Graffiti: Street Art or Vandalism?

The Brooklyn Museum has cancelled the showing of a controversial graffiti and street art exhibition, Art in the Streets for (according to the official word) financial reasons. The exhibition is currently being hosted at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art where it has drawn equal amounts of crowds and criticism. According to the LA Times, when the exhibit opened in MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary space in Little Tokyo,

…the L.A. Police Department said that the show had become a magnet for illegal taggers who wanted to leave their marks in the surrounding neighborhood.

The Brooklyn Museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, has insisted that finances are behind the cancellation, saying that “With no major funding in place, we cannot move ahead.”

As the New York Times says, the show has been criticized in Los Angeles for glorifying vandalism and also because one its curators, Roger Gastman, has a “commercial interest in street art.” The New York Daily News proclaimed the exhibition a “celebration of vandalism” underwritten with taxpayer dollars and predicted that the following happening:

…museum mavens will be sticking their thumbs in the eyes of every bodega owner and restaurant manager who struggles to keep his or her property graffiti-free, not to mention the eyes of all New Yorkers who cringe recalling the days of graffiti-covered subway cars.

The cancellation of the graffiti exhibition raises huge questions about: What is art? what belongs in a museum? what is freedom of expression? do we really need to pay for an exhibit of “art”/”vandalism” the likes of which we see plenty on highway overpasses, sides of buildings abandoned and occupied, trucks, utility boxes, garbage dumpsters, etc.?

One thing to keep in mind. A recent NPR report on tomb graffiti in Israel should remind us that one culture’s trash could be a future era’s gold for clues about what was life back then.

[Karen]Stern, 35, is an archaeologist and an assistant professor in the history department at Brooklyn College. Her passion is the tomb graffiti of the ancient Jews in what was then Roman Palestine. Graffiti has been “published, but sort of disregarded,” she says. “Whereas I think it is intimate, vocal and spontaneous, and adds to the historical record.”

In this, Stern seems to be supported by scholars: She is completing a yearlong fellowship at the W.F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.

In the Cave of Coffins in Beit She’arim, one of the richest burial sites in Israel, Stern describes two inscriptions in ancient Greek:

One says, “Take courage, Holy Parents of Pharcitae, udes adonitas — no one is immortal.” Stern explains that the dead who are being brought into the catacombs shouldn’t feel that they are weak just because they’ve passed on.

She reads aloud the other inscription: “Good luck on your resurrection.”

Jonathan Price, head of the classics department at Tel Aviv University, says that ancient Jews of the 1st and 2nd centuries were “grapho-maniacal.”

Equally intriguing are the Latin graffiti found in Pompeii, preserved after Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and engulfed the town in volcanic ash. “Atimetus got me pregnant,” says a scrawl in the House of the Vibii;.”The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian” reads another in a basilica. Many more are about those enduring subjects, lust and sex, written in vernacular language quite different from what you find in Virgil’s poetry.

A little graffiti is not a bad thing.


Related Care2 Coverage

“Who’s Afraid of Ai WeiWei?” Graffiti Campaign Challenges Chinese Artist’s Arrest

Artists Fight Museum’s Whitewashing with Laser Graffiti (VIDEO)

Sea Urchins & Olives & Dormice: That’s What the Romans Ate?


Photo of graffiti in ancient Pompeii by Gastev.


Norma V.
Norma Villarreal6 years ago

Wannbe taggers who end up destroying public property = vandalism. Mark your own territory with pee or paint, not on someone else's property without their permission.

Dave Tohunga
Dave te tohunga6 years ago

What really annoys me is the 'legal graffitti' known as ads and signage.
Far uglier, more pervasive, and yet socially acceptable!
That's what should be removed...
but in a land where the great god of money is more important than people or ethics
where govt officials are totally corrupt and corporations dictate to their pocket politicians,
where torture genocide and theivery are official govt policy
what harm can a bit of graffitti do by comparison?

Robert O.
Robert O6 years ago

Some graffiti is awesome provided it's tasteful, mural types and not that gangster tagging crap and not done on somebody else's property without consent. Some of the people that do it have true talent but sadly no viable outlets to share it constructively with others.

monica r.
monica r6 years ago

Oh please!

1. Though some graffiti shows great artistic talent, the vast majority of it is sloppy tagging in a single color, or better still, gang-related territorial markings (because gang members may call each other "dog" but they don't sniff hydrants, so they use spray paint instead of pee).

2. Graffiti does not add character, but shows lack of character, in that it is blatant disrespect for the property of others. It costs a lot of money for residents and business owners to clean up the mess. When you are scrubbing this crap off your wall for the 100th time, it ain't art.

3. This whole idea, of celebrating what, again, is mainly tagging and gang signage, sounds like some kind of pretentious attempt to "embrace" or worse "romanticize" urban areas in decline. You think it's "cultural"? OK, so experience that culture. Take a stroll through the 'hood or barrio or whatever and feel it, not jut look at images in an antiseptic museum setting. I work in the hood, so I walk around in it most every day.

4. Maybe we need to think about encouraging people to use other media to express themselves. Do graffiti type pieces on canvas or plywood. Write (poetry, the next great novel, whatever). Sing, dance, play an instrument. Do some kind of art that doesn't destroy someone else's property. Otherwise, even if it's artistic and really looks cool, it is still just vandalism.

Virginia E.
Virginia Esquer6 years ago

so sad,people don't respect art, this is for everyoneto enjoy not one person but for the next generations tocome,go and vandalize your own home see if you like that.

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

Graffiti from 5000 years ago is found on the pyramids.. so art, history and vandalism.

Harriet S.
Harriet S6 years ago

The way I see it as long as the artist has permission to perform his talents on a property it is art as long too as it isn't vulgar or defaming another. It can proclaim a thought or idea but not in an obnoxious way. I agree with the street cars and the art on them they are cool. I remember in the Bahamas on Freeport Island a hotel was torn down and new construction of another in its place was happening. Around the construction site were plywood walls of which the school children painted ART. It was so beautiful and it made the mess acceptable and pleasant. I don't condone writing on bathroom walls that is vandalism or painting mailboxes but if a store agrees to let someone place their art there it is fine, same with side walks painted art on side walks is beautiful. I agree with the idea of specific locations where graffiti is allowed it makes good sense. Graffiti in the right place is ART!

iii q.
g d c6 years ago

freedom of expression does not inlcude putting your expressions on someone else's private property!

Cyd Peace
Cyd Peace6 years ago

I so surprised to hear that NYers "cringe recalling the days of graffiti-covered subway cars." The first time I saw one dash in front of me in person, it was exhilerating. So much more of life jumping off of the skins of those cars than in so many of the works you might normally find in a museum. My sister visted and exclaimed "how cultural!." And if that's not true, what is?

Lynne S.
Lynne S6 years ago

Too bad. Some graffiti is beautiful. I'm not being popular here but some private property is downright ugly! That said private property is private property.