Graffiti is the act of spray painting in public places and is usually linked to the low socioeconomic status of the writers and their need to establish their places in society. Free expression and territorialism, as opposed to creativity and arts has been assumed to be the main motivation to write, as it happened in the 1970s and 1980s in New York City. The act of graffiti was, and still is, considered vandalism. However, studies show that most graffiti writers have formal art training at either the senior secondary or postsecondary level.
In contemporary terms, “graffiti” is a word whose definition changes depending upon the context in which it is used. The word graffiti is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary online as: “usu. unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface.” In other words, graffiti is by this definition illegal. There are two types of graffiti writers: those who tag (taggers) and those who create murals (muralists). To “Tag” means the writer marks his or her passage in the community. Tagging generally consists of the writer’s name in stylized letters. Meanwhile, muralists are those who aim to achieve status by artistic skills. Richard Lachmann makes a comparison between the two:
Muralists vs Taggers
|Are willing to work anonymously||Get their own tags to build fame|
|Aim for quality & excellent styles, aesthetic standards||Aiming for quantity rather than aesthetic standards|
|Seek out neighborhoods||Seek out subway lines|
|Personal, associated with peers evaluations||Form “Writing gangs” or “Crews”|
|Are prepared, carry black books with sketches|
|Believe their art is appreciated, “bringing style around” and prestige|
In general the act of graffiti is illegal; however, graffiti muralists are by many considered artists. For instance in 2005, the then mayor of Toronto David Miller signed an anti-graffiti bylaw that makes a distinction between graffiti (illegal) and art murals (legal). In this document a distinction is made between murals and graffiti, they are defined as:
“ART MURAL — A mural for a designated surface and location that has been deliberately implemented for the purpose of beautifying the specific location.
GRAFFITI — One or more letters, symbols, figures, etchings, scratches, inscriptions, stains or other markings that disfigure or deface a structure or thing, howsoever made or otherwise affixed on the structure or thing, but, for greater certainty, does not include an art mural.”
However, in my opinion there is a great deal of art work in our cities that does not meet aesthetic standards nor beautification. Furthermore, there are no bylaws to stop any types of artists from calling their work “art”, nor are there any constraints on whether one may call themself an artist. For example, as you may recall, Marcel Duchamp created the Fountain where Duchamp used a urinal, which he titled Fountain and signed “R. Mutt.” Duchamp was part of the anti-rational, anti-art cultural movement, and government officials did not questioned his rationale. Similarly, Andres Serrano created a piece called Piss Christ which depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. It created a lot of controversy .
Furthermore, these are just two examples of the types of “art” that uses a tremendous amount of public funding to keep their exhibitions ongoing in museums. Later we saw Lady Gaga, making her own version of Urinal “art.” Was she making fun of it? Is this type art acceptable? Curators have mentioned to me that there is a strong story behind an irrational act of art, and that message is important to convey. I ask, when graffiti writers tag, don’t they have a story of their own that needs to be shared? Why do we want to hear one “artist” and not the other? Where do we draw the line of who is illegal or not to create? If you see, Graffiti Artists fight back against Rob Ford, I wonder, did anybody tried to reach out to them to hear their story? No, because, there is a by-law that deems that graffiti is illegal.
Graffiti is a deviant career because rulers in society have not accepted it. Graffiti is inherently tied to the social world and influenced in the locations in which it is placed. In this sense, it has generated class struggles and divides which are constantly at “war.” One example, the war declared between graffiti artists and Toronto mayor, Rob Ford in 2011. In fact, Lachmann explains that the dominant classes construe reality, and for graffiti to be considered a career the dominant class must accept it and deem it so. Once accepted, writers become artists. This was the case for Banksy, after of continually breaking the “rules” and hiding from society, Banksy managed to rise as an artist. However, let me be clear, I am not advocating for graffiti writers to come to my house and write on my house fence, I wouldn’t appreciate that without my permission, what I am trying to articulate is the discourse on class struggles and on the weight of freedom of expression that is not equally distributed for all. To this end, we all have a story to tell, and all have the right to be heard.
Graffiti Photos! Toronto Graffiti Alley in Photos by y Carol Kan