Art or property damage? Both? What should we make of the graffiti we encounter in our day-to-day lives? Are graffiti artists bringing to life sterile urban environments, adding creativity and colour to otherwise run-down areas? Or are they making cities appear dangerous and crime-ridden, unwelcoming and ruled by street gangs?
When it comes to graffiti, two fundamental rights are in conflict with one another (as is evident in the various court cases against the artists). The courts must weigh the freedom of expression against the right to own property. The damage caused should not be underestimated; the Federal Association of German Housing and Real Estate Companies has estimated an annual price tag of 500 million euros to remove unwanted graffiti daubed across Germany in just one year. On the other hand, a 2016 study suggests that street art can raise property prices in a neighbourhood (and having the famous graffiti artist Banksy doodle on your wall is apparently the “jackpot”).
What do our readers think? First up, we had a comment from Karolina, who is convinced that art is always an expression of a culture’s identity. So, what is graffiti saying? What kind of identity is it expressing?
To get a response, we spoke to Alessio B., a graffiti artist from Italy. What would he say to Karolina’s comment?
It differs from artist to artist. Speaking for myself, it is definitely an extension of my person. I do graffiti for the desire to communicate and because it makes me happy, and I think of making other people happy when they see my art (and distracting them from their everyday problems for just a moment). This inspires me to continue painting walls.
To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Yasha Young, director and curator of URBAN NATION, a museum for contemporary urban art in Berlin. What did she think?
Every artist always has their own individual approach to their work. Graffiti is always an expression of the individual artist, and individuality is always in the foreground; the ‘tag’ – the name or pseudonym of the artist – is central to this. On the other hand, passersby often cannot read the graffiti; they perceive it as graffiti or a work of art, but they cannot recognise the individuality, because they cannot read what is written. Graffiti has its own language, which is used by those who work in the scene. At the same time, however, individuality prevails in graffiti as well as in all art forms, and that must self-evidently be so.
Next up, we had a comment from Milen describing how graffiti in his hometown of Sofia is often used to spout hate speech and discrimination against the Roma. Many people would, unfortunately, recognise Milen’s description of crude, abusive graffiti in their own town or city. What should we think of this, and does it have an impact on whether we view graffiti as art?
I know that in Sofia there is a diverse graffiti scene. With art, it’s generally the case that one cannot dismiss an entire form as standing for hatred or not. Art stands for the feeling and expression of the individual, whether or not the artist really speaks for the masses. It is the expression of an opinion and perhaps also the situation in which the individual or group is in.
Also, this form of expression has been around for a long time. For example, in ancient Rome, graffiti in the form of spells against Caesar were found on walls. We should not think that all graffiti is the same. Graffiti has much more to do with a community than with hatred or violence. Just as with everything in life, there are individuals who use certain things to spread their hateful slogans… We should consider very carefully whether individual expressions of creativity are really representative of more than one person, let alone a particular group or an entire art form.
What would graffiti artist Alessio B. say?
Unfortunately, because street art is highly visible and therefore accessible, it can be misused as a propaganda tool, and in some cases to discriminate or advertise hatred. This is certainly not street art.
Is graffiti art? Or is it vandalism? Are you happy to see urban environments transformed in colourful and creative ways? Or does it make a city look run-down and dangerous? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!