An introduction to crime and criminology
An introduction to crime and criminology

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An introduction to crime and criminology

2.1 Graffiti: crime or free expression?

Graffiti can take many different forms. It can include stencil art, freestyle artistic expression, and tag graffiti (a graffiti writer’s personalised signature). It may be commissioned and legally painted, such as murals, or it may be sprayed illegally on public or private spaces (Vanderveen and van Eijk, 2016).

Some forms of graffiti are viewed as ‘street art’, which can be illegal or legal. Some commentators have specifically claimed that street art should be seen as ‘a form of subcultural activity that is defined as unsanctioned visual art developed and/or practiced in public spaces’ (Alpaslan, 2012, p. 53). By this definition, street art is characterised both by its illegal nature and artistic form (Hundertmark, 2003). It is thus differentiated from graffiti that is less easily defined as ‘artistic’, such as some forms of territorial graffiti (which is when different groups claim different urban spaces with tags or logos), vandalism or commissioned corporate street painting.

Activity 4 What is graffiti?

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Watch the video on graffiti below. As you watch, note down some of the points made and your own thoughts about whether graffiti is a crime or a form of free expression.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
Skip transcript: Video 1 Graffiti: art or vandalism?

Transcript: Video 1 Graffiti: art or vandalism?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

WOMAN:
It is vandalism. It is an appropriation of the public space or somebody's private property without permission and nobody has a right to do that.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

WOMAN:
It's only graffiti or vandalism if you get arrested, but if you get away with it then it's clearly art.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

MAN:
I think graffiti artists tried so hard to be like, it's not art. It's not art. It's graffiti, and they want to be so special. And fine art wants so much to not let graffiti be art, because then all of a sudden you have this credible art that is done fast and better than a lot of crappy art that's made fast and sold for a lot of money. And a lot of graffiti artists are doing way better stuff quicker and not selling for a lot of money. So I think it all becomes-- everyone knows what I'm talking about.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

WOMAN:
When was the last time we've ever seen an important movement be contributed by teenagers?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

MAN [NON ENGLISH SPEECH]:
Graffiti it's not limited to only one thing. It's a lot broader, a lot more democratic let's say and even so, people still manage to criticise it. Art is different. If you label something as art, people understand it better and end up accepting your ideas because it's art. MAN: It is art, but the difference is permission.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

BETHANY:
I mean living in this neighbourhood, we expect to see sort of art popping up all over the place. And it brings me joy when I see the colourful art.
NICHOLAS:
I think it enhances the way that the neighbourhood looks. I think that it makes it interesting, it makes it unique.
MAN:
I was told at a young age that this art form would not get you nowhere, but guess what? I travel. I do shows. I'm still painting.
BETHANY:
I understand that it's vandalism, but it's pretty vandalism.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

PATO [NON ENGLISH SPEECH]:
I don't understand this label, Fine Art. Art Fine? I don't know. I don't understand it. I just don't understand it.
MAN:
There's good graffiti and there's bad graffiti. Some graffiti is art. But when it's just that kind of typical fat letters saying, you know, not very thoughtful things, it just becomes graffiti.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

NOVI [NON ENGLISH SPEECH]:
It has it's own way to be done, but it's not aggressive, it's delicate. It has more emotions to it than adrenaline. Worldwide graffiti is all about this; it's adrenaline; it's bombing, let's paint everything, two minutes, steel doors, the owners are coming, trains, this whole adrenaline rush. But fine art is the graffiti that holds more emotion, more time and more dedication.
MAN:
Graffiti is way, way at the bottom. You got all the other arts through time, and then we're talking graffiti, which most people might get confused and think it's childish or children do it. You know, it's not the case. I think in time and hopefully in my lifetime, graffiti may be considered in that light.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

End transcript: Video 1 Graffiti: art or vandalism?
Video 1 Graffiti: art or vandalism?
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

What do you think? Should graffiti always be a crime? If not, under what conditions wouldn’t it be?

Discussion

Acts of graffiti or what is generally now referred to as graffiti have existed for thousands of years and appear to exist in virtually all modern cultures and countries. But the nature, scale or seriousness of graffiti is open to interpretation. There is no universally recognised way of recording or measuring graffiti and it is by no means certain that everybody considers graffiti harmful, or a crime. For example, the stencilled work ‘Girl with a balloon’ by the Bristol street artist Banksy, depicts a young girl watching her heart-shaped balloon float away. Originally, it appeared illegally on the side of a bridge, but by July 2017 it was voted the UK’s best-loved piece of art (Kennedy, 2017).

Taking graffiti as an example, it becomes a little clearer that the question ‘what is crime’ is not easily defined. Graffiti is a social activity that attracts widely differing public opinions on how it should be understood or responded to and whether it should be controlled and punished or embraced and celebrated.

The next activity asks you to try and answer some questions about graffiti to get you thinking about the different ways it can be interpreted.

Activity 5 Graffiti quiz

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Try the following quiz on understanding graffiti. You won’t necessarily know the answers from having watched the previous film or reading the previous pages. But have a go and then read it over after you’ve found all the correct answers.

  1. Graffiti can be seen as:

a. 

art


b. 

social protest


c. 

vandalism (crime)


d. 

all of the above


The correct answer is d.

  1. When viewed as social protest, graffiti can be thought of as a form of:

a. 

political resistance


b. 

music


c. 

justice


d. 

public narrative


The correct answer is a.

  1. Graffiti can sometimes be understood as:

a. 

a means by which people signal that they are happy with the way society is organised.


b. 

a means by which people try to speak out to say that not everyone is in agreement with the status quo.


c. 

a form of collective action.


d. 

none of the above.


The correct answer is b.

  1. Why might it be said that graffiti is a contested issue in society?

a. 

It often includes messages of resistance or social protest.


b. 

The public holds different views on graffiti, some see it as art, other see it as crime.


c. 

It is an illegal activity.


d. 

The reasons people engage in graffiti are not well understood.


The correct answer is b.

  1. Why is graffiti viewed as a problem? (Select two)

a. 

It can be viewed as a threat to private property.


b. 

It is highly visible and public.


c. 

It often includes poor grammar.


The correct answers are a and b.

Thinking about the different ways graffiti can be thought about and understood opens up questions about what is and isn’t defined as a crime and how public opinion can differ on what should or shouldn’t be deemed illegal. You will consider this more next.

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