Should graffiti be protected or banned completely. This is a hot topic a discussion today. Graffiti is artwork or writings displayed on public walls. Whether graffiti is a form of art or a crime is a debate that has been contested for a long time both inside and outside the courtroom. Perhaps there is no absolute way to solve this debate since the types of graffiti and the intentionality behind them differs. What started as an informal competition between graffiti artists seeing who could tag the most dangerous and the highest number of locations it as evolved into more sophisticated expressions of art. Given that graffiti establishes such an imposing presence in public spaces, it’s imperative that graffiti be used to serve a greater purpose than just beautifying a space or marking a territory. It should be used to make a political statement. In this essay I will talk about how different artists around the world are using graffiti in a political context and take a stand.
Earlier forms of graffiti featured “tags” which were basically labels. With time these became more stylized and the techniques used, and overall aesthetic became a criterion by which these artists were judged. These artists were motivated by the sense of identity and belonging they got from tagging locations thereby making them their own. There is also the thrill that comes along with being a graffiti artist. Most of the time, these artists work under the cover of darkness with the imminent threat of getting caught by the local authorities. Other times they risk their lives trying to reach dangerous locations because it would earn them more recognition.
For some artists, the main goal is to get recognition and fame. Blek le Rat, a renowned graffiti artist known for his distinct artwork of rats said, “It was a goal for us to be admitted into the institutions. It’s very tricky because on one side we are rebellious, we make art in places where it is illegal, we risk jail by making our art on the streets, but on the other side, when you talk with street artists and graffiti artists they all want to be in museums, they all want to be sold at Christie’s, they want to be a part of the art world.” However, using graffiti in public spaces as gateways to art galleries is a wasted opportunity.
One of the biggest merits of graffiti is its accessibility. People argue that graffiti is forced upon them. This is one of the reasons why graffiti could be considered a crime, or at the very least, a nuisance, by so many. They are compelled to look at something that they didn’t consent to see. But perhaps this is one of graffiti’s biggest strengths. A person can choose not to open an article, he can choose to change the channel, but he cannot remove graffiti without looking at it and acknowledging the message it conveys. It can’t be ignored.
One of the most renowned artists taking advantage of this very thing is Banksy. His preferred type of graffiti is stenciling. Sharing his artworks on social media, Banksy has created a huge following. Any wall or building that he paints on increases in value. His works have a satirical take on political matters. Some of his most famous and daring works include the nine murals he made on the Israeli West Bank barrier which criticize the presence of the wall itself as well as Israel’s unlawful occupation of Palestine. His painting “Seasons Greetings” draws attention to the severe amount of air pollution. From one angle the child appears to be enjoying the snow but looking at the big picture, the snowflakes are ashes from a fire. The picture is painted in a strategic location where chimneys can be seen in the background. Recently, Banksy bewildered the art community when he shredded his painting, “Girl with the Balloon” seconds after it was sold for US$1.4m. This stunt shows Banksy’s stance on commercializing and selling his art. He never meant for the painting to be sold because it would limit the public’s access to the painting which defeats his purpose as a graffiti artist. He said, “I give away thousands of paintings for free. I don’t think it’s possible to make art about world poverty and trouser all the cash. I love the way capitalism finds a place—even for its enemies. It’s definitely boom time in the discontent industry. I mean how many cakes does Michael Moore get through?”
In another part of the world, Abu Malik al-Shami, dubbed “Syria’s Banksy,” paints his murals on the rubble and pieces of buildings. His work tries to create hope in a city broken by destruction. The colorful art with its innocence and playfulness creates a stark contrast against the surface it’s painted on: the broken walls of a city ravaged by war. With his work going viral, people’s attention is being shifted to the country and the plight of its people. For the people living in that city, it’s a ray of hope, something to take comfort in.
Despite the severity of the political, social and environmental issues happening around us, people remain largely ignorant. Political graffiti catches the public off guard. It invites the them to be more than just bystanders and to be more involved and more aware of what is happening around them. It confronts them when they least expect it. But most importantly, it gets them thinking which is what art is meant to do. Art for the sake of art belongs in galleries where it can be sold for its market value. However political art belongs on the streets because it can’t make a statement hanging in one’s living room.