Graffiti Verite' Banner Logo, (c) BRYAN WORLD PRODUCTIONS

by Cindy Nguy

"Magic," that's what I saw written all over the back part of the bus on my way home. "Now that has to be vandalism," I said to myself because taggers illegally marked up the back of the bus. As I watched teenage adolescents deface property that wasn't their own, I wondered what was the purpose and meaning of graffiti. In "Graffiti Definition: The Dictionary of art," Susan A. Phillips states that "it represents a type of discontinuous communicative strategy through which people can engage in a visual dialogue which does not rely on face to face interaction or necessary knowledge of the writers' identity." Depending on whether it's against the law or not, Graffiti can be art or vandalism because it is a form of self-expression that can covey negative and positive messages across billboards and walls or it can be scribble-scrabbles from local gang members battling against each other.

Graffiti has three types of aspects-political graffiti, gang graffiti, and graffiti art. The common bond that these three share is the opportunity to express their feelings freely. According to Susan Phillips, political graffiti artists make wide use of symbols to further internalize relevant quests for power and solidarity. On the other hand, graffiti artists put a lot of time in their work as they try to express their feelings. Gang graffiti artists use any kind of object such as markers, stickers, spray paint, etc to write their name on any visible spot in a matter of  seconds just to gain recognition from rival gang members or to mark their territories. All these types of graffiti can be considered art according to the artists themselves, but to others, such as shop owners and police offers, graffiti is vandalism if done on prohibited spaces.

Artists take their time when drawing on property with the owners permission whereas vandalists, also known as taggers, "seek recognition and respect by competing over the quantity and the visibility of their tags" according to Robin J. Dunitz in "Aerosol Art aka Graffiti Art. Using several types of art supplies to display their work for many on lookers in the community, artists want people to admire the artwork while taggers throw up their tag name to let others know that they are there. Graffiti artists put long hours into their artwork and at the same time, they make it very meaningful by displaying messages to let others know how they feel. On the other hand, taggers mark up an open space in the spur of the moment because it gives them the thrill and excitement of not getting caught by the authorities. Although artists can take days to display their colorful artwork on an open space, people won't care what it is if the drawing was done illegally. Thinking that an irresponsible vandalist who had too much time on their hands did the drawing, people will pay little attention and ignore the intended message that's being displayed if the drawing violates the law. Therefore, graffiti is art when it's legally permitted, otherwise it is considered vandalism.

Drawing on public property such as the library is usually considered art when owners give graffiti artists permission to do so. In return, owners expect the artwork to convey a positive message that relates to the building being painted on. For example, imagin walking by your local library and you see a painting of an intellectual child reading a book. This is telling people to stop by a library to pick up one up and get educated. On the other hand, a 1O ft peace sign drawn by a graffiti artist on the fence of your neighbors backyard might motivate people to advocate peace, but it's defacing people's property as well as breaking the law. As you can see, getting consent from property owners is the key to determining whether or not graffiti is art because without permission there is no doubt that defacing property that doesn't belong to you, is vandalism.

Viewing graffiti as art is limiting when it comes to law enforcement because artwork is considered illegal if it is against the Law. Drawing on private property without the owners permission can lead to hefty fines, hours of community service, and possible jail time. Although colorful pictures can convey positive message such as "say no to drugs" it can be considered vandalism if it defaces people's property  because the artist went against the law and marked up space that was not their property to begin with. Gaining the permission from property owners determine whether or not graffiti is art because it's considered vandalism if there was no consent to begin with. Even though some artwork has great potential to be in art museums, artwork turns into vandalism as it continues to be illegally drawn on prohibited spaces.

Determining where graffiti stands in life has been a controversial issue for years. Questions on what makes graffiti art and not vandalism will remain unanswered until both anti and pro graffiti activists come together to seek out the true meaning of graffiti art. In the mean time, the law has the right to stop graffiti artists and vandalists when they draw or mark up people's property without consent. No matter how beautiful the artwork may be, it will be covered up with paint if there was no agreement reached by both parties. In order to avoid being a vandalist, graffiti artists must abide by laws that are set, if they want their artwork to be recognized as art rather than vandalism.

Work Cited

Dunitz, Robert J.  "Aerosol Art aka Graffiti Art," Street Gallery Guide to 1,000 L.A.Murals", Copyright 1996.

Phillips, Susan A. Graffiti Definition: The Dictionary  Of Art. London  - MacMillian (in Press), 1996.

 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