Updated: Dec 10, 2020
By AQ Bui
Graffiti is undeniably a part of society and culture, yet as common as it is, it’s frequently frowned upon. Because graffiti is illegal, people negate its artistic incentive and value. Subsequently, its value is often voided and deemed disposable because of its canvas. But the canvas should not epitomize graffiti as an art form; what matters is the incentive, visual aesthetic, and content of the piece. Art, in its broadest sense, is a vehicle of communication. And though unsolicited graffiti can technically be considered vandalism, it serves a greater purpose as a vehicle of communication for those whose voices would otherwise be silenced.
In order to determine if graffiti counts as art, art needs to be defined. Art is commonly defined as one’s mind expressed through a visual medium that typically seeks to be aesthetically moving. While graffiti typically elicits negative reactions from its audiences, garnering a response in and of itself strengthens and reiterates the impact of the work. Such negative reactions often stem from preferences of visual aesthetic. However, art isn’t something that’s purely visual; it is also interpretive and purposeful. Using public spaces as the canvas for the graffiti movement increases the means of spreading ideas to the masses. The value of art shouldn’t solely be reserved for and defined by selected art dealers and curators; in a sense, strict boundaries of defining art censors the validity of unorthodox works. To eliminate this narrow mindset is to expand the boundaries of what we value in our diverse culture. Illegality aside, graffiti is a visual medium in which artists express themselves, which is important for individual human development. The culture behind graffiti is nothing new or radical, as past civilizations have been making street art well before the common era. Graffiti dating back to the Bronze Age (3300 through 1200 B.C.) can be found in places such as Stonehenge and in both Pompeii and Rome.
Despite the cultural impacts that graffiti can have in a large, diverse city, the defecation of another's property can result in fines, jail time, or other such consequences. For example, Chicago’s government has made its stance on graffiti clear, promising on their city website to remove all graffiti for free. Their mission statement implies that graffiti isn’t art and that it’s something that makes Chicago unattractive, which supposedly also “diminishes [Chicago’s] quality of life”, although they don’t specify how. The matter at hand is whether graffiti is art or not, not whether it’s vandalism or not. It’s agreed upon that graffiti is vandalism, and therefore a crime, but again, that has no correlation to its aesthetic and the fact that it’s a visual expression of the artist’s mind, which is what makes it art.
The graffiti movement has turned into its own submovement of modern art. Modern art, including graffiti, pushes communities of artists, creators, and intellectuals to evolve culture. One notable artist influenced by street art was Jean-Michel Basquiat, a pioneer in the Neo-expressionist movement, characterized by intense subjectivity and rough use of media. Basquiat’s “children’s drawings” work was considered radically unorthodox in its chaotic methodology and obscure subject matter. Another notable street artist was Keith Haring, known for his playful, minimalist work in New York City. Both Basquiat and Haring legacies have posthumously contributed to street art and greater popular culture. Basquiat in particular had his work Bird on Money (1981) displayed as the album artwork for the Strokes’ sixth studio album, The New Abnormal, released in April 2020.
One well-renowned political street artist is Shepard Fairey, well known for his Obama “Hope” poster (2008). Fairey has made a variety of political artworks, being a prolific figure in promoting self-expression and the importance of activism. He also founded OBEY Clothing, a company which was formed as an extension to his activism, his primary message being to heed the agendas of the propagandists seeking to change the world. He’s helped accelerate the street art movement with his bold political stances and blurred divides between art and politics. Fairey has worked with non-profits, fundraisers, and humanitarian conventions, making him not only an artist but a philanthropist, as well. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fairey released Guts not Glory (April 2020), working with computer software company Adobe and other famed artists such as Jessica Walsh and Ignasi Monreal . Alongside Guts not Glory, Fairey helped kickstart Adobe’s latest project, Honor Heroes, which releases art in honor of those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight. As a philanthropist inspired by graffiti, Fairey seeks to better modern society with his not only his activism, but also his artistic influence.
Graffiti may not speak to everyone, but its purpose as a form of expression is what makes it a powerful art form and a medium of communication. Like other art movements at their start, graffiti may seem radical and unorthodox, but its illegality helps make the street art movement that much more distinguished and iconic. Graffiti works in tandem with the philosophy that to make a change, rules must be broken, convention must be challenged, and individuality must be promoted.