Writing or drawing on private or public walls is vandalism and illegal. Then again, for some people, such defacement has been elevated to an international art form.
Linguistically, the word graffiti stems from the Italian graffiato, meaning scratched, and the Greek graphein, meaning to write, yet is now part of the universal lexicon.
In the 1960s and 1970s, not one subway car in New York went unblemished by taggers, who were typically gang-related. As their bold attempt for self-expression increased, no surface was considered off limits. The more prolific and daring of the practitioners developed an original style and became infamous for their work. Movies were based on their exploits, and avant-garde galleries took notice, resulting in a conundrum for the public: Was it art or vandalism?
Scratching, scrawling, drawing or painting on someone elses property without their permission is definitely against the law. Whether it is self-expression, political commentary or a form of protest, street art has reached collector status. With the recent Oscar-nominated film Exit through the Gift Shop, awareness of graffiti as an art movement has expanded even further.
One of the movements early commercial successes was an artist named Keith Haring, who started in the subways of New York and eventually turned his signature style into a pop art venture. His shop sold T-shirts, mugs, tote bags and other items to an adoring public.
Ten years ago, IBM launched an advertising campaign featuring street artists painting on sidewalks, but some of the participants were arrested for vandalism, and the computer giant was fined more than $120,000 for punitive damages and clean-up costs.
Recently, Shepard Fairey garnered wide acclaim with his iconic image of Barack Obama, but he wound up being sued by The Associated Press for misappropriating AP photographer Mannie Garcias picture of the president. Multiple lawsuits abound, testifying to the value such art has obtained. For example, Banksy, the supposed mastermind behind Exit through the Gift Shop, and his apparent alter ego, Mr. Brainwash (aka Thierry Guetta), is currently being sued for using an image of the rap group Run DMC, based on a photograph taken by someone else.
In the 1980s, some street artists began using stencils, allowing for quick in and out reproduction. The new method also resulted in repeated images appearing in great quantity, ultimately generating a cultish following for the designers ubiquitous work.
Fame for some of these artists grew globally, and in certain instances, local governments even started protecting the previously outlawed décor. Street artists were soon commissioned by landlords to decorate their buildings, museums took note and galleries started selling the work, in some cases for tens of thousands of dollars.
Once a viewer recognizes the good art from the bad and thinks about the surface on which it is produced as a quasi-fresco medium, it is easier to value the output.
But then again, if created without permission, it is vandalism, no matter how well done.
Stew Mosberg is a freelance writer and has written about art regionally and nationally. Reach him at email@example.com.