Apr
15

The Graffiti Debate: Glorifying art or vandalism?

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subwaygraffiti

Is this art or vandalism? Twenty five years later, the debate still rages. (Photo by Martha Cooper)

It’s hard for New Yorkers in 2009 to conceptualize what the subways were like 25 years ago. I was reminded of this fact earlier this week when my Criminal Law case tackled the ever-popular decision in People v. Goetz. That seminal case, as students of New York history know, involved the vigilantism of Bernard Goetz on a subway car in 1984.

Without touching upon the moral issues raised by the case, the class discussion showed a clear divide between people who had grown up in New York and people who hadn’t. Those who hadn’t were having a tougher time understanding what the subways were like in the 1980s.

These days, we have no qualms about riding the trains at 2 a.m. heading home from a night out. Twenty five years ago, though, the graffiti-covered trains, prone to electrical problems, track fires and all sorts of breakdowns, were just not that safe. But back then, the system wasn’t that safe, and everyone knew it.

During the same year as the Goetz shooting, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant released a book called Subway Art. The tome — a picture book — was one of the first to focus on the graffiti-covered subways as an art form. Today, the duo is reissuing the book in 25th Anniversary form with a whole slew of new photos. (The old one is available online here in its entirety.)

Over the weekend, as part of the recognition of this book’s release, The City Section ran a profile of Cooper, and it elicited some interesting feedback from New Yorkers who lived through the downs and ups of the city’s subway system.

“Wish that non-native NYers would stop idealizing the graffiti-covered trains,” wrote one lifelong New Yorker on Twitter.

And that’s the real debate, isn’t it? Should we be glorifying graffiti or should graffiti serve as a reminder of lawless and decrepit days underground when the subways were safe and New Yorkers used them not because they wanted to but because they had to?

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explores all of these issues. The combination of the public outcry over the Goetz shootings and the NYPD’s push in the mid-1980s to rid the system of graffiti helped turn the subway systems around. No longer were the subways viewed as Anarchy Underground where anything went because no one was around to police it.

We sit here comfortably in 2009, and we’re able to look back on graffiti-covered trains as art if we so choose. I have to wonder though if we should so choose. This book and The Times’ coverage of it glorifies what in its simplest form was a destructive crime that contributed to the problems — both actual and perceived — that plagued the subways. Is it art for art’s sake or art done at the sake of other people’s safety?

Today, the parallels to the times of the graffiti-covered trains are not inapt. The MTA is facing funding shortfalls that could lead to massive fares and a partially shuttered system. Station agents will be let go, and that fear of safety could creep in around the edges. Perhaps the best way, then, to appreciate the impact street art had would be to talk about its problems as well as its artistic value. If we glorify this vandalism- and crime-filled past, don’t we risk repeating it?



58 Responses to “The Graffiti Debate: Glorifying art or vandalism?”

  1. rhywun says:

    People have been glorifying the nastiness of the 70s for a while now, and not just out-of-towners. Every time someone laments the “Disneyfication” of Times Square or the gentrification of the East Village I want to slap them upside the head. Graffiti is a *crime* that was a symptom of the times: there wasn’t enough police to stop it, or they were too busy stopping worse crime. Why would anyone want to go back to that? Plus, few people like strangers drawing all over their property, why is it any different for public property??

    • Incarnation says:

      Most good writers will never write on private property for numerous reasons. Public property is different because it isn’t owned by one person, but many people. Many writers think this should give them the right to make wonderful art on it to make the world less dull. If you didn’t notice, I am a writer, and I completely support Graffiti.

      • Matthew says:

        Graffiti IS vandalism. It is grandiose and obnoxious for individuals to make “their mark(s)” on public OR private property as long as the public has to see it. That it IS art is doubtful. It is the most fad/trend-ridden phenomenon around, generally only imitative of itself. That much of it has traditionally centered around things like smurfs, space-invaders, skate culture and the like bespeaks its patently puerile nature (now and always)that’s mainly about so much mindless candy/junkfood/video games/pot/etc.,etc.. It reminds me of dog behavior: who can pee higher up on the fire hydrant (luckily, in NYC, for example, folks have grown more and more responsible about cleaning up after their dogs on the street – we all seem to agree about THAT form of street adornment). Watching a recent “prankumentary” about (?) Banksy, it was clear that much of the appeal to both street “artists” and street art fans was the “danger” aspect (ooooooh, it was so dangerous getting up to that overpass, and yeah, we almost got caught by the cops, and, and . . .) and the sheer power (?) of repetition of one’s mark or “tag.” How would most people feel coming home to someone’s tag on their house or door or car (perhaps graffiti artists, when caught, should have BANKSY or OBEY tatooed across their foreheads; they’d be ill-equipped to complain). Well, newsflash, people: the cities ARE your home, and my home, NOT the private toilet cubicle of fad-happy trendies or overgrown kids who find it easier and more fun to selfishly deface than to maybe pick up a book or two and actually THINK about offering something up that actually adds something besides cartoon characters, skate culture, manneristically cliche block letters of spray paint, or worse, unintelligibly scribbled personal “tags” to the artistic and shared collective consciousness that can and does thrive in some corners of the public sphere. Like maybe something intelligent. And if you MUST take it upon yourself to deface property and invade everyone else’s visual field, then at LEAST leave a message, people, not just a mess, okay?

        • Ben says:

          Yes graffiti is vandalism, but whether it is an eyesore to the public is more a matter of opinion then you give it credit. You say it’s not art and it is repetative, but if it’s not art then why are people like Banksy and Shepard Fairy able to make such respectable livings off of it? “Biting style”, also known as copying someones style is one of the biggest sins involved in graffiti. Also, who’s to say what makes a public space attractive. Many people would prefer their streets to be covered in the colorful artwork of graffiti. You act as if you are being bombarded by this graffiti culture, but that’s how many feel about the culture you are trying to preserve. I myself would rather see something personal put there by a local resident to display his talent in hopes of approval then have pictures and billboards of coke ads, underwear models, and Cellphones crammed down my throat. Before you make an arguement about something be sure to understand the ins and outs of that subject as well. It is an unwritten code amoungst graffiti writers not to write on peoples homes, cars, schools, or churchs because it is a community based greatly upon respect. And what about graffiti’s impact on the economy? The artist’s need supplies such as markers and paints to work their craft, and these things arent free. They make expensive spraypaint specifically for graffiti that is used world wide, and graffiti writer’s will often spend every penny they own at their local art store. And yes tax dollars go towards the removal of graffiti, but these teams of graffiti buffers create jobs in the community that we wouldnt have otherwise.

          • The LAWS says:

            Ben, you are an idiot. Graffiti artists do NOT stimulate the economy nor do they create jobs. They end up costing municipalities thousands of dollars to clean up the vandalism because some can’t afford to hire those companies to clean graffiti and instead leave it up to Parks Departments or Street Departments, who are already stretched thin. If anything, they give workers unnecessary overtime and take away from more important tasks.

            Most graffiti is crap, but most legal murals are awesome and legitimate, but I guess it isn’t cool because some tool sneaks out at night to spraypaint a building without permission. Even if it is a nice piece of art, there are better ways to display it. At least in a museum or local gallery it’s not going to get painted over and it gives back instead of taking money away from municipalities.

        • MattyM says:

          In my experience a pure street artist will not consider legal art of any kind graffiti; and by definition it isn’t regardless of style. The idea of unsanctioned street art is what makes this medium actual graffiti. There are numerous professional artists who use this medium in their works, but would you call them graffiti artists, or just artists? There are many different types of graffiti and “tags” are usually what people consider messy and ugly. As a general rule of street artists, graffiti is not created on an individuals home or car; which is not to say that it doesn’t happen but if you speak to street artist it would be something they do not do. Usually the purpose is to put their artwork in a place that very noticeable by the public (the same approach that advertising agencies apply). I myself would much rather see brilliant street art in public view than the sea of advertisements that I drown in when I walk down the street.

    • MariO says:

      Okay, there is a difference between graffiti and tegging. Tagging is that ugly stuff that you see on the stores that look like a kid wrote it. Graffiti is the art that stands out and has an atraction to it. Not only are you guys seeing the glass half empty instead of half full,but your not looking at the story that is has to tell and most of all the history that it brings with it. Take a deeper look into the >ART< and see the Graffiti in the eyes of a real graffitier…

    • Julius Zsako says:

      Graffiti vandalism is very selfish. You want something and you don’t ask permission or buy it, you just take it. That something is space on a building, fence, dumpster, trash can, traffic sign or lamp post. And what you think is art, like your tag name, is forced on everybody else for their consumption. No thanks. As noted at http://www.DefacingAmerica.com, graffiti is an expensive and destructive crime.

  2. pd says:

    Will you still be smiling if someone “arts” your new car? You have no right to be upset, its “art”. Lets tag some of the “artists” cars and see how quickly they become violent from the artwork.

    • p-rod says:

      all graffiti artist follow a strick set of unwritten rules that say 1graffiti is not done on a car of a civilain it is however exceptable to write on the car of another graffiti artist that one may have beef with. 2 graffti is not to be done on the ground 3 it is not to be done on private property of a civilan but is exceptable to be done on a writters house that they may have beef with. there are many more of these rules and all though it may sound stupid almost all writters are aware of them. and writting on a artist’s car is a very bad idea. there are alot more writters than there are people that would support you on that decision.

    • Plarnish says:

      How many cars do you see with graffiti on them? I mean seriously. Of course we would all be pissed if our cars had graffiti on them but it generally doesn’t happen. That’s an idiotic argument. I really dislike people like you.

  3. juan says:

    well most of these artist were kids from the ghettos or kids with rough childhoods. so to them instead of following there other ways of killings , drugs, fighting etc.. turn to street art. not causing any harm to no one! but when being caught by authority’s are being sentenced for major years in prison for expressing them selfs the only way they know how, mainly to get noticed. for people who don’t know about this art to you it is straight vandalism, but to the wsb crew it is a way of life joo. but now even the police are taking that from us.

  4. Ariel says:

    Yes we should show appreciation for graffiti. It is an important aspect of hip hop culture, which was born and developed in NYC and is arguably the city’s biggest contribution to popular culture. To suppress this art is to suppress a major historical movement that has become a cultural and commercial phenomenon.

    Rather than suppress the art, the city should regulate it. If used correctly, it could beautify rather than blight the city. Doing so would also help eliminate its negative connotations and allow the public to embrace its beauty and realize its potential.

    • I think there’s a difference between appreciation and glorification though. I certainly appreciate the artistic and cultural implications behind graffiti, street art and the B-Boys. (This book by the way is great.)

      These day though what passes for graffiti is a far cry from what Cooper and Chalfant documented, and even then, this semi-nostalgia for the early 1980s is a bit misguided.

    • Rhywun says:

      I have nothing against graffiti as art, but part of its appeal was always its criminality. Legal graffiti just isn’t as interesting to a lot of people.

    • Jeremy says:

      Haha, yeah, regulated art is sexy as hell and so expressive.

      • Ariel says:

        Yes, I agree that criminality is part of its appeal and that regulating it will limit its expressiveness. But the MTA already regulates different forms of art in the subways via Arts for Transit, so why not include and embrace graffiti?

        Just like I wouldn’t expect the MTA to sponsor controversial music or posters, I wouldn’t expect it to sponsor controversial graffiti art. But regulated graffiti would be better than the plain trains we ride today.

        • Petro says:

          In today’s urban pop culture, to be criminal is to be cool. Too often teens find an identity becoming “criminal artists” because classic identities (jock, nerd, prep) do not apply. With no talent they can call themselves “artist” because they tag.

  5. keatso says:

    These were not territorial gang markings. On the contrary, writers formed there own groups as an alternative to the gangs/drugs that surrounded them. By the mid 80s drugs had ravaged the graffiti subculture, but it is a true American artform (albeit an illegal artform) born in the inner city. It brought together kids from all walks of life who competed with their art on the trains.

    • Express Track says:

      Violent crime on the subway cannot be attributed to graf. I would prefer that the police concentrate on more serious crimes than bike riders, drinkers, smokers and graf writers. I guess it’s easier to nab these kinds of low-level criminals than the people who are actually committing violent acts, or embezzling money. Benjamin Kabak is quick to call graf a crime against the MTA. But the MTA also thinks it’s a crime to walk between cars. Come on! I’d say it’s a crime to maintain 2 sets of books, as the MTA did. And it’s criminal to run the service so poorly, even in flush times! If the trains ran on time and didn’t break down, and there was not violent crime, people would not have been as scared. More trains, better service. But let’s say NO to a police state. And please, better methodologies for determining the causes of violent crime. You sound like a Giuliani “broken windows” theorist.

      • Come on! I’d say it’s a crime to maintain 2 sets of books, as the MTA did.

        Except they didn’t. In fact, when the issue when to trial, they were found not guilty – NOT GUILTY – of keeping two sets of books. I’m hardly one to give the MTA pass on economic matters, but this is a tired, old story that people keep getting wrong.

        Anyway, broken down trains that don’t run on time do not contribute to crime. A lack of safety measures and a lack of investment into station security measures – such as lights and token booth employees and graffiti-free subway cars – do though.

  6. Ben H. says:

    It’s useful to distinguish between what contributes to a “sense of danger” and what, in fact, contributes to danger.

    Yes, it’s true: NYC’s aggressive push to clean up the graffiti in the subways correlated with a dramatic improvement in public safety. But crime likely dropped due to increases in subway security personnel, improved police response, and improvements that made the subways less prone to breakdowns and blackouts. All of these factors, coupled with heavier fines for vandalism, also reduce graffiti. So this is a correlation problem: it’s not that we attack graffiti and crime goes down; we attack crime, and graffiti goes down with it. To say graffiti is “dangerous” is something of a stretch.

    From a public policy perspective, characterizing non-violent, non-threatening behavior of generally low- or middle-class city youth as “dangerous” has serious consequences. The NY Times archive and Chang’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” (mentioned by Ben above) offer examples of kids who died in accidents or confrontations with police after being caught writing graffiti. There is no reason for such deaths, but, if we convince ourselves that graffiti itself is “dangerous,” we might start to see these deaths as justified.

  7. transit rider says:

    Painting or etching on property that is not yours without seeking prior approval is vandalism regardless if the vandalism is considered a form of art. Those caught conducting these unlawful acts should prosecuted to the full extent of the law and be required to conduct community service. If people want to see beautiful art, that is what art contests and art galleries are for.

  8. Jake J says:

    It’s all definitely art, but it could also be vandalism, depending on whose surface it’s applied to…. the question is, are we endorsing vandalism if we embrace the style that emerged from nYc graffiti art? Should it be taught in art classes? Answer:

    http://aokpub.com/graff-prez.pdf

  9. Sammay says:

    Grafiti is an art, not something made to destory property. And its very interesting

  10. hitthenorth says:

    there’s a 25% discount on the 25th Anniversary Ed. of Subway Art mentioned above if you use the promo code at the publisher’s website http://www.chroniclebooks.com/.....s_id,7883/

  11. Anonymys says:

    Graffiti is Art…….its not supposed to be what people think it is.People are destroying the meaning of graphic art by making it become a crime and against the law to do. Event though graffiti is more or the less a crime, i think it depends on where you write it, what you write and how you write it.Art is supposed to a way to express life and what happens in lives, but because Graffiti is one of the ways people do this, its becoming harder and harder to explain why people like me do graffiti because as a crime, nobody wants to hear about it

  12. Dez says:

    art is how you express yourself adn we express ourselves by doin graffiti…so graffiti is art…deal with it

  13. kozy says:

    hey everyone,
    um firstly graffiti is definitely an art get any pro artist to look at some decent graffiti and they will agree. i myself am a graffiti artist and i do not do graffiti on anyones houses churches shops etc… i find a quiet wall where i can tag. they is soo much talent in graffiti and i think it is a shame that people are sent to prisn over it. i do not think that tagging pointlessly on everything is cool for graffiti artists. there is no skill in that. but there is skill in the big peices that many create. there should be more legal graffiti walls which would i promise mean less graffiti on public property and would let those artists who want to graffiti paint without any hassle.

  14. Teardrop! says:

    ii believe that graffiti is known as art!..yes some of you are thinking well how can it be known as art wehn is mostly used as gang related taggin…well there is some graffiti out in the world some where where graffiti is not only use fo gang related things but used fo advertisment! so yes ii believe graffiti is art!

  15. mario says:

    All of you have very interesting points and valid arguements, but graffiti is a crime. Then again so was ripping up draft cards during the 60’s, yet America doesn’t come down on those drug addicts( for lack of a better word ). Also graffiti has been around before civilization even existed. A whole language was created with graffiti( Egypt ) and is considered a great era in history. Furthermore, there is a difference between graffiti artists and “taggers”, one example of an artist is “cantwo” of Germany. One more thing, gangs also promote themselves through colors and music, yet expressing those things isn’t considered a crime. All in all, graffiti is art! And many of our artists have sparked the torch for modern day cultures.

  16. So is Graffiti an art opr crime?? I need Advic im writing an arguement for my soph Paper and i really need some good oint of views?

  17. Jesus says:

    I agree it is vadlesim

  18. Skatta says:

    Tagging is a signature or gang symbol/sign, graffiti art is the urban version Fibbonaci or Van Gogh. Even if it is on private property. This the future way of art.

  19. Skatta says:

    Should Graffiti artist and taggers be proecuted, or should they be catagorised in ‘vandals’ or ‘artists’

  20. Matt says:

    Graffiti is art…i dont understand why people get arrested for painting walls…but there are people doing fireworks and smoking, thats polluting the earth, and they dont get arrested

  21. flapjack smooth says:

    graffiti and vandalism are one and the same and should be treated with the respect that an art movement deserves. short of the christian dark ages, this is the first time that actual artists are being punished for making art. the word vandalism is taken from a germanic tribe that defaced rome after its fall. it was an extension of the freedom from the tyranny that was roman rule. the world is very “roman” right now. corporations can vandalize our cities with all the advertising they want, but we cant? the big business’ have invaded my everyday life, and yours. companies spill oil and spit smoke into the air. they lay waste to forest’s, and destroy mountains. and all of you people are offended that someone with real talent has gone and given you some visual stimulation. graffiti doesnt matter to most really. as long as you have greys anatomy, and dancing with the stars, and mcdonalds. the majority dont care about the wars and the hunger and the disease in the world. vandals do. vandals are smarter then all of you mindless consumption zombies. if you cant take the gift of graffiti for what it is. (a message that the system needs to come down a bit) then you are already lost. you already dont matter. you already gave in and became some fat boring nobody with a crap job that pays for your credit cards and your suv’s. but when the hunger, and the wars and the diseases come here, dont say you wernt warned! the writing is literally on the walls.

  22. spn says:

    i think graffiti is not vandalism its art that tells story
    but its in the eyes of beholder

  23. Julius Zsako says:

    We don’t have an art problem in America. We have a vandalism problem. If Michaelangelo returned from the grave and painted on a building without permission, it might be artistic, yet it remains vandalism. Graffiti vandals have little or no respect for community property and assets. Graffiti vandalism, as viewed by graffiti experts and community residents alike is a symbol of decay everywhere it appears. As detailed at http://www.DefacingAmerica.com, graffiti is a very serious and expensive problem.

  24. meep says:

    If graffiti is considered vandalism and Government Sanctioned graffiti is considered art then is it still called graffiti?

  25. someone says:

    Is graffiti not a form of art? Come on. It is not supposed to be considered vandalism on the train. It just defines a whole new culture that many people do not know because they are too ignorant of real art. Real art does not appear in a canvas or gallery, but is intrinsic of society itself. It occurs naturally. But then again, one piece of graffiti can be a masterpiece to some (like me), yet it could be a nuisance to others. Besides, graffiti is not related to all the other crime that happens in the subways.

  26. VALUTAHA says:

    There are various situations where people are being locked up because of tagging. Is tagging art? or is it vandalising property? Art is when people express themselves through painting or are inspired by something or someone. Vandalising property is different. A few years ago on my street my bet friend was killed because of what he did. A fifty year old man decided to take the law into his own hands by showing no mercy to my 12 year old friend and yes i am still a teen. It was his mistake to tag/bomb on a crip leaders fence. Crip(gang related). Tagging is a crime against the government. The government will have to pay over millions of dollars just to clean up a few taggings done up when that money could be spent on children’s education or buy equipment for a pre school where our young ones are still growing up, and parents want the best for the future of their children. In my opinion…….. tagging is a crime. The government must make stricter laws about vandalism. Raising fines is what I would recommend but……I am not the prime minister/president. :) thank you for your time reading my short opinion on what I think tagging is. God bless and have a great week/day/month/year/ and so forth. Thank you……….Anonymous.

  27. Annonomys says:

    Graffiti is an art form, used to express individual creativity, There is no crime when it comes to displaying an individuals artwork in public. In my opinion its hard to take offence to something that means so much to many people and also, street art exposes so many to art and interests a good amount of people that may not enjoy sculpures or the normal portrait and open there eyes to the art comunity.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] graffiti on the subway be respected as a form of artistic expression or despised as evidence of an anarchic/broken society? [2nd Avenue […]

  2. […] grafitti article i came across thought you guys might enjoy this The Graffiti Debate: Glorifying art or vandalism? :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog […]

  3. […] As I explored in April, some feel graffiti is art while others believe graffiti exhibits simply glorify vandalism. No matter the outcome, New York City Transit and the NYPD are hard at work combating these […]

  4. […] As I explored in April, some feel graffiti is art while others believe graffiti exhibits simply glorify vandalism. No matter the outcome, New York City Transit and the NYPD are hard at work combating these […]

  5. […] Once upon a time, in the late 1970s, the subways were covered with graffiti that many considered art. This wasn’t the sloppy graffiti tags of today that involve a scrawled name or an uncreative expletive. These were full-car murals, sometimes with messages, that took time, skill and a certain willingness to spit in the face of authority. Today, even as we are commemorating early-1980s graffiti, we still debate whether these markings are art, vandalism or some mixture of the two. […]

  6. […] glory days still strikes our imagination though. A post I wrote in 2009 discussion the debate over graffiti’s value as art vs. the act vandalism remains one of the highest-trafficked posts on the site, and a significant portion of the […]

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