I have no doubt that this will be the first of many, many posts on the complexity of graffiti. In La Mesa, CA, where I live, the act of making graffiti is unlawful, as is possession on public property of anything deemed an instrument of graffiti (spray paint, oversized markers, etc.). Both are listed as misdemeanors punishable by up one year in jail and a fine of $1000.

Yet the definition of graffiti used in the La Mesa criminal code illustrates a tension:

‘”Graffiti” means any inscription, word, figure, or design that is marked, etched, scratched, drawn, painted, pasted or otherwise affixed to or, on any surface, regardless of the nature of the material of that structural component, to the extent that same was not authorized in advance by the owner thereof, or, despite advance authorization, is otherwise deemed by the council to be a public nuisance. Said definition specifically includes the unauthorized application of posters and stickers to public and private property commonly known as “guerilla art.”’

To many, of course, graffiti is quintessentially art, not criminal behavior. To my mind there is artistic value in the rebellion of the act itself; the nature of the substantive message conveyed (whether understood or not); and in the unique style, language, vocabulary, and imagery that characterizes much of the what we see on city streets.

But the tension goes much further. The presentation above addresses the relationship between graffiti and typography. Not surprising to find an overlap here, particularly in light of the individuality conveyed by individual tags and other graffiti nomenclature. But what strikes me as important here (apart from the idea that graffiti artists and typographers are both “nerds”!) is the speaker’s argument that graffiti continues to advance the visual aspects of our language.

Fascinating to think about the role an unlawful act has played in the development of our modern aesthetic and the growth of the American capitalist marketing machine.

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One thought on “The duality of graffiti

  1. The debate over whether graffiti should be viewed as art or as a criminal is complicated. Despite the fact that it entails the unlawful labeling of property, it may also be an expressive technique and has connections to earlier movements like minority propaganda. It has been made a crime since it is perceived as vandalism and a nuisance by property owners. However, underprivileged populations may find great artistic expression via graffiti. It might be difficult to strike a balance between protecting property and exercising free speech. To remedy this, several communities have designated graffiti walls or authorized mural projects. Given the social importance of graffiti, resolving the issue demands an open debate and appreciation of many viewpoints.

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