Graffiti: Art or Nuisance?

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Digital Marketing workshop in Austin, Texas, a city I had never visited before. My colleague and I trekked four miles to the popular Off the Wall Graffiti Park on our first day of landing. The Park, which resembled an urban jungle of cement panels stacked and covered from top to bottom in murals, colors, obscenities, landscapes, faces, eyes, symbols, and words.

It was beautiful. Beauty sprung not only from the paintings themselves but also from the idea of an open canvas space free to the public and artists alike. While inspecting each painting, I began questioning the lack of such spaces in Atlanta—mainly OTP.

Throughout history, governments and local authorities vilified graffiti as vandalism and a nuisance to cities and neighborhoods. Penalties for vandalism range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $25,000, or a few days in jail to several years in prison depending on which state the “crime” occurred. Of course, the definition of vandalism is as broad as its penalties.

Today, I ask you to consider whether graffiti is an art or a nuisance.
I don’t believe graffiti to be a problem, but rather, can help us personalize our public spaces and make art accessible again. 

My first example may not be considered art, but shows creativity in using public space. Earlier this year, a man tired of his city’s neglected roads, spray-painted penises around potholes throughout the city. However, problematic potholes, once ignored for years, were patched within 48-hours. The anonymous citizen goes by the name Wanksy, a play on the name of the street artist Banksy.

Wanksy tags neglected potholes around his hometown.
Problematic potholes, once ignored for years, were patched within 48-hours after Wanksy circles the hole with a penis.

We cannot discuss the impact of graffiti without mentioning Banksy, the world-famous graffiti artist, activist, and director. Banksy began tagging public spaces over 20 years ago in his hometown of Bristol, UK. Since then, Banksy has traveled the world and gained renown and respect through his political and social commentary pieces and distinctive stencil style. The identity of Banksy remains relatively unknown. Actually, anonymity heightens his work, allowing him to create large-scale pieces and still evade authorities.

Banksy stated:

This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people. We need to make it count.

Ironically, opportunists have carved out Banksy’s work and auctioned them for hundreds of thousands of dollars without his consent. In fact, anywhere Banksy pieces are found, the property value of the area soars. Just watch what happens when Banksy visits New York.

Banksy maintains that his work should remain free to the public and even provides high-quality images on his site, but that hasn’t staved off the greed.

Therein lies the beauty and tragedy of it all. Graffiti is an outpour of low-level dissent, screaming against the commodification of art and urging us to put down our phones and look up once in a while. To have public art plucked and sold to the highest bidder contradicts what the street art movement stands for: art accessible and appreciated by everyone.

To accept a baroque framed painting hung high in a museum yet reject a laborious and masterful piece behind an alley would mean denying ourselves the fundamental experience of art. A brick wall does not have to be relegated to one of many sides of a building just as a bridge can provide more than passage over a road.

Art is supposed to make us feel deeply. Do any of these pieces do that for you? If so, is it still a nuisance, or is it finally art?