The Rise of Graffiti Artists: Is It Art?

Four You Gallery
September 3, 2021| Christine

With the term “art” taking on a slew of different meanings over the years and with all the changes happening around the world, it’s no surprise that new and emerging forms of self-expression have come to life! One of these is graffiti art, writing or drawing on a wall as a form of visual communication. While the ancestor of graffiti is cave paintings, the origins of graffiti art is credited to Darryl McCray, known as Cornbread, in the late 1960’s when he started tagging his name over walls in Northern Philadelphia. The story goes that he used to write “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” on walls as an ode to his crush and later continuing with his own tag. There is no consensus about whether graffiti is considered as art or vandalism, but both arguments have their valid points.

NASTY, Subway Map #7, 2018

Proponents of graffiti (or street art) state with confidence that graffiti is most definitely to be considered an art form, just simply on a different kind of canvas. Just like with any other form of art (sculptures, architecture, poetry, etc.), graffiti is seen as a form of self-expression by the artist, especially for those who have no other way to publish their thoughts anonymously (and creating a brilliant piece is no easy feat). Graffiti, especially intricate pieces, requires technical skill and an artistic eye. There’s a reason that pieces of graffiti art have sold for millions, one of the biggest examples of this is Untitled by Basquiat, who emerged from New York’s graffiti scene, that sold for a whopping $110.5 million in 2017. Another example is Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s purchase of a Banksy original for over $1 million. This kind of attention proves that graffiti is revered and appreciated as an art form.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981

The other side of the graffiti coin tells a different story, one of vandalism, breaking the law and inconvenience. Seeing as most graffiti artists, especially those very keen on expressing their political views, make use of public spaces and/or official buildings as their canvas, their work is seen as more of a nuisance than a form of artistic expression. “Graffiti is vandalism. I still have to pay to have it removed. Why do you assume everyone has a right to express their stuff by painting on public walls? Why would the rest of us be interested in the thoughts of one special snowflake?”, said a resident in England who has been more than bothered by the presence of graffiti in their neighborhood. David Lynch, world renowned film director, agrees with the above arguing that graffiti is ruining our planet and making our planet ugly. Even mixed media artists Dan Pearce, who backs graffiti as art says, “Graffiti can fall into the category of vandalism or’, defacing’ when it is a random tag on any old wall that has no meaning”.

Heidi Ukkonen-We Will Find You, 2020-Egg-tempera acrylics and airbrush on linen-160 x 110 cm

Beauty, or in this case art, is in the eye of the beholder. With valid arguments on both sides, it’s safe to assume that the “is graffiti art?” debate is far from being resolved. There is a fine line where graffiti crosses the threshold from art to vandalism, but where is that line drawn and who does the drawing? Some believe it is up to the artist to decide and others believe institutions and governments should make the distinction. What do you think?

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