Challenges Of Art Versus Graffiti Cultural Studies Essay

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Art is a way for someone to express and communicate their personal emotions and imagination through a kind of media. It is not something that can be defined or isolated to one expression, and this can be elaborated on, by looking at the varied forms of art that can be found.

Art can be seen in paintings, pictures and photos, structures, sculptures, abstract metal work, the arrangement of sound, colours, movements and much more.

Due to this, art can mean different things to different people, and therefore, cannot be confined to an objective statement.

Graffiti on the other hand is an urban art movement and form of expression. Typically, graffiti artists use spray paint to convey their ideas on street walls and in public places, which is an illegal form of art and is therefore seen by many, as vandalism. Most graffiti artists "tag" their work with a graffiti name, and remain anonymous due to the fact that their art is illegal.

More recently, some graffiti artists use stickers and stencils as a quicker way to display their work, avoiding any contact with the law.

Graffiti has become a culture and a lifestyle to many people and there has seemed to be a surge of interest in graffiti in recent years, with some pieces being used in campaigns, products and appearing in art galleries.


The subculture surrounding graffiti has existed for several decades, going back to 30000 BCE, with prehistoric cave drawings, often found in places of sacred or ceremonial locations, with representations of animals or hunts. Also in Egyptian times, Hieroglyphics were used and are a renowned part of modern day history.

But the style of urban graffiti that is more commonly known these days, came from New York City in the late 1960s, and was born on the subway trains. It fast became a way for people to gain fame and notoriety from "tagging" their names on subway cars and soon became popular with kids and teenagers around New York, with the amount of graffiti on trains rising rapidly.

Commercialisation of Graffiti

Although something can be deemed as an atrocity and law breaking, people use it for their advantage for wealth. Graffiti is a good example of this as it has been used commercially for profit and growth in the music industry, advertising and with many brands and products.

Graffiti is part of hip hop culture and is one of four elements, along with rapping, DJing and break dancing. Although it hasn't always had positive mainstream recognition, graffiti is seen everywhere in the music industry. Banksy's monkey artwork appeared in the band Gorillaz music video for 'Tomorrow comes today', as well as many other graffiti images throughout the video.

Banksy's artwork was later used for Blur's album cover, Think Tank. Then it was thought that Greenday had based their artwork on the same image used on Blur's album as the style was very similar. Banksy's artwork was also used on another of Blur's covers for single, Crazy Beat. Many album covers have used graffiti inspired images in recent years. For example, RnB artist Chris Brown's album covers usually include street art images and artwork, including his latest album which is even called, Graffiti, where he appears to be holding a spray can, painting cartoon and graffiti images.

Graffiti is seen in films, including Step Up 2: The Streets, set in a "ghetto" area in USA, with many of the characters being African American males, fitting in with the hip hop culture and reflecting the typical stereotypes given to street artists. The film is based heavily on hip hop dance and features all the elements including graffiti.

Street art has become more commercial in recent years and many brands and products use graffiti designs in the products they sell to appeal to younger audiences. Brands such as Relentless, Adidas, and BMX and skate brands have all used graffiti.

The logo on "Relentless" energy drink cans has a graffiti style type which, again, appeals to their target audience of young adults. Influenced by art, one of the messages on the can is "suffer for your art", which fits into the whole graffiti culture.

In 2007 Adidas approached 7 graffiti artists from around the world to work on a series of designs to apply to Adidas footwear and clothing. Adidas are a very popular brand and the graffiti style products proved to be a hit with young people. The Adidas brand was around when Hip Hop took off in the late 70's/ early 80's, with artists such as Run DMC and KRS-One being part of the whole culture.


Many more clothing brands also sell graffiti designs on their products, such as skate and BMX brands. Graffiti is also big in this culture as skate parks are a popular place to graffiti. Also products such as skateboards are designed to relate to skaters.

In 2005 Saatchi & Saatchi, a well known advertising agency, considered trying a new, more subversive form of advertising over traditional techniques. As part of a £20million campaign to promote a new Brazilian spirit, they planned to spray-paint graffiti images on walls and buildings in the East End of London. Although this may have been a risk, as without permission the company could be fined up to £500, Saatchi & Saatchi believed it would be a new way to reach young consumers immune to conventional advertising.

Real street graffiti artists however, were not impressed by this and planned to deface any of the images as they were annoyed that an advertising agency had attempted to hijack an art form without investing in it. One artist, D*face, said "It dilutes what we are doing."



Banksy is one of the most subversive and politically controversial graffiti artists. Sometimes dubbed the "Art Terrorist", he is known for his pieces all around the world. His top secret identity not only shields him from the law, but gives off a very mysterious vibe to everything he does. There is almost an air of mythology his work, with Banksy being some kind of contemporary anti-hero.

Many famous pieces around the UK and especially in his hometown Bristol include; two policemen kissing, a little girl chasing a balloon symbolising hope, a maid sweeping the street and various monkey and rat pieces.

Taking street art to a new level, Banksy faced Israeli army fire to pull off one of his stunts on the controversial barrier that separates Israel from Palestine. He spray painted nine images on the wall that he thought "turns Palestine into the world's largest open prison". One old Palestinian man said to Banksy, "You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful." Banksy replied, "Thank you", to which the old man responded, "We don't want this wall to look beautiful. We hate this wall. Go home."

This was a way for Banksy to express his feelings about the wall and for others to see it differently. He said "The segregation wall is a disgrace. The possibility I find exciting is you could turn the world's most invasive and degrading structure into the world's longest gallery of free speech and bad art."

Banksy's art has been seen in many places. He visited the zoo and left his tag and he even went into the British museum in disguise and placed his own work on the walls.

In 2009 he took over Bristol museum and showcased all his work, opening people's eyes to graffiti and proving that street art can be real art. Some of his pieces that appeared in the exhibition included a canvas painting where Marilyn Monroe had been turned into Kate Moss, a classic statue had been turned into a young woman holding cigarettes, alcohol and take away packaging, and a picture of the House of Commons full of monkeys. By taking classic and famous pieces of art and adding a more rebellious aspect, Banksy connects street art to high art.


In a recent interview with Southampton based graffiti artist, Bractsat, he gave his views on art, and graffiti culture. He got into graffiti at the age of 14 and would create ideas in his bedroom. Bractsat says music and dance play a big part in his thought process and the style of his art. He listened to hip hop and rap music at school which gave him an interest in graffiti, as well as the culture surrounding it.

Bractsat says he would definitely call himself an artist, rather than a graffiti writer, as he creates pictures for people to see. He doesn't use his skills to write anything like some graffiti artists do. His interest in dance comes out in his artwork. Bractsat says he would have loved to have been a dancer, but knows he never will be, so graffiti is a way for him to be able to perform for a crowd.

When asked about the rise of interest in graffiti and street art recently, Bractsat said he believes it's down to the media and exposure it's given through music videos and night clubs. It's something young people enjoy seeing and people take advantage of this. He also loves the idea that graffiti is being found in art galleries as it means it has evolved enough to be hung next to what people consider "true art", and it is being accepted more socially. Although there is bad stigma surrounding street art, Bractsat is an artist who is against defacing people's property with graffiti that is going to be offensive to anyone, and tries to choose his canvas in more abandoned areas such as old car parks. He respects his work, but also other people's property.

Conclusion - Art or Crime?

When asked their opinions on whether graffiti was either art or vandalism, most people either said art, or found it quite difficult to decide. Fewer people said they thought it was vandalism.

Some people said they felt street art was a way for people wanting to cause trouble to express themselves, and some types of graffiti such as big lettered swear words in subways has caused bad stigma around the culture. Although sometimes graffiti can be illegal, sometimes the work can be fantastic and inspiring. Banksy's elaborate work could be considered vandalism as he does it in public places without permission, but most people recognise how amazing it is, which is how Banksy has become so famous and successful.

Street art design is being used more and more by companies, brands, advertisers and music artists for profit, which means graffiti is much more exposed and regularly in the media. Street art is a way of reaching a young audience and some of the meanings and messages that are sent out by some artists can be very clever and inspiring to many.

While some people will always have an old fashioned opinion about graffiti, some are more accepting and have grown with the culture. Graffiti is a lifestyle and part of the evolution of communication and the more it evolves over the years, the more it is accepted.