Skip to navigation – Site map
Vandalism and Art

The duality of Graffiti: is it vandalism or art?

Alain Colombini

Full text

Introduction

1Graffiti is found in many societies with different cultural contexts and has become a witness and an ethnographic source of information on urban art development (Waclawek, 2011). Modes of expression are mainly related to visibility, notoriety, choice of venue, transgression, and are often a mean to react and protest while remaining anonymous, by illegally introducing messages in the public space. Contemporary graffiti is also described by its controversial issues between social, style and aesthetic forms along with vandalism aspects. Facing a worldwide plethoric production, the assumption that Graffiti is a positive urban art form raises some paradoxical questions regarding ephemerality and “visual pollution” with a growing art market demand. However, it is often seen as illicit production and vandalism asset. For instance, removing graffiti or restricting the practice of graffiti from the public space has been a controversial issue for artists and authorities. A question therefore arises: how can the aesthetic and pictorial aspects of these acts of creation be considered as acts of vandalism? (Bengsten, 2016).

Fig. 1 Vandalism

Fig. 1 Vandalism

Vandalism by Goon and Chick, 1985

© Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff

Fig. 2 Vandalism?

Fig. 2 Vandalism?

Keith Haring, New York, 1983

© Laura Levine/Corbis

The problem of temporality

2Similarly, the notion of temporality, by dissociating conservation and transmission must be considered. The growing interest leads to different perceptions probably with greater attention to the act of "heritage" at the expense of the act of protest. The patrimonialization of graffiti and, to a large extent, of Street Art is an essential point, because graffiti writers or street art practitioners often see institutions as "looters" who, come to preserve cultural acts that other public institutions have condemned (Omodeo, 2016).

3Heritage is primarily a process which, in principle, prevents any destruction or voluntary surrender of an artwork, which are a corollary of creation and its limitation of copyright in time. For most “writers”, Graffiti is not an act thought out on the basis of a future conservation. The issue is visibility and notoriety, by the number, size and/or the choice of venue. Regarding paint materials, so many spray paint brands are available to the general public in hardware stores. Graffiti writers would not necessarely comply with this rule as their preferences for brands are more related to habits, opportunities and word of mouth, along with, plastic qualities and not for resistance properties.

Alterations

4If Graffiti question the artistic approach of the artist and the context of their creation, it also poses those of alteration mechanisms, sometimes irreversible, these colors, which are significant from the point of view of heritage conservation. This encourage today to have a different perspective than that of the material history of the work with the creative process, the components used and the effects of environment parameters and ultimately, of time (Colombini, 2017).

5The traditional methods of conservation are questioned; which must intervene and what modifications in relation to the original one can be accepted? (Beerkens, 2005). Is it essential to invite the artist to take part in the heritage process? One must look at the field of Muralism, mainly in the USA, to find more innovative and frequent restoration procedures. Indeed, the restoration of murals, often monumental paintings, is a civic and collective act within the "neighborhood". The actors of the restoration/renovation are both volunteer civilians trained and supervised by experienced conservators, artists and more generally, of persons engaged in neighborhood committees (Shank, 2004). This is not without rewards and sometimes reveals abuses that go beyond the artistic acts.

Fig. 3 Conservation

Fig. 3 Conservation

Community mural conservation

© 2014 Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles

Fig. 4 A public Art project, 1985

Fig. 4 A public Art project, 1985

© Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff

6The practice of graffiti and its legislation ambiguities are at stake. Graffiti and Street Art have their own definitions and interpretations, but they have something in common with illegal acts when it comes to the artistic act carried out on surfaces without the given permission by a property owner, whether public or private. We are now witnessing a radicalization of practices both from two points of view: legality and vandalism. The character of these acts explains why some artists (not only from the graffiti scene) have seen their career highlighted with arrests, penalties and sometimes trials, while their works are copyrightable (Moyne, 2016).

7The question of authenticity of paint arises when, aesthetic and style expertise, may not be sufficient to ascertain whether the juridical designation of Street Art as “Art” versus graffiti as vandalism. This is even truer for legal graffiti, mainly because of the variability of quality of the known and the good quality of spray paints, supposedly meant to last, as opposed to, the use of cheap brands of spray paint as illegal graffiti (Marsh, 2007).

Duality of the phenomenon

8This paper relates to the duality of the modern graffiti phenomenon, as to whether it is a vandalism act or a cultural production. It focusses on a comparison study, mainly through artist interviews, between the evolving graffiti practices in Western major cities where illegality is often reclaimed by artists, and the fast emergence of graffiti in China, where this artistic expression is not only watched through its illegal and vandalism forms, but also for its aesthetic perceptions, though practices happen in restricted areas for expressing social, anti-official and political actions (Valjakka, 2011). Graffiti are buffed, almost straight away, by city cleaners the so called “buffers”, who are in the streets to remove all sorts of inscriptions from plumbers to whatever girl ads. If they cannot scrap it out, they paint over and that is why graffiti never lasts. At the same time, the relationship with authorities has improved very much over the last few years. It is more and more common to negotiate with the police by explaining what graffiti writers are doing, colours and mode of expression for everybody, in order to, embellish the streets rather than litter or vandalize them. From a civilization where calligraphy has been the core of the artistic production, the writing on a wall has different meanings than in a Euro-American context (gangs and political + social protests). Confronting these two almost opposite approaches, it allows a better understanding of this artistic form, as to whether it is considered vandalism or art. This controversial interrogation can be illustrated by the artist Bando’s quote “Graffiti is not vandalism, but a very beautiful crime”.

Top of page

List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1 Vandalism
Caption Vandalism by Goon and Chick, 1985
Credits © Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5745/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 100k
Title Fig. 2 Vandalism?
Caption Keith Haring, New York, 1983
Credits © Laura Levine/Corbis
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5745/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 68k
Title Fig. 3 Conservation
Caption Community mural conservation
Credits © 2014 Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5745/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 108k
Title Fig. 4 A public Art project, 1985
Credits © Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5745/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 90k
Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Alain Colombini, « The duality of Graffiti: is it vandalism or art? », CeROArt [Online], HS | 2018, Online since 09 December 2018, connection on 26 May 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/5745

Top of page

About the author

Alain Colombini

Contemporary art scientist. Centre Interdisciplinaire de Conservation et de Restauration du Patrimoine (CICRP), Marseille – France

By this author

Top of page

Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
  • Logo Fondation Périer-d’Ieteren
  • Logo DOAJ – Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals