In Defence of Graffiti


Originally published on Bookninja, and in different editions of Reader’s Choice (Pearson Education Canada).

There are two types of graffiti: one rambling, obscure, and sometimes offensive, the other more tangible, more political and accessible. Whatever negative associations people sometimes have of graffiti and whatever steps are taken against it are usually the result of a perception based on the first kind. But I believe there are often enough examples of the second kind to demonstrate that graffiti deserves more consideration. If, after all, there is any value to it, then it deserves something more than automatic dismissal despite our comfortable and cherished notions of privacy and property.

In walking the streets of Toronto, I find it’s simple enough to collect examples of fairly useless, or even damaging graffiti: racist remarks, empty slogans, illegible signatures or comments like “Nick and Gloria sparkle.” How excellent for Nick and Gloria. But the more overtly political and useful examples of graffiti are everywhere too. Here are some examples from the Toronto area:

Greed = Death

Just because YOU said so?

Fur is Dead

Creative survival

The most common way people lose power is by thinking they don’t have any

Happiness can be yours forever!  Order now!

Peace, no religion

In yet another category of Toronto graffiti are the cryptic yet interesting examples, like “Fix Signs,” and in the category of trite but somehow warm comes “I Love You,” placed at least a dozen times all over the downtown core, plain and unconditional.

Anywhere attempts are made to smother freedom of speech, graffiti becomes an affordable, accessible method of communication. In El Salvador, graffiti takes the form of important and passionate social commentary:

We demand Freedom

Today it’s the turn of the victim

The People First

Respect for the rights of others is peace

While living in Scotland, I noticed that a public debate had taken place entirely through graffiti. The first remark was a confused, general statement about gay men (as opposed to pedophiles) sexually abusing children. Someone crossed out the remark and commented on the ignorance of the first person, and then the first person had returned to not only cross out the second person’s comments but include a threatening remark. All the remarks were still legible, resulting in a permanent posted conversation that fairly obviously demonstrated the first person was completely inflexible and would allow no dissent.

At Maeshowe, a Stone Age tomb in Scotland, there are examples of historical graffiti. In the twelfth century several groups of Norsemen broke into the tomb and left markings, some as simple as “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women,” with the image of a slavering dog carved next to it.  Another man stood on some shoulders in order to write, “Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up.” Other runes explain the Viking’s purpose, but the most startling thing is that the majority of examples, like the ones that I’ve provided, demonstrate how amazingly similar it is to modern graffiti. The simple fact that these particular passing thoughts have survived almost a thousand years gives them historical value and, therefore, legal protection, yet present attempts to make permanent statements are the acts of “vandals.”

Some simply assume that everyone hates graffiti, and websites advertise cleaning services to fight those “vandals and their weapons of destruction – cans of spray paint and colored markers.”  The use of the words “vandals,” and “weapons” particularly struck me. My dictionary defines a vandal as someone who willfully damages or destroys things, especially beautiful or valuable ones. Doesn’t quite strike me as fair when applied to graffiti, which has the potential to be esthetically pleasing, and may cover a neutral or unused surface. The Vandals were a member of the Germanic peoples living south of the Baltic who plundered Gaul, Spain, and North Africa and even sacked Rome in AD 455, destroying many books and works of art.  Again, not a perfect fit with messages between citizens tucked away in alleys or emblazoned on corners.

As a culture we make little or no official effort to preserve or at least photograph what these “vandals” have done with their “weapons” before whitewashing it. The obvious lesson being that something must survive in order to gather historical value, but also that we choose what survives, and are in the habit of being extremely shortsighted about it and leaving it to luck, as demonstrated by Maeshowe.

Graffiti isn’t legal, so it becomes difficult to trace the whereabouts and details of all those who do it, but I suspect most graffiti is done by young people, whether they call themselves artists or not. I say this not just because it’s rebellious but also because young people don’t yet have the same kind of investment in property, and have a different perspective, a slightly distanced position. Not only are they still defining an identity and searching for a role, they may be more capable of recognizing a basic unfairness: that a message with money behind it is called advertising while a public one is mere graffiti.

The message of most graffiti may not be about struggle, but its existence does involve an ongoing struggle between those who have and those who don’t. It is not the wealthiest people who leave graffiti. It’s more likely to be someone young, someone poor, or someone poor because they’re young. Those of us fiercely opposed to it are likely those who can afford to own at least a home, if not more, and take offense to anyone who would stain it with their own personal message. Yes, it can be an unwelcome intrusion on private property, but it’s possibly the voice of someone who may never own his or her own house, business or anything else, which only leaves them the option of needling, in some small way, those who have money and power.  This is perhaps the best reason for someone to call cans of spray-paint “weapons” – they create the potential for a permanent, articulate voice for the disadvantaged.

I don’t believe I would want to live in a world where every inch of space cries out for my attention, regardless of whether they were ads or private thoughts. But I also encourage everyone to be open to reading graffiti and to think of it as something that, like poetry, puts a finger on the real and honest pulse of the world. There is little financial profit in something like poetry, but there is even less in graffiti. In fact there is the risk of arrest, and it’s fair to assume a belief in the importance of the statement to take such a risk. I’ve noticed that the more meaningful messages are concise, to conserve time in writing it, and the more useless one are to be found all over alleys and in more hidden locations. This kind of logical assumption in the basic sincerity of Graffiti has led corporations to try and co-opt it in advertising campaigns giving the impression – as long as you don’t think about it too much – that the word on the street favours whatever corporation uses it.  But ultimately, this has to be rejected. Graffiti is not a contrived or manufactured thing designed to make money. And for that reason alone, we should be willing to watch and read.


3 Responses to “In Defence of Graffiti”

  1. A balanced essay on the ubiquitous pop-art.

    My opinions on graffiti are all over the map. When Guiliani became mayor of NYC, one of his first decisions was to employ the cleaners, or as pro-graffiti ists would have it, “censors”, to eliminate the spray paint. Crime immediately decreased: graffiti is often an open symbol for people — whether or not outsiders to the area — to conclude that the area is not policed, and that it’s unsafe. Social interaction and casual traffic then dries up, and neighbourhood neglect and, at times, criminal action takes hold.

    I’m annoyed by the simplistic crudities rampant in the “art”, but ….

    I remember strolling through the back alleys of downtown Rapid City, South Dakota, and was amazed by the passion, careful artsy shaping of densely packed multi-coloured graffiti etched onto Smithrite bins, crevices of brickwork, boarded up windows, and the like. It was quirky, original, fun. Because it was “hidden”, it held more value in that one had to seek it, or stumble upon it: it was a pleasant surprise. No one was shoving a message down anyone’s throat, which is why I’m pissed off with main street graffiti: if I want to hear a slogan, I’ll get on board for the open mic, thanks, (though open mics can be fun and surprisingly appealing).

    Graffiti can also be much more accomplished than commissioned “art” to commemorate a vanished people, the vanishing specie du jour, or an abstract steel-mesh structure.

  2. Thanks, Brian. I think my essay doesn’t really mange to get at the idea of graffiti as art, rather than a straightforward and sometimes interesting written message, but other than that I’m pretty happy with it. Thanks for reading it, and your thoughts.

  3. 3 alveera C

    Essays like this make me want to start reading more. Very well expressed, going to write up my first uni paper on this 🙂

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