Graffiti and Art

Graffiti has many faces. Some see it as art, while others see it as criminal vandalism. Some see it as a good outlet for youth, while others see it as a corrupting influence. One's view of graffiti is influenced by their perspective and their personal experience.

If one is has been a victim of graffiti, that victimization tends to influence their perspective on the issue. Some of these viewpoints are captured on our FAQ page.

Municipalities also have a view, derived from their perspective. It is estimated that between $15 and $18 billion per year is spent by municipalities to combat graffiti. Given that annual expenditure, perhaps the language municipalities use to describe graffiti is predictable. If one clicks on the Ordinances button of our home page and browses through the various municipal ordinances, one finds consistency in phrases used by communities to describe graffiti:

"Detrimental to property values"
"Blighting factor"
"Negatively impacts the entire community"
"Causes an increase in crime"

But if you are involved in applying graffiti to trains and walls, you have an entirely different perspective. The NoGraf Network has received emails from some of them, indicating that property owners should be grateful for the art they have applied. Many consider graffiti to be an artistic journey, not a path of criminal vandalism. But even within the pro-graffiti community there is disagreement. Consider the following quote: "Pick a side. Either you are an artist or a graffiti writer. Artists create art, graffiti writers create graffiti. you can't have it both ways. I don't have anything turned around. Pieces are nice and cute but they are not what is at the heart of graff. Graff is all about tagging, catching wrecks and feeling empowered by nom de plume and signature. Loosing yourself in freedom. Pieces are exaggerated exercises in 30 can masturbation." A minority view? A maverick? The author of one of the hottest-selling pro-graff books on the market today was mentored by this "maverick". Perspective!

But the overwhelming majority of citizens have no perspective on this issue which is based on their own personal experience. They have not been victimized by graffiti, they are not involved in municipal efforts to combat it, they are not involved in applying graffiti to walls. From what sources does this majority derive an opinion?

This page has been created to identify some of the forces that are operative in our society, influencing the perception of graffiti. Some are subtle. In some cases the NoGraf Network has taken a stand, and these are clearly identified. Except for these instances, the following is merely a chronicle of operative forces in our society which collectively "paint the image" of graffiti for the overwhelming majority.

VIBE Magazine Interview

Do you think graffiti is art? Why? Why not? If not, what do you consider it?" Any debate over whether graffiti is art is distracting from more important issues. I separate graffiti into two broad categories: (1) the process and (2) the product. The process generally begins before the vandal stands in front of his/her first wall, spraying on his moniker. It starts with "racking" his paint (you're probably aware that the subculture advocates stealing the paint, and there is much advice available through graffiti chat rooms on ways to do this). So, from the law enforcement standpoint, it starts with larceny (and may even include breaking and entering, depending on the chat-room method employed). Then, getting to the wall (or roof or freeway sign) usually includes trespass, culminating with vandalism. With tagger graffiti, this vandalism is often in the felony range. Further, with others usually involved, it also usually includes conspiracy. If the vandal is to progress from a "toy" to talented, that cycle is repeated over and over and over, so there is potentially a great societal cost. As he makes that journey, the product is initially junk by anybody's standard (mainstream society did not come up with the term "toy"...the graffiti subculture did!). So a great deal of graffiti, by anybody's standard, is merely visual pollution and not art. Also, in recent years, there is a new form of graffiti "product" done by etching on glass or plastic with either a quartz/diamond tool or etching acid. Art? Most would not call it that! Now, having said that, there are many "pieces" that are visually appealing. Art?...maybe so! But so what (when you consider the societal cost of getting there!)? The members of the NoGraf Network are focused on graffiti victims. Given that, the process rather than the product is of greatest concern to us. Over the years I have talked to over 5,000 graffiti victims. I've not had a single one state that he/she liked the vandalism on their property or considered it "art".

Do you think those who are doing it consider it art? Why? Hmmm! If we were in court, I'd jump up at this point and say "Objection! Hearsay!" However, over the years, I have talked to many, many graffiti practitioners. My observation is that there are two schools of thought....generally, the old practitioners, the "lieutenants" and "captains" of "the movement", who go back to the late 70's and 80's, consider the "art" argument absurd. They consider graffiti to be an end in itself, done for the rush of adrenalin which it provides. Then there is another group, generally the more recent arrivals, who say they consider it art. I underlined "say" because some, in this latter group, are (in my opinion) merely involved in "group-speak"...they say it's art because that's what you're supposed to say. This brainwashed subgroup usually proceeds to point out that graffiti has been around since the beginning of time (and I usually think, when I hear this ad nauseum argument "so have cockroaches and rats...who behave in a very similar manner...sneak around in the night, run like hell if you shine a light on them, disdained by the society in which they live..."). But there is another subgroup that, I believe, genuinely and passionately subscribes to the "it's art" viewpoint. I believe that underneath most of the "art" arguments is the fact that we all need to think well of ourselves. If one is involved in graffiti, it's more attractive, from the self-image standpoint, to be an "artist" than to be a "vandal".

Why do you think graf artists continue to do it if it¹s illegal? Especially now with task forces and stiffer legal penalties? They continue doing it because it's illegal. Graffiti is done to achieve what the subculture calls "fame" and for the adrenalin rush it provides. If you make it legal, the latter is gone. Another reason for continuing is addiction. Although I know of no scientific studies, there is strong anecdotal evidence that graffiti can be addictive. Some examples: (1) In an interview, the girlfriend of an LA tagger said he used to be addicted to cocaine, but that now that he had gotten into graffiti, he's addicted to that and has dropped the cocaine, (2) I exchanged emails with a former tagger who joined the Army, did very well, and became a Green Beret sergeant, stationed at the Special Operations Command, Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. While there, he couldn't resist putting up one of his "pieces" on a local farmer's barn (a new meaning for "covert operations"?), (3) a couple of years ago a tagger in his 30's was arrested in Philadelphia. At the time of arrest he was driving a brand new BMW and was dressed in a white shirt and tie. Turned out he was a professional engineer who simply could not let go of his youthful pursuit. He was subsequently sentenced to 9 months in jail.

Would legalizing it help? Take away the ³doing something wrong² aspect of it? Help what? If we legalize it, would you be willing for them to start with your house, so you can "help"? Your parent's house? But I assume you are asking whether legalizing it would diffuse the "doing something wrong" aspect. I say no. "Doing something wrong" is precisely the reason for doing it!

How has graffiti changed from 10 years ago? Do you think the task forces help? How so? I think it has changed in two ways: (1) the sheer volume of it (the Internet, with the "graffiti art galleries," chat rooms, and supply-order-houses it provides, played a major role in that explosive growth) and (2) the lack of discipline. With regard to the latter, for example, there was a cover story recently in Rome's leading tourist magazine. In it, the "old school" taggers complained about the new breed...lack of respect for others in the subculture, refusal to follow the mores of the subculture. Municipal "task forces" help immensely, if they are done right. Those that succeed usually have a balanced program which incorporates what we call the "three e's"....(1) enforcement, (2) eradication (or abatement), and (3) education.

Do you think the fashion¹s current embracing of it, gallery showings and legal walls have helped or hurt illegal graffiti? Helped your cause? I don't look upon what I do as "a cause". I got into this field to help victims, and that is still my orientation. Truthfully, it is difficult to maintain that focus, because I am constantly distracted by such never-ending pleas as "well it's better than doing drugs" or "it's art" or "it's been around forever". If reaction to those pleas while trying to maintain a focus on helping victims is "a cause," then I am guilty! But to respond to your question...certainly the embracing of graffiti style by business (e.g., Nike, IBM, others) and by art galleries helps illegal graffiti from at least two standpoints (1) it tends to legitimize it, and (2) it makes it look "cool" to youth who might be considering walking down that path.

Member Insights

Malmo, Sweden. As information on the "Art of Harmony" unfolds, it seems to beg the question whether the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. On the one hand, in a City like Los Angeles, the City government is spending over $8 million per year to combat graffiti. On the other hand, Coca Cola awards prizes in the same City with graffiti-like drawings being the result, and with graffiti vandals elevated to new stature as "recognized street artists". There does not appear to be much "Harmony" in those seemingly contradictory actions!

Casey, Victoria, Australia: In regards to Art of Harmony Program local government and companies that are advocating free walls and aerosol art as a solution to graffiti vandalism, are demonstrating their lack of understanding of graffiti and its meaning. Graffiti vandalism is all about maximum exposure, thrill-seeking and marking territory - as much as possible.

Offenders regularly try to legitimize or justify their actions by arguing that they only graffiti public property or with permission, and in so doing create beliefs by some that it can be solved by giving them legal sites. However, over here in the City of Casey, Victoria, Australia residents have recently successfully lobbied for a clean wall strategy which encompasses the beautification of our city through the use of rapid removal of graffiti off all property by council, education through schools and accountability through enforcement of penalties. Graffiti vandalism is now minimal with many suburbs being declared and maintained as graffiti-free. Before this program was implemented an audit found 55,000 square meters of graffiti much of which was on private property. (The city has a population of 190,000 people and approx. 60,000 households).

In endorsing aerosol art programs local government isolates the frustration felt by many residents and traders who look to our decision-makers for help. What's worse, many traders believe that by allowing murals on their business or office walls, they are buying protection from more attacks of this vandalism. Interestingly, councils neighboring Casey who do advocate aerosol art as a solution to graffiti vandalism are experiencing an explosion in this illegal activity. You will note these same councils condone legal sites which obviously have seen vandalism spread.

Graffiti is not a victimless crime, and offenders are not isolating their criminal activity to only graffiti - it is a recruitment and incubator for criminal expansion. It is irresponsible to promote graffiti as social expression and governments need to acknowledge it for what it is - criminal activity and unwanted by the majority. I hope your company will rethink its Art of Harmony Program.

Aukland, New Zealand: I have drunk Coca Cola for 30 years but I am not happy about you people using graffiti and vandalism to promote the product. Here in Auckland, New Zealand our council spends over 1 million dollars a year removing tags etc from other people's property. People do not have the right to put their name, the name of their drug of choice or the gang they want to get into all over my fence or your office building. There is nothing artistic about it and responsible corporations should not be sponsoring it.

Yreka, CA (Re: Coca Cola): Your Art of Harmony program, although nice in what it hopes to accomplish, is in fact not very well thought out since you are giving praise and accolades to kids who have victimized citizens to the tune of billions of dollars every year. Graffiti in itself is an illegal act and for the few that actually have a talent, there are thousands who are going to continue or even increase their spree of vandalism because of programs like what you are promoting. It is troublesome when a corporate giant dives into an area they know nothing about, just to raise their profit margin, and we in the community keep paying the price. The fact of the matter is that over 100 cities across the US have tried types of programs like this and not one has worked. What actually happens is that graffiti vandalism increases in and around the community where these free walls stand. Every one has been removed due to this problem. So now, Coca Cola thinks that they can do the same thing and it’s ok? They need to do better research before jumping into something that has such a huge detrimental impact on all of us. I ask that you put a stop to this and spend that money of helping people remove the blight from their properties, or maybe help cities remove the vandalism from public property. Instead of promoting the problem, how about being a partner in finding a solution?

Miami, Florida: When Judge Ellis sentenced the "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh to 20 years, on October 4th, he said "Life is about choices and living the consequences." Perhaps Mr. Daft, Coca Cola, and their "famous street artists" could learn something from that. If Walker were to have faced "Judge Daft" might he have been declared a "famous freedom fighter"? And might Coca Cola have figured a way to sell soft drinks on the magic of that spin?

Rockford, Illinois: When I was compiling responses on the Coca Cola issue, I attempted to view the issue from outside of my perspective by going to local art teachers to feel them out on the issue. One of them responded with puzzlement and frustration. She said that high school art seems unexplainably constrained, nowadays, to graffiti and "street art," as if it is the current "hula hoop" of high school art classes. She had no understanding of why that is...merely "that's the way it is!"

Is that "the way it is?" How are things where you live? What are the dynamics behind it? I'd be interested in your thoughts and feedback.

Merced, California: It seems like every couple of years here in Merced, a citizen steps forward and attempts to promote a way for kids to "express" themselves by engaging in "supervised" graffiti art demonstrations.

In light of the recent rhubarb regarding Coke/Sprite, I was wondering if either you, or the NoGraf site has info on the success or lack thereof of any projects such as what is being proposed here.

Our past experience in Merced is that whenever any publicity is given to graffiti, graffiti vandalism goes on the upswing. In Merced, in the past, I have pointed out that if such projects for free walls or sanctioned graffiti "art" are endorsed or allowed, the City would need to up the amount it spends on abatement approximately three-fold!

Los Angeles, California: It appears to me the public schools are attempting to keep the interest of their students. My son attends a local private school. He recently completed an art class. He is a teenager that likes to be creative with his writing and he considered himself as somewhat of an artist. When he received a C on his first grade, he thought his teacher was crazy. He worked his way through this class, complaining about the art he was directed to complete. He remained frustrated with his grades until the last few weeks of the class. He started noticing his art was getting better and his grades showed it, he finished the class with a A. My point is, I think the teachers are not teaching art as much as they are trying to keep the attention of their students. The students that like graffiti win and the teaching of art loses.

Phoenix, Arizona: I think that the reason kids join gangs is to be in a family. So many children have no real family. They have a place to sleep and eat but not a real family environment. Once in the gang they have to prove they are good enough to stay in it. So they follow the leader. Drugs, liquor, smoking, graffiti, violence.

Another part of this that truly disturbs me is the bullying. Gangs are headed by a bully, the lieutenants under the leader are bullies. Bullies destroy a lot of kids feeling of self-worth. I see that with my kids in the after school and summer program. I had 110 this summer and nearly 100 now. We have a zero tolerance on bullying. IT is vastly rewarding. You see kids blossom, gain confidence, feel good about themselves. These kids won't go out and be miniature gangsters. They don't have to prove "something"

The ones that do the vandalism, drugs, that culture are the ones who do not have a good self image. They are so frightened and alone and cover it with a brash kind of behavior. I feel so sorry for them. But not sorry enough to allow them to graffiti, sell drugs and hurt other people. No way. We have to get families popular again. Then the gangs will cease.

Newark, California: I still feel that it is the current and immediate past generations opinion of society - their displeasure, dis-enchantment and unrest. Their attitudes are changed because they prove they can get away with graffiti. I have always viewed it as a sort of rebellion. We graffiti abaters are also rebelling against this disruption of our form of society.

I hate graffiti as much as I did when I started abating. I dislike the marking of what I consider public property. I hate the gang connections. I hate the disregard of my right to a community without graffiti. I'm concerned about the damage the graffiti products are doing to taggers health and it's affect on the entire health delivery system. I will continue to rebel until I no longer have the ability and energy.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: I have a unique perspective (I think) on this situation. I attended High at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts located in Philadelphia, PA (A city that we sell our graffiti removers too). I majored In Visual Arts which is Painting, Drawing, Sculpture, Computer Graphics and I also saw this trend in my school which is one of the best art schools in the country (High School or College). I will say this though, most of the kids who did do this "graffiti art" not to bash them, they weren't very good with the basics of art, drawing... specifically figure and still life drawing. I know there may be some graffiti artists who can put some things on a wall and it looks out of this world. But for the most part... not very much talent = graffiti art. Same thing as a foul mouth = not a big vocabulary. By the way, in my opinion, graffiti IS NOT ART and they should NOT call themselves graffiti artists. They are graffiti VANDALS. One last connection. Graffiti is on the rise because this hip hop culture is currently "in", and yes it is today's hula-hoop, but it wont last like it. Every 20-30 years fads recycle.

San Francisco, California: San Francisco is a extremely progressively and liberal City and with that said: This is the battle I have been fighting for years. The art community here in San Francisco encourages and, in fact, give aid and comfort to the graffiti vandals. They believe that it is art no mater where it's done, and they refuse to admit that the same vandals that they teach in the Art colleges are the ones that are tagging and defacing public property! Then after they have perfected their trade with the tags they move on to bigger and better thing and become artists.

Anonymous email to NoGraf from hey, Yall are way off base here... You obviously have no idea what the graffiti movement is all about. The term "graffiti" does not amount to "vandalism" as you seem to believe. Graffiti isn't a "thing" it's a style of democratizing one's environment through creative, artistic, self-expression: it's way to speak up for yourself and your people in a business-elitist-dominated society where the common person has little or no say in the decision-making aspects of their lives. Companies, churches, and politicians constantly place ugly (and offensive) advertisements all over the benches, windows, sidewalks, street-corners, billboards, tv and radio commercials, and send intrusive e-mails to people everyday - but they're not punished for it, in fact they're rewarded because people respond and buy the products/services they're selling!!! However, if some harmless person goes out with some paint wanting to produce his/her own imagery for the world to see - to leave his/her mark on the society in which (s)he lives, (s)he is immediately singled out, labelled a "vandal," then hand-cuffed and sent away to be locked up in a slave-cage. I SEE A PROBLEM HERE!!! >> I don't want to live in a world where money and property are GOD and any alternative ideas are crushed with brutal police force. I want to live in a society where "freedom of speech" isn't just some lame slogan written on a meaningless piece of paper signed by wealthy, greedy aristocrats who died 200 years ago... I want Freedom for me, my people, and for you and your family as well. Just think about what your doing here with this program you're running... Think about who you're labelling as the "bad guy" and who you're defending by "educating" vulnerable, school-age children in the manner in which you're doing it on this site.

McDonald's Graffiti Advertising

The following letter was sent to McDonald's by an official in Portland, Oregon, regarding McDonald's use of graffiti to sell their fast-food products:

January 16, 2004

McDonald's Corporation
Mcdonald's Plaza
Oak Brook, IL 60523

As Graffiti Abatement Coordinator for the city of Portland, Oregon, I am concerned with your apparent lack of awareness, in spite of your proclaimed "social responsibility", that has resulted in a new ad campaign featuring graffiti (a graffiti character jumps off a tagged wall and follows people into McDonald's).

While certain aspects of our culture may glorify graffiti -vandalism, i.e., hip hop music, etc.- the truth is graffiti vandalism costs millions of dollars a year, world-wide, to repair and remove. Tagged walls, signs, vehicles, monuments - create a huge problem for municipal governments, law enforcement and neighborhoods, who struggle with limited resources to maintain the livability of their respective jurisdictions.

While some people want to call it "art" and label it "freedom of expression and creativity" as justification, graffiti is destructive! Please discontinue this are adding to a world wide problem by glorifying a criminal act! Showing graffiti in this way adds to the "normalization" of an activity that destroys property and may promote other negative behaviors among young people.


Marcia L. Dennis
Graffiti Abatement Coordinator
1900 SW 4th Avenue, Ste 40
Portland, OR 97201