalism because it is ruining the property, public and private. It makes public property useless by covering up street signs, and ruining property with carvings. "These wild-boy tribes have decorated virtually everything along the route or bus bench, an on-ramp sign, billboards, murals, trees, utility boxes, mayoral candidates' signs, the vast concrete canvas of the Los Angeles River and the smallest curb" (Sipchen). With graffiti making things appear dirtier than it needs to be no one will use these materials like the bus benches or the sign covered by useless writing. Not only are graffiti artists or taggers destroying public property they are also destroying private property. Local businesses are constantly being written on without the consent of the property owner. The artwork may appear pleasing to the creator, but it is disturbing the original appearance of the establishment. Many of these taggings, graffiti artist signatures, are gang graffiti, markings to "distinguish enemies and allies, and most generally mark boundaries which are both territorial and ideological" (Phillips) and to gain more attention or popularity among their peers. This form of graffiti, gang graffiti, is not art because it is neither creative nor expressive, except the expression of marking territory like animals. All three forms of graffiti tend to waste public and private property because it makes these items either useless or messy. Therefore graffiti is vandalism because it is destroying the property of the community and as a result it is damaging the community also.

        Many people consider graffiti not to be art because it is destructive to the community. It destroys the communities' environment by making it appear messier. Unfortunately the actions of the small group of vandals tends to reflect upon the rest of the group giving them a negative stereotypical image (Quintanilla). Sergio Palos said in Michael Quintanilla's article "War of the Walls," "We Hispanics are now stereotyped as a raza who doesn't know any better but to go around and do graffiti." And negative ethnic jokes are produced by this negative image such as "Why can't a Mexican sign a check? Because it's not big enough to spray paint his name on" (Quintanilla). Graffiti artists are ruining the reputation of the entire ethnic group by their actions, which is unfair to the community. This image created by the graffiti creates a separation between the working adults and the young vandals because the government uses the working people's tax money and profit to clean up the mess that taggers make. Anger usually develops between the two groups instead of understanding, breaking up the community instead of forming one. Graffiti is destructive to the community not only to property, but to the people as well.

        Although some people think graffiti to be creative, it is destructive behavior that ruins the graffiti artists' personality because of the activities that relates to graffiti. The graffiti group shows that they are developing negative behavioral qualities from their illegal activity. For example, this group of individuals shows that they do not respect anyone by defacing their property and giving an attitude to who ever gets in the way of their tagging. Even when the police catch taggers red-handed, they would play dumb, giving the impression that cops are dumb enough to fall for their innocent act. Their action also promotes the development of an angry and aggressive personality by fighting with other taggers for space or for defacing their 'piece.' It is a violent kind of life for graffiti artists because sometimes gangs confront the artists and hurt them for tagging on their turf. Finally, tagging develops a sense of irresponsibility by encouraging them to take unnecessarily dangerous risks like climbing a high place to tag on highway signs or billboards, and a sense of being inconsiderate by not thinking about how people would be affected by the graffiti. Graffiti's illegal activity helps these
individuals and future taggers to develop a destructive personality.

        In conclusion, graffiti is art, but it is destructive to public and private property and to the community, making it vandalism. Although graffiti is creative and expressive, it ruins property and renders it to be messy or useless. Also it hurts the community by giving the entire community, those who create graffiti and those who do not, a bad reputation and it ruins the development of the communities' youths. Even though graffiti may look nice on the walls for some, it does not to others, so if graffiti is ever to be treated as art than it must follow the guidelines of art. The graffiti tagging artwork needs to be placed on appropriate canvases not on buildings or other surfaces in the community, unless given proper permission. This way it gives people the choice of seeing the graffiti and learning more about it from the artist than to be forced to see it and not know what it means. Remember people interpret the same thing in different ways, so don't vandalize when you want to express something or else people might take it the wrong way. The bottom line is vandalism is illegal because it is unauthorized by the owner meaning that any change to their property would be defacing it.

Works Cited

Doug@dougweb.com. "That Tired Old Graffiti Advocate Strategy." Page of the Anti-Graffiti Web. April 12, 1999,

Phillips, Susan. Graffiti Definition:  The Dictionary of Art. London: Macmillan (in Press). 1996.

Quintanilia, Michael. "War of the Walls."  Los Angeles Times, July l4, 1993. http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe

Sipchen, Bob. "With Pen and Attitude, Two Taggers Leave Their Mark." The Los Angeles Times. June 8, 1993.

The American Heritage Dictionary (Second College Edition), Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982, 129,1336.


Home Page  |  Graffiti Art & Culture  |  Documentary Videos  |  Contact/Email

SFSU Student Essays reproduced with permission of the Student(s).
All Student(s) Essays were submitted by Professor L. Barroca, San Francisco State University.
Copyright, 1999, All Rights Reserved
Graffiti Verite' / GV2, International Graffiti Art Competition