Graffiti: art or vandalism?

Humans have been painting on walls for millennia with the oldest cave painting or parietal art, reportedly a red hand stencil in Maltravieso cave, Cáceres, Spain made by a neanderthal and dating back 64,000 years. It wasn’t until the advent of modern advertising that so-called ‘graffiti’ in public places was considered as vandalism but graffiti as an art form is probably one of the most polarising subjects in the creative world. So, is it art or is it vandalism?

Image credit: James Garman
In 1982, academics James Q. Wilson and George Kelling proposed a theory that used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighbourhoods; linking disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime. Their theory made a huge impact on policing policy throughout the 1990s which, in New York for example, was responsible for dramatic decreases in crime as a result of aggressive order-maintenance practices.

Wilson and Kelling saw serious crime as the culmination of a lengthy series of events and they theorised that, if the disorder that was a pre-cursor to crime were to be eliminated, then serious crimes would not occur. Furthermore, they posed the idea that prevalence of disorder creates fear in the minds of citizens who become convinced that an area is unsafe. This withdrawal from the community weakens social controls that previously kept criminals in check. Once this process begins, it becomes self-perpetuating: disorder causes crime, and crime causes further disorder and crime.
Image credit: Rawpixel
Graffiti can be seen, in some circles, as a blight on communities; an element of 'broken windows theory', but the reality is probably somewhere in-between. People who create graffiti see themselves as artists, expressing themselves on the canvas of public spaces. Their technical as well as artistic ability forms the basis of some of the most imaginative, strikingly beautiful and poignant art in the public domain, and what's more, the property owners and communities welcome it.

The majority of graffiti artists would see their work as 100% art, but there is a moral line that is crossed when a random 'tag' is sprayed onto a wall or other space with no purpose or meaning, and it destroys or desecrates public property. Then it falls into the category of vandalism or defacing. Both graffiti and street art are juxtaposed in that they relate to art on the street, but public opinion ultimately decides if it is one or the other and those opinions are often conflicted, generationally, culturally, and judicially.
Image credit: Flickr
There has been a change in attitudes towards graffiti in the last two decades and cities in Europe such as Berlin and Amsterdam have capitalised on the view that graffiti is a cultural asset, offering visitors the opportunity to tour the highlights. In the UK, the same trend is emerging with cities like Bristol taking advantage of the fame and notoriety of Banksy whose work is critically acclaimed and worth millions.
Work by Hendog in the style of Banksy. Image credit: Belinda Fewings
Street art extends well beyond the realms of what we would describe as graffiti. In the 1970s, charismatic artist Robert Oscar Lenciewicz earned himself a reputation as one of Britain's most infamous painters. Based in Plymouth, he never courted the London art establishment, and became respected solely on his own terms - through hard work, skill, and his unique vision. His murals are monumental, indisputably brilliant, and fascinating.

Perhaps his most well known piece is the mural on a wall next to his studio on The Barbican in Plymouth. Lenciewicz truly achieved an amazing feat painting the figures at least twice real size. Unfortunately, even though the painting was done with council permission, there were some local objections to the artwork and Lenciewicz painted over it in protest in the late 1970s, adding three flying ducks as if, with his usual wry sense of humour, he was alluding to the critics' poor sense of taste in art! The piece was subsequently uncovered but has since deteriorated over time with much of the paint peeling off. Lenciewicz completed several other works of equal magnitude. His paintings reveal people for what they are without moral judgement, showing what it was to be alive at a certain time, in a certain place. His work is democratic and humane but never sentimental, and above all, generous in its ability to communicate with ordinary people uninterested in the complexities of more esoteric art.
Robert Lenciewicz mural of a large group of Elizabethan contemporaries walking through an alley flanked by buildings, The Barbican, Plymouth. Lenciewicz's studio can be seen on the left of the mural. Image credit: Ed Sijmons 1977
Street art has become mainstream since the early days of 'artists' in the US such as Cornbread (considered one of the founders of street art) 'tagging' walls, public transport and buildings in the 1960s. His and others' objective was, and continues to be, to make art more accessible and visible to a large number of people as a way to communicate deeper meaning and to make people think. Many others have followed in his wake with some of the most famous known worldwide:

  • Banksy, The little girl with the balloon, London 2002
  • Keith Haring, We the youth, Philadelphia 1987
  • Combo, Coexist, Jerusalem 2015
  • Shepard Fairey (Obey), Marianne, Paris - painted after the terrorist attacks in 2015
  • D*Face, Love won't tear us apart, Paris 2017
  • Bradley Theodore, Anna Wintour & Karl Lagerfeld, New York 2017
  • Banksy, The flower thrower, Jerusalem 2003
  • Pichy and Avo, North West Falls Festival, Belgium 2014
  • Eduardo Kobra, Etnias, Rio de Janeiro 2016
  • Bambi, Don't shoot, London 2014
Bambi, Don't Shoot, London 2014 - Image credit: Flickr
The bounds of street art are forever changing and developing with, for instance, artists combining their paintings with nature, to create intensely evocative and beautiful images and others creating 3D images on pavements providing mind-blowing optical illusions. All provoke thought and many impart messages to keep the public talking and considering. Most add to urban landscapes in ways that are only just beginning to  be understood.

Graffiti and street art have the ability to polarise public opinion but there is no doubt they have added to a conversation that has spanned decades. At their heart they encompass history, diversity, mystery, intrigue, political statements, freedom, more colourful public spaces, a crossover between gallery and street, creativity, and community. Ultimately both have their place and as society moves forward, so does acceptance of these art forms in the public psyche.

If you are inspired to find out more and expand your creative horizons, WoB is the place to go for more reading on graffiti and street art.

Enjoy the incredible works created when street art meets nature.

Wonder at the amazing skill of 3D pavement art.

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