The Art of Graffiti: Creative or Criminal

Graffiti Header

“Graffiti isn’t doing bad things, but we sort of threaten the whole notion of fine art…”

The art of graffiti is an ancient one, with the first examples still visible in certain ancient Greek and Roman cities. The eruption of Vesuvius caused many of the buildings in Pompeii to be preserved, and today Latin curses, magic spells, declarations of love, political slogans and literary quotes can still be read on the walls.

In 2006, the large advertising agency BBDO West created a pro-bono campaign in San Francisco. The cause they were supporting? Anti-graffiti. Some of the posters they came up with are available to see here.

The images featured people in their homes with ugly spray-painted tags on the walls around them. The tagline under each reads:

“Clean up tagging in your neighbourhood before it really spreads.”

The Wooster Collective, which was founded in 2001 and celebrates “street art, stickers, posters, graffiti and culture jamming”, chose to respond with an attack on the ‘acceptable’ uses of public space:

“Why is is that the onslaught of outdoor advertising is more acceptable to the general public than graffiti?” Click here for the rest.

The co-founder, Marc Schiller, wrote:

“Too much ‘space’ in our urban cities is sold to advertisers and large corporations. Street artists are trying to reclaim a bit of their space, even if it means doing it without the approval of the people who control that space.”

They also argued that there were much more important things the advertisers could have chosen to campaign against.

I took most of the pictures in this post while walking round the centre of Brighton, UK. Graffiti divides opinion – do you see art or vandalism?


James Brown





For some, graffiti ceased to be vandalism and became considered an art form several decades ago. Today it is often referred to as ‘street art’ or ‘urban art’. There are lots of great examples here of graffiti informing fashion/interior design/art/architecture/product design, and examples of works by Banksy which arguably changed the art world forever.

Below is the interior of a shoe shop in Milan, whose decor (with pencil drawings covering the walls) has been influenced by graffiti – to appeal to their target audience.


Italy graffiti 


Crispin Sartwell writes: “At this point graffiti is a traditional art … It’s possible to have a retro style, or a futuristic style. And at this point too, graffiti has been absorbed and eliminated by the high art world many times … And it has also been appropriated by the advertising world and absorbed into legal mural-painting. Surprisingly, though, it retains the power to offend and it continues to be defined in part by its anti-authoritarianism.” Read the rest here.

The photos within this post document the number of different styles of graffiti on display within a 1 mile radius of 1 town (unless indicted otherwise).


 Graffiti girl





Compare the two murals below – the first from Argentina in 2006 and the second from Brighton in 2010.

They have a similar subject-matter but very different styles.


Argentina graffiti





As Sartwell states, advertisers have made use of graffiti in terms of style and also the placement of ads.

In some cases companies use graffiti on their own buildings to self-advertise:


Infinity foods





This is a widespread practice in poorer or developing countries, where graffiti is a cheap and effective method of advertising.

The picture below was taken in India in 2010:


India graffiti


And this picture was taken in Cambodia in 2008:


Cambodia graffiti


But…does graffiti need to be illegal to be properly considered graffiti?


Spray can


Jeremiah McNichols, in his article Visualizing Dissent: Graffiti as Art, thinks so:

“many writers [graffiti artists] would agree with my belief that true graffiti is illegal by definition … In this view, graffiti is a protest against everything every successful ad agency stands for: the commodification of public space, the standardization of the built environment, and the permission-based, central control of communication in the form of visual display, which dystopians and state planners the world over agree is the most powerful way to communicate with large groups of strangers…” Read the rest of this article here.




One of the ways in which individuals have expressed support for this view is by ‘culture jamming’, which involves subverting the messages of companies or advertisers in very visual, graphic ways.

There is a section on ‘culture jamming’ in Visual Communication, part of our Graphic Design series: 


Visual Communication 137


Yet some examples I saw suggested buildings’ owners were more concerned with protecting their private parking bays than the walls of their private properties.





Private property


In central Brighton, much graffiti is tolerated and even admired by inhabitants, especially when it seems to fit in with the local surroundings (for example, the seagulls below!).







In many countries around the world, specific walls or areas have been designated for use by graffiti artists. This is the case in many cities in Australia. Supporters believe this allows people to experiment with their artwork without fear of prosecution for vandalism, while others believe it encourages illegal graffiti elsewhere.

Could you argue that some of these murals improve their ‘natural’ surroundings?





Car park





It is possible to see graffiti as a way to assert individuality and communicate across  social boundaries.





Nose ring





However, councils in Britain spend hundreds of thousands of pounds every year cleaning up graffiti vandals, particularly taggers. Oxford City Council estimates it spends more than £100 000 per year clearing up graffiti in the city. You can read an article in The Oxford Times here, in which a policewoman is quoted as saying:

“It makes the city look run down and dirty. Graffiti makes you think of deprived areas.”


 Alt Cupid





A few examples in Brighton, like the one below, have become an acceptable part of the town’s landscape and are as well known as some local landmarks.


Brighton beach


In Basics Illustration 01: Thinking Visually, Mark Wigan writes on street art:

“The movement references Outsider and Folk Art, Dada, Fluxus, Situationism, graffiti, anarchism, skateboarding, semiotics, psychology, comics, toys and music from Hip Hop, Punk Rock to Indie and continues to evolve. In a world dominated by multinational corporate brands, the strategies of advertising and viral marketing have been appropriated by entrepreneurial graphic artists. They promote their own brands and embed their visual signatures into the marketplace worldwide. Many critically question the effect of censorship, power and institutions in their work, challenging the ideology of the contemporary paradigm.”

He also quotes Fred Braithwaite (also known as Old Skool Graffiti writer Fab 5 Freddy, famous for his spray-painted homage to Warhol’s soup cans on a New York subway train):

“Graffiti isn’t doing bad things, but we sort of threaten the whole notion of fine art, they think anything not steeped in tradition has to be Folk Art. But New York is the most advanced ghetto in the world, what we do reverberates like a satellite, bang, all over the world.” Brand New York, ICA, 1982, A LiteraryReview Special.


  1. I think there’s a common misconception between the definition of graffiti and street art. Graffiti IS street art, but unfortunately, when you mention the word ‘graffiti’, most people think of hastily drawn tags and the vandalism that comes with it. Graffiti is art, in its own form, and should be treated as such.

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