Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism?

Street art is often a form of protest and social commentary. Street artists have left their mark on walls across the globe, spreading political, social and sometimes mysterious messages to the public. Graffiti is maybe the most accessible form of visual art as well as most free in thought and expression. In the earliest stages of street art the practise of “tagging” was common in a way to show that you are here, that this world belongs to you too.

Since street art and graffiti has been and is illegal, unless commissioned, it’s not surprise that many street artist are anonymous. The hidden identity can be helpful in order to put the focus on the art or simply to more comfortably express what you’re passionate about. Because of its foundation in free thought, free expression, and nonconformity, street art creates political dialogue accessible to everybody. Not all street art have political and social undertones, some street art is just for the sake of art. Thought I believe that the performance of any street art has a meaning in of itself. There are a lot of street artist who do have the intention to spread awareness about social injustices and flaws in humanity, that they want people to be conscious about. For example the british and anonymous street artist Banksy, BLU – the “Italy Banksy”.

All these street artists come from different parts of the world, and are in different, but similar ways trying to inspire change, and raise social consciousness in the world. Street art can be used to raise social awareness and street artist that try to do so. Street art is more than just art; it can be used to speak out against social injustices and is accessible to everybody, as seen by street artist, Banksy and BLU. The power of street art is the fact that it lays in the hand of the “underground”, it’s a subculture started from the outsiders in a way to have their own platform in society. This independence and freedom is a big part of the larger meaning of street art.

Street artists don’t need to go through the process of getting their art set up in a museum and you don’t need to have money or connections. Street art is for everybody, and with no filtration, street art can depict raw and authentic ideas. Street art can be a form of activism that open up dialogue, it can make people think, give an emotional connection, and maybe even mobilize people to come together. It can tell the stories of people that has gone through experiences or currently are in situations that should be heard such as poverty, racism, environmental issues, and more.

Street art can be the voice of the peoples who otherwise aren’t heard. It enables one to tell an uncensored truth, challenge views, and spark conversation. Street art in a system where it’s not “supported” implies an activist, collective feeling. It becomes a form of mental war against the dominant culture and elite. The act of producing street art symbolizes that a culture of resistance exists that the government pretend to ignore. Street art may not be particularly fancy, but in modern times when we’re constantly being distracted by pointless information, it’s key to making us aware to issues that are more important. It’s always rebellious, and it’s right there for us to see in our daily life.

A way to see how street art can be a powerful mean it in youth culture, which is very engaged in the promotion of social justice. Similar to ethnic groups that share cultural values, young people see the world in a similar way. Much of the dominant youth culture in America can be described as hip-hop culture, which is style that often calls attention to the problems urban youth face on a daily basis through music, dress, language, and also street art. These problems can be anything from stressful home situations, their future in this society, and much more.

Youth organizations are helping young people make the decision about what gets done, by whom, and how by creating environments that reflect the needs of young people and by speaking to young people in their language. Through street art groups are able to engage marginalized youth everywhere and can encourage deprived youth to vote and participate in the political process as well as other issues or happening in their society. Culturally, a lot of young people do not read newspapers or even if you pass them a flyer, so street art can bring then new tools to organize people with. This shows the power of street art, that it can be much more than just an artform. Thought every means of art can be, street art is perfect to use it for since it is accessible for everybody.

A prime example of street artist that is using the power of street art to make important statements is Banksy, whom is very famous for his political art with a comic touch. He is probably the most familiar street artist in the world, both for hiding his true identity, and for his provocative murals. Banksy’s use of stencils combined with a cynical sense of humor is what make his work easy to recognize. His signature works are his spray-painted stencils of people (little girls and soldiers) and rats. Many pieces include critiques about society, politicians, and social class systems. Some are simply for playing games with your eyes, like a stencil of a maid lifting up the curtain of the wall to expose the brick behind it. Banksy’s main motivation is to use his work to expose the most dirty sides of our society by the use of provocative stencils at daring locations. A quote from a Banksy piece says “If graffiti changed anything – it would be illegal”(Pometsey, 2018).

What this tell me is that Banksy knows that his street art will most likely not make a direct change anything, but by people seeing the messages, he might spark the idea that do change world. Banksy has become a worldwide artist, creating images in international locations like the wall between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. A lot of his work appear in London and other English cities but have also appeared in US cities. Banksy’s pieces sell at auction for up to half a million dollars, and some people have even removed his pieces from the streets so that they can put them up for sale. The wealth and the fame is his, if he would want it. Banksy seems to value staying true to his original intention for his art, by staying anonymous and rebellious will make his street art more and more powerful. Whether it’s political or simply within the art industry, inspiring change is what graffiti does best.

By giving an artistic voice to those who may not have had the opportunity to attend an expensive art school, it is a means of expression for all. But not every street artist out there is known as Banksy. Many still live an underground life, watching out for the cops to arrest them for doing them because the government has yet to tell them that their voice is allowed. Street artist known or not, the paintings speak for themselves, and they can provide clues for me that someone out there has something to say, and that the world should be paying attention.

Another place were street art is used as a means of raising awareness is in Bogotá, Colombia. This is a place where the political power of street art plays around themes of social injustice, anti-capitalism and war and peace. Colombia is slowly recovering from more than 50 years of violence, conflict, and war. With more than 220,000 people have been killed and more than 40,000 have simply disappeared, a lot of damage has been done. Based on their history it shouldn’t be a surprise that street art in Colombia often express this war and the search for peace.

The Memoria work is pieces of art located across the street from the the Center of Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation. This center was designed to create a space where the violence and the past could be talked about and honored, at the same time allow everyone to move forward without forgetting the human cost of war. According to isupportstreetart.com Lesivo is a Colombian street artist who is considered as one of the top street artists from this country. War, greed, and capitalism are common themes for Lesivo as in this piece above which represent Colombia anti-war and anti-drug initiative that has led to the murder of many Colombians.

He is commenting the capitalism by showing the Monopoly Man being held up by their own creations. BLU is an Italian artist has been described as one of the world’s most notable muralists who’s taken the art form back to its social conscious and political roots. BLU has remained anonymous from the start, so just like Banksy, his true identity stays a mystery. In 2016 BLU began a project of painting over all of his own previous work he had done in the city of Bologna. This was a protest of a gallery opening in Bologna which included works of street art that had been removed from their original locations.

BLU said in a statement commenting the reason behind this protest; “After having denounced and criminalized graffiti as vandalism, after having oppressed the youth culture that created them, after having evacuated the places which functioned as laboratories for those artists, now Bologna’s powers-that-be pose as the saviors of street art.” BLU and Bansky are similar in many ways, so much that he’s even referred to as“Italy’s Banksy”, by some. For them It’s not about fame, not about money, not even all about art, it’s about the rebellious act against the elite. It’s about protecting street art from cultural appropriation. In its most basic definition cultural appropriation is “when someone adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own”.

How and when this becomes problematic has to do with power imbalance; when aspects of a culture that has been systematically oppressed, are adopted by members of the dominant culture that has oppressed them. In many instances, cultural appropriation fails to credit original artists for their designs, ideas and intellectual property. Not only that, but the one who takes it are profiting from the culture. I’m not saying this always is the case, some galleries credit the original artists for their work. Here, the artist is giving their permission to share the artwork.

BLU has painted big murals across his hometown and across the world, including along the West Bank wall, in Spain, Germany, the US, Portugal, and Brazil. His work is very celebrated and BLU could easily have become wealthy from his art, but BLU neglect fame and fortune in favor of artistic integrity and freedom. In an interview with Kolah Studio (Sprayplanet, 2018) he said “I’m not economically rich but I’m a billionaire in happiness.” Who BLU is remains uncertain throughout my research, but he let his art and motivations for it speak for itself in his showcase of humanity’s greed and violence.

One of BLU’s recent targets are the military-industrial complex and its relationship with money, political power, and war. One mural in Prague takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and features a line of military tanks and heavy equipment on a Möbius strip representing the unending cycle of violence and destruction. Other pieces include a decorated officer playing a gun barrel xylophone, a cufflinked businessman cutting a line of powder from a pile of human skulls with his Citi card, and, in one mural in Warsaw, Poland, a unit of marionette soldiers with dollar-sign pieces on their sleeves, their strings manipulated by unseen puppeteers in the sky.

One particular controversial mural depicted rows of caskets with dollar bill flags. Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary art (MOCA) invited BLU to paint an outdoor mural to the museum’s upcoming “Art in the Street” show. Before BLU was completely done the director ordered him to take it down because the concern that the mural’s imagery could offend a war veteran’s hospital and a memorial to Japanese American soldiers nearby. Though BLU is best known for his social and political themes, his work has humor to it. Among his more playful pieces is a mural celebrating vegetarianism in Spain. This mural shows a crowd of fruits and vegetables gathered around a juice blender.

At the top of the blender is a smiling tomato preparing to dive in. Here we see BLU art aiming to amuse, but disturb at the same time. One of the artist’s most provocative and iconic mural is of an ordinary boy turning into a soldier by getting his head shaved, cut open, his brain removed, and replaced with a helmet. Hebru Brantley is another street artist whom with his art is trying to share new perspectives on race and pop culture. Growing up, Brantley was very into reading comics and drawing cartoons. He started with drawing the characters he always saw in his books and movies, but started to realize that there was a gap, that there weren’t many characters of color. Hence, Brantley drew and created his own character came to be called “Flyboy”.

Hebru Brantley is an artist from the Southside of Chicago in the Bronzeville area. Growing up he really loved cartoons and comics, so much that he even started drawing them himself and this is what led and inspired him to enter the graffiti culture. In the early 90’s Brantley started tagging trains, walls, and other city surfaces throughout Chicago. Later on he went on to study film at Clark Atlanta University which he earned a bachelor in. He also has a background in design and media illustration. He has a range of influences—including Keith Haring, African American history, hip-hop, anime, manga and comic books.

All of his influences mixed together to his own thing. Comic book- style and narrative, popular icons in the background and flyboy or fly girl in the front. Uses oil, acrylic, watercolor and spray paint, also non-traditional mediums such as coffee and tea. Brantley tries to reflect the street’s energy and aesthetic to stay true to his roots and culture. On streets of nearly every major city in the world, signs of art and rebellion can be found. More than graffiti, street art aims to express an idea, create something beautiful and thought provoking at the same time, and quite possibly make a change or spark the idea that does.

Sources

  1. Ginwright, S. and James, T. (2002). From assets to agents of change: Social justice, organizing, and youth development. New Directions for Youth Development, 2002(96), pp.27-46. L, Ammentorp. (2007)
  2. Imagining social change: Developing social consciousness in an arts-based pedagogy. Critical Practice Studies – tidsskrift.dk. Reed, T. (2005).
  3. I Support Street Art. (2018). Lesivo – I Support Street Art. [online] Available at: http://www.isupportstreetart.com/artist/lesivo/ [Accessed 4 Dec. 2018]. sprayplanet. (2018).
  4. The Political Street Art of BLU. [online] Available at: https://www.sprayplanet.com/blogs/news/the-political-street-art-of-blu [Accessed 4 Dec. 2018]. Hebru Brantley. (2018).
  5. Hebru Brantley. [online] Available at: https://www.hebrubrantley.com/ [Accessed 5 Dec. 2018].