Graffiti: A Purpose to Write

Image by Ben Harkaway, '20

In any society, defiance is prevalent. Individuals often find wrongs perpetrated by the “establishment” and adopt an “anti-status quo” mindset. In doing so, they commonly protest to demonstrate frustration. These protests manifest in a variety of forms, with graffiti providing a meaningful outlet of expression.

Graffiti strengthens nonconformist ideology in highlighting civil unrest through writing and drawing. It illuminates this unrest using spray paint and other creative tools to unlawfully decorate surfaces for public viewership. Due to this, the majority of society views graffiti as only vandalism.

The classification of graffiti as vandalism often revokes the possibility of it being categorized as art. Yet, with the rise in popularity of street artists around the globe — Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Ben Eine to name a few — the general public’s view of street artists’ “graffiti” gradually shifted to tolerance and acceptance. Their projects, however, are anything but true, authentic graffiti.

Banksy, Fairey, and Eine are all accomplished, talented artists whose works demonstrate a deep passion for art. Yet their works are usually completed with the consent of the owner of the surface upon which the art is done. Thus, their “graffiti” is not legitimate graffiti because of the lawfulness of their actions. Graffiti is inherently a rebellious activity which promotes the anti-status quo movement that follows it. When the illegality of graffiti is withdrawn, so is its rebellious nature. Consequently, the underlying purpose of graffiti ceases to exist.

The rise in acceptance of “graffiti” is truly the acceptance of street art — a legal, non-rebellious form of art that merely mimics authentic graffiti. The interesting dynamic, however, is that while many are quick to accept street art, they are not so swift in accepting real graffiti. Both forms of expression are essentially synonymous with one another, with the only pivotal difference being that real graffiti is illegal and street art is not. Therefore, people believe that simply because real graffiti is vandalism, it isn’t art.

While technically vandalism, graffiti is art. It is an activity whose artistic effectiveness in expressing resentment towards authority is unparalleled by other kinds of protests. The simple, yet abstract designs inscribed upon city walls reveal deep societal displeasure with the establishment through the radical nature of the act itself. For the action to be graffiti, it must originate as authentically as possible, i.e., in a form that is illegal, self-expressive, and anti-authoritarian. Put even simpler by New York City-based graffiti artists Mint & Serf, “If it takes more than 5 minutes, it’s not graffiti.”

All photos by the author.