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Visions of protest: graffiti
Visions of protest: graffiti

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3  Vandalism or art?

There have been heated debates around the question of whether or not particular examples of unsolicited graffiti should be celebrated and preserved as ‘street art’ or whether they should be regarded as vandalism of public or private property and removed. In Britain – as in many other countries – creators of illicit graffiti can be fined, arrested and even jailed if caught.

Public campaigns, such as Keep Britain Tidy, have condemned graffiti as ‘offensive’, ‘juvenile scribbles’ (Keep Britain Tidy, n.d.). A survey undertaken in 2003 on behalf of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) came to the conclusion that after litter/rubbish and dog fouling, graffiti was considered to be one of the biggest problems affecting people’s quality of life in their local neighbourhoods (DEFRA, 2003). In the same year, ENCAMS (Environmental Campaigns Limited) launched an anti-graffiti campaign which resulted in 123 Members of Parliament signing a petition stating:

Graffiti is not art – it’s crime, making our neighbourhoods look squalid, damaging people’s property and when it’s racist or offensive, it causes fear and heartache. On behalf of constituents and all right-minded people, I back this campaign and will do all I can to rid our community of this problem.

(cited in Campbell, 2008, p. 10)
Described image
Figure 1 Graffiti removal from a wall in Greenwich (London, England) © Marion Bull/Alamy, May 2003

Similar concerns are raised in the following statement from British Transport Police:

Scrawling graffiti in public is criminal damage. It causes a variety of problems and we take it very seriously. If graffiti is not dealt with quickly, it can often lead to further undesirable activity taking place, and can create a climate of fear for those using and working on the railways. Graffiti also poses safety issues. Vandals often put their lives at risk in the act of spraying difficult surfaces, such as bridges or trains in sidings, putting themselves and others in danger. And the costs of cleaning up are enormous. Network Rail estimate that it costs at least £5 million per year to clean up graffiti, not including the loss of revenue or delays caused to the service. London Underground meanwhile says graffiti costs them a minimum of £10 million per year, and it would cost about £38 million to replace all of the graffiti-etched windows on every Tube train. Dealing with graffiti also diverts valuable police and staff resources. Hundreds of thousands of staff hours are taken up in cleaning, repairs and police time. London Underground devotes some 70,000 hours a year just to cleaning up graffiti.

(British Transport Police, n.d.)

Local councils often spend considerable time and money removing graffiti in response to public complaints, but they can also face difficult decisions as to which graffiti should be preserved or even protected. Some graffiti are much loved by local communities and can even become tourist attractions. One of the most famous British graffiti artists is known by the pseudonym ‘Banksy’. Banksy’s graffiti are internationally renowned and are now widely considered as valuable pieces of art. In February 2013, a Banksy graffiti known as Slave Labour vanished in unknown circumstances from a wall of a Poundland shop in north London and then appeared on an auction site in Miami. This provoked a public outcry among local residents and officials, who wanted to keep the graffiti and argued that it belonged to local residents and not to a wealthy private client. Amidst this controversy, the graffiti was withdrawn from sale shortly before the auction in Miami – without explanation – and was then sold at another auction at Covent Garden in London a few months later. Though the actual price was not known at the time of writing, the minimum auction price was set at £900,000 (Batty, 2013; BBC News, 2013).

Activity 2  When does graffiti become street art?

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Click on the following link to read the article ‘London 2012: Banksy and street artists’ Olympic graffiti’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] from the BBC News website (Cafe, 2012), which describes different reactions to the removal of graffiti in London in 2012. What do the comments cited in this article tell us about when graffiti can be considered to be street art worthy of preservation? Make some notes in the text box below.

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According to the article, artists claim that the council’s decision to remove graffiti is often based on the graffiti’s location, rather than their artistic value. In this particular instance, they claim that graffiti are being removed as part of an indiscriminate ‘clean up’ campaign in preparation for the London Olympics in 2012. However, the response from Hackney Council highlights the difficulties local authorities often face in deciding which graffiti can be considered to be art worthy of protection. Reference is made to levels of technical skills and originality involved in the production of specific graffiti, but also to the way specific graffiti have been received by local residents and tourists. The article mentions examples where local residents have expressed their wish to protect particular graffiti artwork by setting up petitions. It also becomes apparent that graffiti produced by respected, well-known artists, such as Banksy, are often instantly associated with high artistic value.

In 2008, ENCAMS published a research report entitled Good Graffiti, Bad Graffiti? A New Approach to an Old Problem, which summarises findings of research exploring public attitudes towards graffiti. This report noted that attitudes to graffiti were more nuanced than initially assumed in their 2003 anti-graffiti campaign and depended on a range of factors, such as the type, quality, message, location and personal impact of the graffiti:

Graffiti was more likely to be reported if it was low quality … racist or offensive; if it was on somebody’s property, a respected site in a valued location that people used frequently, or in more affluent or gentrified areas.

(Campbell, 2008, p. 4)

Public responses to graffiti are often linked to how aesthetically pleasing people find graffiti – how much they like the way it looks – especially if it is located in exposed public places that local residents have to live with. Context and location play a big role in public responses to graffiti.