Imagine not agreeing with something within your community, or even society as a whole, and wanting to express your protest against or for that issue. This is a very pressing issue like gay marriage, gun laws, war, or equality. Now imagine you decided you are going to become an advocate for that particular issue you feel so strongly about, and then you get arrested and charged as a felon for protesting peacefully. This happened a lot in the 1920’s with all of the segregation laws, but I am talking about now, 2019. You can be arrested if you protest via graffiti. Vandalism, defacement, doodle, scribbles, these are the derogatory terms used everyday for graffiti. Other famous pieces of work like The Starry Night, Girl With the Pearl Earring, or even Mona Lisa would never be associated with just a “doodle.” Those great masterpieces are art. We see graffiti literally everywhere, and since the beginning of its popularity, it has been a taboo. Graffiti may technically be a criminal act, but does condemning the act of graffiti violate our American rights? I am going to explain what graffiti is, who the most infamous artists are, why graffiti is so controversial, and why graffiti is indeed and art form and not a crime.
According to the English Oxford Dictionary, graffiti’s definition states, “writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surfaces in a public place” (2019). According to the Urban Dictionary, graffiti’s definition states, “the practice of systematically and stylistically marking infrastructure” (2019). This clashing information can be a bit confusing, but the common factor is that graffiti is indeed markings upon walls. Believe it or not, the world is no stranger to markings upon the walls that were put up by the hands of humans. Some odd 2 to 3 million years ago, there walked cavemen on this Earth. There have been findings of these million year old caves that housed these beings, along with markings upon the walls of the caves. The markings told stories of their everyday life. Fast forward to the 8th century of Ancient Greece, Roman, and Egyptian times to their usage of graffiti. Plastered up on the walls of the palaces, tombs, and pyramids are beautiful murals and stories, for what they used for documentation purposes. Also in those times, people would carve or paint protest poems upon the buildings within the cities, in hopes of change among their society. Throughout history, graffiti was used as a positive outlook because walls were the only things that anyone had to write on. Graffiti was intended to send a message to society.
Modern graffiti was first recognized in 1965 at Philadelphia’s Youth Development Center. Twelve year old, Darryl “Cornbread” McCray, tried to stray away from the gang or drug scene, so he mostly stayed to himself and took to drawing, but the juvenile center he was in did not carry the supplies for such expression. One day on his routine job of janitorial duties, he came across the storage of all work equipment, including spray paint. During his time in the facility, he practiced with the art of tagging, and when he got out of the juvenile center, he expanded his canvas. He had no idea he was going to be the pioneer to a movement by simply spraying his nickname, “Cornbread”, around the streets of Philly. Street art was the new revelation across the world. It stood for a cause worth going down for. Graffiti “is conceived as a system of communication and action” (Hocking 196). Banksy is the world’s most infamous graffiti artist today, but some “critics call him a fraud, yet admires call him a genius. While his art may be varied, one clear message emerges: a call for change” (Brenner 4). No one really knows exactly who Banksy is because well graffiti is illegal, and he has artistically bombed literally all over the world like England, Vienna, San Francisco, Barcelona, Paris, and Detroit. Banksy advocates peace, hope, love, and questioning of authority. It is our rights as American’s to use graffiti as a peaceful protest method for change, which is what all of these advocate artists are doing today.
The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (First). In simpler terms, any American is permitted to peacefully protest without the fear of punishment. The most extreme form of punishment from being caught doing graffiti is “up to ten years of imprisonment, $5,500 in fines, community service, and be a convicted felon,” stated in Chris Denholm’s 2017 article, “Graffiti-The Mix”(P1). Punishing advocates for speaking out against the government for wanting an honest change in the way things are goes against what our Constitution states. Graffiti has been dubbed an anti-social behavioral lash out against society by psychologists. In short, this means that a person, who participates in graffiti, is a mentally unstable person because they are consciously deciding to destroy public property with no remorse. Yes, technically graffiti is an unlawful act because they are purposely defacing someone else’s property and we all know that, but the “why” is so powerful that it is worth the consequences. In today’s day in age, people have tried to be heard, but in turn have been forced to be silenced because of their unconventional thinking. “These artists rely on graffiti’s rebel status both to communicate their message and, in the process, to undermine the free speech doctrine’s purported allegiance to designate forums and civil speech” (Carroll 12). Not all graffiti artists are gang related; most are advocates for their cause for living. These artists feel so strongly about the tough topics of the world that they want to share their passion by displaying the issues at hand. Art does not have one straightforward definition. Visual, auditory, and performing arts are all methods in expressing the creator’s imagination, beliefs, or conceptual ideas. We are all taught at a young age that freedom of speech is to be practiced and taken advantage of, and graffiti defiantly should be protected under this law.
Some cities around the country have been made aware that some people use street art for personal protests for certain groups and for cultural purposes to brighten the city. These cities have gone so far in understanding the need for street art among their residents that they have invested in “free walls”. In Whitford’s 2017 article “History and Trends of Graffiti”, he states, “free walls are integrated into cities so that artists can be expressive but not have the fear of being reprimanded”(P2). Every sketch, drawing, or painting has a purpose and I believe that graffiti has it’s own purpose to making a difference in any subculture. Graffiti brings awareness to issues of concern and it is so powerful of the changes it can bring. I understand that by using someone’s business or using public streets for canvases toward the cause of protest. It is not fair that certain places are targeted or “chosen” to get sprayed all over just to get the point across, but these artists strategically place each art piece in the societies that are being affected the most. Being convicted as a felon for peacefully protesting is a bit harsh. Cases that involve the same charge of “ten years imprisonment with a felony charge include aggravated sexual assault in the 1st degree, sexual assault in the 3rd degree with a fireman, and sexual offenders that have to register on the sex offender list for life” (Reinhart). There are consequences to everything, especially when trying to make change, so yes there should be some consequences for the business that get effected by these graffiti protestors. Another alternative may be community service either towards covering up the act if the business owner does not approve or community service in giving back. Having the same punishments are criminals who are purposely hurting someone should not be in the same category as trying to practice their First Amendment right.
There is no wrong or right way in expression if done in a peaceful way. “To embed speech on a n object is not only to alter and to claim the object itself, but to transcend the impermanence of spoken word and to defy all forces that would silence or erase the uttered thought” (Carroll 18). Even though there are some downsides to graffiti within communities, the upsides are tremendous. Graffiti brings awareness to those who are blinded by what is going on around them, it causes people to really take a step back and think about issues that are unknowingly affecting them, and it brings people together to fight for a cause. Following the laws is what keeps society from mayhem, but laws have been broken because of change for decades now. Change is inevitable and sometimes everyone just needs to stop and smell the roses around him or her. Art in a frame is like an eagle in a birdcage.
BRENNER, LEXA. “The Bansky Effect: Revolutionizing Humanitarian Protest Art.” Harvard International Review, vol. 40, no. 2, Spring 2019, p. 34. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f6h&AN=136010704&site=ehost-live.
Carroll, Jenny E. “Graffiti, Speech, and Crime.” Minnesota Law Review, vol. 103, no. 3, Feb. 2019, pp. 1285–1348. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=134788095&site=ehost-live.
Denholm, C. (2017, March 06). Graffiti-The Mix. Retrieved from https://www.themix.org.uk/crime-and-safety/in-trouble/graffiti-9130.html
“First Amendment.” Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment.
Graffiti. (2019). Graffiti | Definition of graffiti in English by Oxford Dictionaries. (2019). Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/graffiti
Hocking, Bree T. “Ornament and Order: Graffiti, Street Art and the Parergon.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 23, no. 1, Mar. 2017, pp. 196–197. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/1467-9655.12559.
Reinhart, Christopher. “CRIMES WITH MANDATORY MINIMUM PRISON SENTENCES-UPDATED AND REVISED.” CRIMES WITH MANDATORY MINIMUM PRISON SENTENCES-UPDATED AND REVISED, http://www.cga.ct.gov/2008/rpt/2008-R-0619.htm.
Whitford, M., & Ashworth, G. (2017). History and trends in graffiti. Getting Rid of Graffiti,1-7.