With Banksy’s first exhibition in New York City opening this week, it is time that people think about whether graffiti laws are outdated and this art form should finally be legalized.
By Matt Kennard on Saturday, October 11th, 2008 - 1,197 words.
Most “moral issues” out there produce two virulently partisan sides that find it impossible to find a common grammar to engage in any kind of progressive discourse. Think abortion: one side claims right-to-choose advocates are worse than Hitler, having supported the abortion of more babies than people killed in all wars through history. The other side thinks “pro-lifers” are fundamentalist religious misogynists who want power over someone else’s body and offspring. The same intractable dynamic works through gay marriage, gun laws, and so on.
Here, I’d like to introduce a “moral issue” that gets much less of an airing in mainstream society these days and increasingly doesn’t have magnetically repellent antipodes in the same way as abortion or any of the others. I talk of graffiti. In the eyes of the law, graffiti is and always has been a sin; vandalism and criminal damage it’s called. There has been no Roe v. Wade equivalent for graffiti, no finessing of old laws. Daubing your name on private property is illegal without any caveat and always has been.
But is this right? In theory, the law has to protect the property rights of private individuals and corporations. In fact, “the Peelers“, as they were called in Britain in the 19th century, the first formalized police force there, were basically set up to ensure the safety of private property. It follows that it’s reasonable for people to believe that they will be protected from bandits who use spray cans to put up their ‘tag’.
But as Proudhon reminded us a century ago, property is theft, and using private property as a canvas to express yourself is in many ways one of the only tangible tools of reclaiming privatized wealth and rendering it public. In that critical moment, the canvas of some bank building or shop front becomes yours, or ours. Ours because graffiti is one of the most altruistic art forms – colorful and complex pieces are put up for our benefit while we stroll the streets, at considerable financial and sometimes legal costs to the writer.
Take, for example, advertising, which is everywhere – all over buildings, walls, transport, schools etc. This stuff is there purely to manipulate and make money out of us, but when advertising sneaks its way into every nook and cranny of our public and private spaces and engulfs everyone there isn’t a law enforcement agency to be seen. If there’s a law against citizen graffiti there also should be places spared from the tentacles of advertisers. Fat chance of that though.
It becomes even more interesting in terms of law and morality when you consider public property like railway stations and schools, because essentially these assets belong to all of us. So how is it wrong to do what we want with it? The argument goes that people — remember Berlin’s “positive freedoms” — don’t want to ‘put up’ with graffiti when they walk around, arguing that it blights the aesthetics and cheapens the area. But personally I would find the subways much more interesting here in New York if they had big colorful creations all over the carts. And it costs the city nothing – they don’t have to commission artists, these people will do it for free, yet as it stands the forces scrub it off and send you to jail if they catch you.
In the Age of Banksy, the mega-successful UK graffiti artist, who’s new show opened in New York this week, this issue still hasn’t been broached on a big scale. There are tonnes of campaigns to legalize cannabis and anything else you can think of that they let you do with impunity in the oasis of Holland. But there’s no graffiti equivalent. This is strange as Banksy is now the most popular and richest artist in the world and yet this highly revered character is technically a criminal. The last time that happened Oscar Wilde was found languishing in Reading gaol.
Graffiti artists are the cracks in the shiny, fake sheen that advertising and closed-off private edifices have foisted upon us. The style of quick ready-made art adapted to the exigencies of being watched by cops is unique and often innovative and stylish. But I need to draw here a distinction between tagging – which is hastily sprayed one-dimensional, monochrome names, and the more artistic pieces. Somewhere in between are throw-ups, which are more detailed than a tag but not as extensive as a piece.
There are also two different types of graffiti artists, with two very difficult goals. One is the ‘bombers’, who just tag relentlessly to get their name up: usually these people are making up for a paucity of artistic talent. Then there’s the real artists who spend more time doing pieces that have artistic merit and are discerning to the eye. Rarely is there a confluence of the two, although that is respected.
The law, however, treats both types of graffiti as the same thing, calling both vandalism. But the latter is not vandalism, but art with the street as a canvas. It is often beautiful, complex and complemented by characters and vistas in the great tradition of muralists like Diego Rivera. The idea that art is purely for the gallery and that when it doesn’t have that imprimatur it should be illegal is nuts.
I went on a couple of missions with graffiti artists recently. The thing they kept saying was how insanely militant the transport police were in New York City. We went down to the Freedom Tunnel which is just down by Columbia University off Riverside Drive. You have to climb down a tree-lined hill and run stealthily across a motorway then down on to the rail-track, but when you get there into the tunnel and dodge the trains, it’s a near-religious experience as iridescent color (think stain-glass windows) is plastered all over the walls and the pitch black is only punctuated by beams of light coming through holes in the roof which give it all illumination. Add to this the hush and it feels like Church. There is a whole homeless community living down there as well, some even have TV’s as they get the electricity from the train lines.
It reminded me of the caves at Lascaux in France which contain beautiful renditions of wild animals and are the first pictorial expression that we know were composed by our species. In today’s world they’d be termed “graffiti” because a cave would be privatized property, owned by McDonald’s or, if it was in Tora Bora, Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda franchize.
There are, of course, legal parks where pieces can be put up, but the point of graffiti is reclaiming spaces that have been closed off . So having little corners for creation is against the whole philosophy.
If you have to have a Vandal Squad at least complement it with an Aesthetics Squad, a team of highly trained art historians and curators who judge whether the artistic content is sufficient for them to escape prosecution. This way you get a graffiti gallery cleansed of the bad artists and you get your city decorated – for free. It makes perfect capitalist sense.
Matt Kennard graduated from the Journalism School at Columbia University as a Toni Stabile Investigative scholar in 2008. He has written for the Guardian, Salon and the Chicago Tribune, amongst others. In 2006 he won the Guardian Student Feature Writer of the Year Award.
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