Graffiti - Is it an Art or a Crime?

St. Louis Missouri Flood Wall

What is that writing on the wall?

Graffiti can be anything from symbols, drawings, etchings, or words that are written or spray-painted on public property. Graffiti can commonly be found on sidewalks, street signs, buildings, subway trains, walls or canvases. It has been done for reasons of fame, rebellion, self-expression or power.

I became interested in graffiti in college. I took Social Disorganization and when I had to choose a topic for my term paper, I chose graffiti. I have been interested in it ever since and continue to look for signs of graffiti throughout the city and I try to guess what the artist was trying to tell me. I learned that this is an entire subculture with its own hierarchy, terminology, and meaning.

Graffiti artists also have their own code of conduct, so to speak. For example, it is a sign of disrespect for one person to cover another person’s artwork. If a tagger has respect for another fellow tagger and he trusts that he will not tell on him for being creative, it might be said that, “he has his dope hat on.”

There is much controversy regarding this subject. Some people see it as art while others see it as a crime. The blame commonly is associated with hip hoppers or gang bangers but really, they had nothing to do with it.

Graffiti actually dates back to 30,000 BCE. Cave men used animal bones and pigments to create illustrations, often in ceremonial and sacred locations inside of caves. Graffiti can also be traced to The Mayan Indians, Vikings, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire.

During the 1920’s at the end of WWII, it popped into American culture. “Kilroy Was Here” started to appear with an illustration and became popularly used by American Troops. It was associated with the letter “V” for victory. Even then, it could be found on trains and boxcars.

In the 1950’s a newer form of graffiti appeared. It was called latrinalia. It literally meant writings on the bathroom walls. It is still in existence today. You can hardly go into any public restroom and not see the writings on the bathroom walls!

Modern day graffiti took root in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. These artists (or criminals) are called taggers. The idea was that they needed to get their “tag” on as many places as they could be seen. It was especially great if they could get it in a location that had no easy access but could be seen by a captive audience.

Taggers often have sketchbooks for practice, or they might use their finger to draw images in dust while they learn. Usually, the tagger has a message he or she is trying to express about religion, family, politics or other thoughts.

The problem is that it is the most common type of property vandalism. The Bureau of Justice Statistics accounts it for 35% of all property vandalism. Many cities have tried to combat the problem by making areas for graffiti artists to showcase their works. St. Louis has a graffiti wall that runs parallel to the Mississippi River Front. I often take the girls to play on the arch grounds and we always finish with a walk beside the graffiti wall. I was there when some of it was painted and it was magnificent in the making.

However, the cost of cleaning up graffiti is enormous. It cuts a huge chunk out of municipal budgets. In 2006, Chicago’s budget allowed 6.5 million dollars for cleaning up graffiti. Immediate removal seems to be the key to prevention. Studies have shown that if it is removed within 24 to 48 hours it will be less likely to occur. I suppose it is a lot of work for an artist to put forth if it will be washed away before enough people have a chance to admire it.

Today, graffiti is against the law and is punishable by fines and/or jail time.

You can imagine my surprise then, when Sydney was two and she came into the kitchen, excitedly grabbing my hand and tugging. “Come see, momma! Come see!” she said pulling me after her. I followed her into her bedroom and she had used markers to color her entire wall on one side!

“It’s for you!” she told me happily.

I just stood there and laughed, “I do love it,” I told her, “and daddy is going to also!”

We never did get the marker completely off her wall. We used plenty of killz and coats of paint to no avail. It would somehow seep back through. I sold the house and I could still see the faint markings of the beginnings of a great graffiti artist!

Do you think that graffiti is:

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Comments 44 comments

Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

A very interesting new for the day is...latrinalia......I will try and use that in a sentence liked the video as well....voted up and beautiful

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Cogerson - thank you so much! Yeah latrinalia - funny:-). Haha! My research actually gave a more literally descriptive word, poetic even! Haha!

vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 5 years ago from Nashville Tn.

Great hub, RealHousewife! I am so much more educated on grafitti. Very interesting and what a clever topic for you to choose!

mylife=adventure profile image

mylife=adventure 5 years ago from Wisconsin

It is art that is usually looked down upon because "it's vandalism". Think of it this way, can someone from a poor city that has an artistic value, afford money to spend on canvas's and paint supplies to make great paintings? Or can they afford some spray paint and use the city that has impoverished them as a giant canvas for their work. On the other hand gangs do use it very often to mark territory, so in that case I can see it as a crime. A great hub that sparks a good debate. Thanks for sharing it truly was a great read!

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Vocalcoach - thank you so much! I really enjoyed this topic - and I hope that when everyone see's graffiti - they will try to find a hidden message. I was actually reminded of this subject by a poem that barbergirl28 wrote:-).

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

My-life - thank you! I tried not to persuade either way, but if you notice - the video shows the flood wall ten years after it was originally painted. It now has graffiti on top of graffiti. I think this shows there is even much disrespect within their own little culture. Now much of it is ugly again:(

DaNoblest profile image

DaNoblest 5 years ago from California

You would have loved Venice beach man years ago. I'm sure you have seen the "pit" in movies before they filled it in.

There really are several types of graffiti. Gang graffiti is what you see most often in bad areas. It is usually pretty ugly with little style to it and almost no artistic value. This is done just to mark turf mainly. Gang tags are usually very basic unless one of the members is an artist.

Then you have taggers who come up with a catchy name and spend hours practicing it. They have more of an art form emerging. This is the graffiti you see with some style and flair to it.

Last you have the real artists which do the "pieces". Those are the large artistic works you see. "Piecers" are the ones with the books full of art.

When a tag or piece is scratched into a surface that is called "scribing". Only well practiced artists can pull this off and have it look good.

You can call pretty much any tag a"hit-up" as well.

How I know all of this? Well I really shouldn't say but if I can find my book I'll scan some of the pictures and let you use them =]

Just Ask Susan profile image

Just Ask Susan 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Very interesting hub on graffiti. In Dunedin Florida an artist one night went around and painted oranges on the side of buildings and the city was going to have them removed but they looked so pretty that they left them there. My twins one day decided to tag their dads leather cowboy boots. I think they were only about 2 at the time. Dad was not too impressed as they used permanent marker(the big fat ones). Kids!!!!

outdoorguy38 profile image

outdoorguy38 5 years ago from Brookings,Oregon

Great Hub! I have always been intrigued by the big bubble letters and beautiful scenes made by the true artists in the world of graffiti. Unfortunately I have always felt that the disrespect of some with their ugly markings over the top of a beautiful piece, has ruined it for many who try to beautify this world.

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

And the moral of this story is - don't give permanent markers to little kids!

Good hub. Growing up in Houston, I was exposed to much graffiti. After moving to Hawaii the walls of building were painted by actual artists and were tourist attractions. It's art.

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Danoblest! Cool! Now I thought the highest rank were muralists? I visited Venice Beach last June - I did see some graffiti but I guess I was too late for the pit? Sounds neat!

@Susan - oops! Isn't that funny terrible? I don't think they've done any more tagging since then:-). Hopefully your twins have learned to keep it on the paper too! Lol

@outdoor guy - I agree - I love the stuff that is really beautiful - it is interesting! I'm glad you checked this out! Thank you!

@Austinstar - right! Don't leave the basket of colors and markers laying around! They can be dangerous and lead to criminal actions! Lol. Yep - I love it when it is art! I just wish it could be left alone! Plus - look at Mexico - the artist that painted all the murals there? I read Frida and it talks a lot about that.

barbergirl28 profile image

barbergirl28 5 years ago from Hemet, Ca

I love that story! Ha ha - I personally like seeing graffitt. I think it is beautiful. On the other hand however, there is a difference between displaying a wonderful work of art and just scribbling something on a stop sign. Well written! And I hope your little graffitti artist finds a good alternative to markers on teh wall! LOL

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Barbergirl! Haha! I kept thinking about this after you reminded me of my little graffiti girl:). I thought it would be a fun one - I really didn't mind doing that term paper all those years ago either. There is soooooo much graffiti here! Now learn from me and Just Ask Susan - keep your toddlers AWAY from the markers!

Sharyn's Slant profile image

Sharyn's Slant 5 years ago from Northeast Ohio USA

Great information, well written, on an interesting topic. Here in Cleveland, they have dedicated walls to graffiti artists. But somehow, it's just not the same. Super job Kel!!!

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Hey Sharyn! Thanks for hopping over! I love the topic still - and we still take our kids there during the summer - another great freebie here in St. Louis:-)

Adventure Colorad profile image

Adventure Colorad 5 years ago from Denver,CO

It is absolutely a crime. If the "artist" doesn't have permission to deface the property they are breaking the law. While some taggers may have an artistic nature many of them just want attention for themselves or their group.

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Adventure - I do see much of that - especially in the city - but I love the flood walls:). Thanks for reading and commenting!

Winsome profile image

Winsome 5 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

Hey RH, much of the modern art I see in museums is definitely a crime--I have mixed feelings about graffiti. I have a son-in-law that has made quite a living out of it with skateboard wear and Nike shoes in addition to his regular art.

The way I see it, some of it is gang territory markers--I call this dogs peeing on their area trees and hydrants. Some of it is passive aggressive expression by groups who have to suck it up in sub-wage labor because of their resident status. The rest is artistic expression that gets more press and status BECAUSE it is illegal and dangerous. These are the heroes of adolescents and respected by street artists everywhere.

There is a fun site where you can make your own graffiti with street artist fonts and highlight or outline or shadow as you like.

Thanks for a fun hub. =:)

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Thanks Winsome! I love the walls - but it is allowed there and not illegal. Then others have come and ruined a lot of it - that is a crime!

Thanks for the link too! That is awesome and a winner:-)

Truckstop Sally profile image

Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

Great info! Interesting viewpoints from your followers. My first college degree is in art, and I do respect all forms of personal expression -- but I wouldn't want someone to paint on the side of my house?

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Right Sally! I thought of that scenario too - plus none of us want to pay tax dollars for all the clean-up, I'm sure. I just wish they could respect the areas that are allowed. I really love art - but can't draw a stick figure:-). I love going to our museum - my favorite painting is "The Scream" and I bought my husband a tie with the image of that on it:-). He worked in an office then:) haha!

katiem2 profile image

katiem2 5 years ago from I'm outta here

It can be both and art and a crime, the expression of such art and talent should be utilized so it is both a crime of society to let such talent go unpracticed. Art is a gift we might want to embrace it more freely. Great read and thought provoking, I'll be thinking more about this. :) Katie

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Well said Katie! I love looking at it:-). Thanks for stopping over!

PaulGoodman67 profile image

PaulGoodman67 5 years ago from Florida USA

I would judge each piece of graffitti on its own merits, though generally I think it falls into the crime category. It's a bit like the rap music that some of these kids are into. 1% is very skillfull and has artistic merit and the rest is awful and done by talentless imitators.

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Thanks for reading and commenting Mr. Goodman!

crystolite profile image

crystolite 5 years ago from Houston TX

Very hub that is well shared.

Granny's House profile image

Granny's House 5 years ago from Older and Hopefully Wiser Time

Real, we live upstate. No graffiti! Recently we took our young gsons to an Eagles football game down the city. When they saw the graffiti they thought it was cool and beautiful and had us stop so they could look at it. I also had to take pics of it for them

Great hub


RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Hey Tina - that is really cool! My kids always enjoy looking at it and trying to figure out what the artist wanted us to know. I love it!

Thank you so much for reading and taking your time to comment:)!

Granny's House profile image

Granny's House 5 years ago from Older and Hopefully Wiser Time

Real, when my daughter was little she would draw on her bedroom walls too. So I went to the butcher and asked him if I could buy a roll of the paper he used to wrap the meat in, he just gave me the remainder of the one he was using. I took it home and put it up all the way around the room at her height, then she could draw all she wanted and she did!

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

I wish I would have thought of that Granny's House! I did get some chalk board paint, I painted the outside of the kitchen island with it. Then they could "color" while I fixed dinner, or whatever. I spend lots of time in the kitchen!

maggiemaggie 5 years ago

graffiti definitely an art!!!! hello? i wish i had that talent... anyway saw a youtube channel with awesome graffiti on body art... artist is really talented.. you might be intersted.

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Maggie - thanks so much for your comments and the link! I tried to look at it but it will not open on an iPad - I'll check it out later for sure!

Armondff profile image

Armondff 5 years ago from Southern California

So my only question is, other than blatant "writing on the wall", who's to say what intentions a felon, criminal, gang member, tagger, artist, creative mind, photo-realist or artistic genius, has when he or she opens a specialized can of aerosol spray paint. If DeVinci had snuck in as a tagger and painted history on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, who among us or anyone else (other than the Roman Catholic Church) would have been the first to call him a criminal and his work a crime. However since he was in fact commissioned as well as rather famous, his works remain in Rome as a staple of one of the worlds largest religions and an era which shaped the world to come.

We as human beings naturally tend to appoint our own values and explanations to things we don't completely understand regardless of the true meaning. I believe this is also the case with creativity in unauthorized places. (Its pleasing to the eye = Good, Non pleasing or worse, cause for negative emotions = Bad)?

Of course laws are laws and provide an outline as to how we should conduct ourselves where there is no one else to do so, therefore if its not yours don't draw on it. However when it comes to art, its as if attempting to place an almost undefinable means of expression-say for instance jello - into a concrete mold - a definition. It is not possible.

It is in the end not up to the artist to decide his own title or what he has done, but just as in the reading of a novel, it is ultimately up to the viewer to connect to the piece in whatever way possible, if at all.

I think we should look at the "taggers" around town every year and with the help of the local police or even a specialized unit, vote on who's work we'd like to see again next year until we like all of what we see, therefore also forcing those not as skilled to step the game up as well, or not.

Sorry just a thought i too am an artist i guess.

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Armondff - Hi - thanks for your very interesting viewpoint. I think you have a great idea! We should let the locals vote:) lol

I think there are many, many reasons that someone might begin to paint this way. Thanks for the read and your great comment!

rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

Thanks or an insightful view of graffiti.Great Hub. I live in the Atlanta area, and I have seen some great art work around town.I just don't like the gang signs.

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Hi Rebecca - thank you! I have heard there is a lot of neat graffiti in the Atlanta area! I don't like the gang signs either - I like the walls or places where it's allowed. I think it's beautiful and some of those kids are so talented!

Derek Slark profile image

Derek Slark 5 years ago

Why classify it as either art, or a crime, can it not be both at the same time? Just because in most cases it is created illicitly, does this stop it also being art? I have seen some brilliant works that have taken artistic skill to create, but because they have been applied to a wall without the owner’s permission, this makes it a crime. I have also seen some tags that are nothing more than scribbled letters, which have no artistic merit, and this practice is not dissimilar to animals marking their territory.

The Oxford dictionary defines graffiti as - writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place – but I would question this definition. Does this mean that it is not graffiti if done illicitly on private property, or if done in a public place but with permission?

Is graffiti a name of an art form, or is it a term for the circumstance in which art is created, i.e. illicitly? If done in a public place with permission does it because a mural rather than graffiti, purely because it has been created legally?

To be an act of vandalism I would suggest that the graffiti has to deface, damage, or de-value the property on which it is applied, lower the tone of the immediate locality, or be offensive. Probably most graffiti will fall into this category, but not all, for example, many people would find it desirable to have a ‘Banksy’ on their wall.

Thanks for a good read, I enjoy a hub that provokes me to comment. Voted up and interesting.

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Hi Derek! Thanks so much for your comment! I see exactly what you are saying - and I do agree to an extent. I think it is art in any form - you can call it graffiti or a mural. It is art! I love graffiti and I always notice it. Recently went to Las Vegas and you don't see as much of it in obvious places there - but I was able to get a glimpse of the style there. I find it totally interesting and a sort of conundrum. I sure wouldn't want to wake up and find a mural painted on my house:) I suppose if I owned a business I wouldn't want to find it on the building. I really enjoy going downtown and looking at the graffiti wall - even more so than a museum. I like things that are very real to me. I like to guess what the painter is trying to tell us in their work. Sometimes the message screams out at you - other times it is just a guess.

Thanks again for your awesome comment!

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drokreative 5 years ago

poxt - (this is my digital tag.) I just vandalized your post!

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Thank you sooooooo much!! Tag me anytime:)

Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

Interesting analysis about the street art also called graffiti. By the way I think graffiti artists are no less creative than other artists out there.

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Oh I agree - and sometimes they are the very best artists in my opinion! I love graffiti - I don't know why - but I notice it in every city I travel to. Thanks so much!

Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

This is an interesting and excellent hub about graffiti. Personally, I don't like it because it is defacing both personal and public property. Graffiti on public and private buildings has been on the increase in Thailand where I live now. Voted up and sharing.

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO Author

Hi Paul Kuehn - Thank you so much for your comment! I can't help liking it - loving it really. I don't know why, I am fascinated with it but I understand why people get upset about it. I love the graffiti walls we have here because it is allowed and on display for public view. Thank you for sharing:)

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