Contemporary Graffiti: Expressive Street Art or Vandalism?


Graffiti: Street art or vandalism?
Binkski /

Since it began to receive commercial attention in the early 1980s, graffiti has long since existed as a point of contention in artistic and social communities. Graffiti as we know it has endured an evolving history, its origins linked to both urban gangs as well as to pure artistic expression.

Smashing Magazine discusses this evolution, explaining that graffiti is “well-known for being provocative, appealing, bold and uncompromising. Originally used by gangs to mark their territory…graffitis have now become a rich medium for unrestricted expression of ideas and statements.”

In another historical examination, PBS says, “graffiti is, by definition, a defiant and public exhibition,” discussing the reputation that graffiti has earned, with respects to its rebellious nature.

Regardless of social perceptions of graffiti, these images and words have an incredible global presence. Today, you don’t even have to enter a gallery to find art; walk down any city street and you can be sure to locate at least one wall splattered with graffiti. Street art allows public spaces to become canvasses; sidewalks and the sides of buildings evoke the messages or politics of the artist who chose to create something there.

Though not all graffiti is political, John M. Eger explains that, “From the Berlin Wall…to the ‘democracy wall’ in Beijing, people have used street art to demonstrate some of their most poignant frustrations and concerns about the world,” in an article for the Huffington Post.

street art

Image: Shutterstock

A paradox in the world of street art is the fame that popular graffiti artists earn, despite trying to maintain a discreet profile. After all, the same artists that are creating beautiful, photorealistic or colorful abstract graffiti art are simultaneously breaking the law. Contemporary street-inspired art has been known to auction for millions of dollars; perhaps the art world is more forgiving of a medium that most of society still considers “vandalism.”

If you’ve never stumbled upon the wall of a building covered by the colors of a photorealistic painting, then perhaps you’ve only associated graffiti with vandalism, rather than “street art.” Art in any form is subjective, so why should graffiti be any different? Call it an artistic expression, or call it an act of criminal vandalism, either way, contemporary graffiti exists as an often visually stunning, always defiant, public display.

To learn more about contemporary street art and artists, visit Smashing Magazine’s Tribute To Graffiti: 50 Beautiful Graffiti Artworks.

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