Graffiti as Art: Where Do We Draw the Line?

Since antiquity, humans have needed someone else in the world to know, “I’m here. I was here. I existed.” Creation is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human, and graffiti is a tradition derived from an ancient need to express, share knowledge, warn, defend and simply mark one’s presence.

Art has historically been used as a voice for activists, but where do we draw the line when it comes to defining graffiti’s function as an art form, versus the cases in which it can only be viewed as a crime?

Image Source: Clem Onojeghuo

Then to Now: Graffiti as a Human Tradition

Graffiti has been around as long as humanity has. Ancient cave walls with handprints mark humanity’s contribution — like a signature on a canvas. The Vikings left runes on cairn stones to mark their passing during trades and raids, similar to the etching of “Sam was here,” on a bathroom stall.

In modern times, graffiti has become a work of activism and a response to social segregation and modernism. In the seventies in New York City, youth used graffiti to speak up, communicate and share their identities with others, tagging aliases on walls and various surfaces around the city.

Authorities and city officials did not see this as art — these taggers were vandals in their eyes. To some, graffiti is still considered solely criminal. However, for others, it represents a means by which artists can express themselves in a public format. It’s undeniable that graffiti is widely more accepted today than it used to be as new generations become more open to alternative art forms.

Graffiti has evolved into street art, involving tagging, but this art form goes beyond that — to rendering complicated and beautiful artworks. For some, there is beauty and purpose in going against authority to speak up through street art, and this sentiment has long been a part of graffiti culture.

It takes finesse, daring and a quick and accurate artistic skillset to get your art up on the wall and get out before the heat is on.

What Are the Legal, Financial and Personal Costs For Graffiti Artists?

The U.S. is estimated to spend around $15 billion dollars to track and remove graffiti, including monitoring, locating, removing and repairing the perceived damage that street art causes. The penalties for punishment vary per state, as they do per nation:

  • If you tag in Los Angeles and cause over $400 in damage, you could be fined up to $10,000 and/or given a year in jail, based on the amount of damage done.
  • In London, England, you pay a fixed penalty of £75, but major offenses for property damage or racist graffiti will get the tagger a possible six months in jail and up to £5,000.
  • In Mumbai, India, you could spend a year in prison and pay $802.
  • In Singapore, you’re looking at eight cane strokes and fines totaling $1,471 with three years of jail time. An American was convicted in 1994, despite Bill Clinton’s request for clemency. In 2012, 2,203 canings took place, and 1,070 of those sentenced were foreigners.

Be careful when tagging overseas. If you choose to mark your presence as you pass through other nations, know that penalties can be worse for foreigners. Some countries charge static fines for general graffiti and raise the fee to include jail for harmful graffiti, such as racist images or remarks.

Mr. Brainwash and Banksy are examples of unsanctioned street artists who managed to appear and disappear successfully after making art. They leave authorities to chase them while the artists make bank on the resulting headlines.

The everyday graffiti artist is better off asking a property owner for permission — and getting it in writing — before tagging. It’s not as romantic, but you should know your rights, folks. The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) protects some works of art affixed to a building where some removed works would cause damage, but it doesn’t cover works for hire.

Today, artists can actually consult property owners to discuss their artwork and ideas, and possibly even create a contract of sorts. It’s better than jail time, and you’ll save money for art supplies.

When Is Graffiti Art Moral?

Shamsia Hassani, an Afghan woman in Kabul, risks everything to paint empowering feminist murals on abandoned buildings in war-torn streets where women are not allowed to wander alone.

She must get in and out in under twenty minutes or face the consequences if caught, which may mean her life. For Hassani, art has become a weapon, not of mass destruction like the bombs going off in her country, but of mass expression. Her work is illegal, but Hassani’s morals call her to stand up for herself, women and peace.

Less moral acts are when graffiti isn’t about speaking up for the oppressed or harmed but simply stating “Sam was here,” or worse, expressing hatred toward others.

Unfortunately, recent news is riddled with disturbing headlines of Pro-Nazi graffiti in Portland, New York and other cities. Fences, cars, homes and trees were tagged with swastikas on a Jewish holiday. Hate graffiti and Pro-Nazi symbol tagging has been on the rise, and it raises many concerns for the safety of those residing in these tagged neighborhoods.

Fortunately, hate graffiti has a way of bringing people together to clean up the harmful acts of others, scrubbing it away. Neighbors in Portland gathered to clean up the graffiti there in March, and New Yorkers gathered to clean up Pro-Nazi graffiti on the subway in February.

Important questions graffiti artists must ask are: What is the message? Does it help or harm others? Which way do the scales of risk way more heavily, and what is most important?

Graffiti art has been and will continue to be a part of human tradition. It’s best when cities, authorities, property owners and graffiti artists come together to create a statement through art, helping positive messages spread collaboratively.

However, what’s legal and moral may not always go hand in hand, and it’s up to every artist to decide what they are willing to risk to be heard and seen. Where do you draw the line as an artist, as a power of authority or as a citizen?



Kate Harveston is a young writer from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She enjoys all things related to culture, politics and law, and how those elements intersect and act upon each other. If you like her writing, you can follow her on Twitter or visit her blog, Only Slightly Biased.

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