Graffiti has been around throughout the history of humankind, but does it count as art? With so many different art forms out there, it can be difficult to determine exactly what qualifies as artwork. Likewise, it can be equally as difficult to determine the definition of art.
In this blog, we’ll be outlining the definitions of art and graffiti, and exploring whether graffiti is an art form or just vandalism. Read on to learn more about the graffiti scene and to find out the answer to the age-old question – is graffiti a type of art?
What is Art?
Art is a concept that can be very difficult to define, as it encompasses so many different mediums and activities. One definition of art is a creative expression by a human – and another definition is simply a form of expressing yourself.
American writer Elbert Hubbard described art as ‘not a thing, it is a way’. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright defined art as the ‘discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use.
The definition of art has evolved throughout history – different people and cultures all have different definitions and interpretations of the term. What you see as art may be seen completely differently by somebody else.
Art is subjective – there is no single definition for what art is. Art can encompass a wide range of activities – whether it be music, literature and written word, film, dance, living art, theatre, craft, and of course, sculpture and other decorative arts, performance art and visual arts.
In terms of visual art, there is a wide range of art genres – for example, fine art, expressionism, impressionist art, pop art, abstract art, conceptual art, acrylic painting, and of course, murals and other forms of street art.
Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism?
Graffiti, much like art itself, is subjective – different people will have different opinions on whether graffiti is vandalism or artwork. That being said, the general opinion on graffiti has shifted slightly in recent years, with more people recognising graffiti as a type of art.
Still, not everybody accepts graffiti as art, and some people will look at graffiti designs and see nothing but vandalism – a criminal act.
Some people will only perceive graffiti as artwork when it is moved from the streets to more traditional surfaces such as print art or canvas. Many graffiti artists will begin creating art prints and using traditional art mediums once they develop their reputation. This enables their artwork to be purchased and exhibited, ultimately furthering their career.
It can be argued, however, that all forms of graffiti can qualify as art. Whether it be a small, simple tag or an elaborate mural, all graffiti can be considered artwork. Graffiti involves creativity – graffiti artists will combine their artistic skill, experience and creativity to create artwork in public spaces, whether it be buildings or walls.
For many, graffiti is a rebellious statement that does not seek public acceptance. People will paint graffiti to express their emotions or evoke thoughts and conversation.
Is Graffiti Legal?
Despite being associated with illegal activities, graffiti is a form of artistic expression. Not all graffiti is illegal – there are several legal forms of graffiti too.
For example, some business owners may pay graffiti artists to create art on their buildings – and some towns and cities may host graffiti and street art festivals where artists are given permission to paint in public spaces. That being said, the legality of graffiti can vary across different contexts.
The Roots of Graffiti Art
The 1949 invention of the spray can enable one of the most prominent modern art/ contemporary art movements and painting techniques to develop – street art/ graffiti art.
Graffiti has been around throughout the history of humanity – however, the modern graffiti movement began in the 1960s. This is when graffiti became much more popular and visible in towns and cities around the world.
Contemporary graffiti – also referred to as ‘hip-hop graffiti’ – began in urban America – and was prominent in locations such as New York City and Philadelphia. One of the early modern artists in the graffiti world was Darryl McCray – known as ‘Cornbread’. In 1965, at the age of 12, Cornbread developed a reputation for painting his nickname on a wide range of surfaces in Philadelphia.
Tagging and graffiti saw a rise in the 1970s – during this time, graffiti evolved into a more stylized and letter-based form known as “tagging” or “writing.” Graffiti writers would begin to use their unique stylized signatures, or “tags,” to mark their presence throughout the city. This marked the beginning of the hip-hop and street art movements, which played a significant role in shaping graffiti culture.
Historically, graffiti was either painted or carved. Because graffiti doesn’t usually last long, the roots can be difficult to track. Likewise, graffiti artists often prefer to be anonymous or operate under pseudonyms – for example, Banksy or Stony.
Graffiti has been found in many ancient cultures and civilizations – for example, ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. Some pieces can still be viewed today; graffiti in Pompeii was preserved on the walls of buildings. This gave us an insight into life in Pompeii at the time, including the thoughts and feelings of the residents.
Exploring the Work of Graffiti Artists
Banksy is undeniably one of the most renowned and enigmatic graffiti artists. Hailing from the UK, his art style is politically charged. His thought-provoking stencil artworks have captivated the world. Although not much is known about the identity of Banksy as he chose artistic anonymity, his work is recognised for tackling social and cultural issues with irony and humour.
Another notable graffiti artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat, who transitioned from street art to the contemporary art scene. Basquiat’s bold and expressive graffiti-style paintings were highly influential, addressing societal themes such as race, aids, and gay rights. His legacy continues to inspire artists worldwide.
There are many reasons why artists create graffiti – Stony, for example, used art as a form of self-expression. He was heavily dyslexic and autistic, and found it difficult to express himself – but art helped him to release his built-up energy. Stony’s artwork was his ‘diary on canvas’ – and after he died in 2021, his legacy continues through his art.