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It’s time to look at graffiti on its own terms

7 November 2016

Graffiti is commonly greeted with a seemingly straightforward question: ‘Is this art or vandalism’? For those who are responsible for curating public space, the distinction is reassuringly clear-cut. It enables opinions to be couched in apparently objective terms, and facilitates the separation of graffiti into works that are worthy of preservation (‘art’) and those that should be removed (‘vandalism’). The classification is unlikely to be made on aesthetic or intellectual grounds alone, though. Whether the process is driven by local councils or private property owners, it will inevitably take other factors – political, personal, financial, and so on – into account.

Those who produce graffiti seem to be split into two tiers. Widely renowned street artists, such as Banksy and Ben Eine, are more likely to be backed by arts organisations and authorities, as their work offers greater cultural, and financial, capital. Those who lack such recognition, in contrast, risk being denounced as delinquents. Many face legal action, such as M. Chat, who recently received a €500 fine for tagging a Paris railway station. Others elude arrest but are unable to escape being condemned by society, typecast as a crowd of spray-can criminals and marker-pen mischief-makers.

This division fails to stand up to much scrutiny. To declare that something is or is not art is a notoriously subjective act, and the meaning of vandalism is almost as muddy. This February, officials in the French city of Reims were left red-faced when a mural was scrubbed away by the local anti-graffiti squad. Unknown to the cleaners, the work – drawn by Christian Guémy, known as C215 – had been paid for days before by their employers, the town hall.

It is difficult to argue that art and vandalism are mutually exclusive categories. This false dichotomy may be a neat way to justify personal predispositions, but its usefulness ends there. It has played a part in shaping a culture that too often regards creators of graffiti as inferior to their contemporaries who work with other artistic media.

Richard Serra's Tilted Arc (1981), was commissioned for the Foley Federal Plaza in New York and removed in 1989.

Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981), was commissioned for the Federal Plaza in New York and removed in 1989.

Moving away from graffiti for a moment, we might consider the misfortune of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. Looming large in New York’s Federal Plaza, the sculpture caused a public outcry. Many saw the mass of metal not as a masterpiece, but as an obstacle and an eyesore. A decade after being commissioned, a lawsuit left it dismantled and stored out of sight. Douglas Crimp, an art critic who spoke in defence of Serra, argued that the anger had grown from the contrived notion that art was the antithesis of social function. For Benjamin Buchloch, Serra was the victim of ‘the scorn and prosecution of a mobilized mass of prejudice’.

Tilted Arc may have fallen foul of a false binary – and the law – but it has enjoyed the support and thoughtful interest of arts writers ever since its construction. We praise the ideas behind Serra’s sculptures and highlight the radical ways in which they interact with space, yet we rarely afford street art the same attention. It would be refreshing to see graffiti studied as other site-specific artworks would be, with reception and social context informing a discussion of the work itself, rather than replacing it. If we make an effort to understand street art on its own terms, approaching with curiosity and an open mind, we may find Swoon, Sampsa, Shida, and Stik just as worthy of our time and appreciation as Serra is.