Is Graffiti Art

To make this post short, we will assume that the audience knows which graffiti we are writing about.  For while graffiti has blighted man for as long as he has put up permanent walls, the elaborate tags that we see in urban spaces could only exist in an era where quick drying paint came in aerosol cans.   

And whatever its merits, real graffiti is vandalism.  We are faced with a dilemma, can we accept it as art while condemning it at the same time? 


We can’t eliminate all contradiction from our lives, and to try will drive one crazy.  I was in NYC almost daily from 1969 till 1973 and then again in 1976-77.  I watched NYC change from the town of Mad Men, where subway platforms had working soda vending machines and graffiti was a simple scrawl like  “Taki183” to the hulking wreck of a town that was about to goo bankrupt.  By the mid 1970s in NYC, most subway cars were completely covered.  In fact, the city was a mess.  Yet even still, I was fascinated as the graffiti covered subway train limped in along.  It made NYC a perpetual carnival.

So is graffiti art?

Yes,  but the makers are rarely artists.  

Huh?  If art, why aren’t the makers artists?  

Let’s start by distinguishing the result from the maker, and as a guide, let’s place ourselves in a museum that holds historical artifacts.  Most artifacts are in the end utilitarian.  So vases and bowls meant for household use, or finials and what not that capped the ends of items as different as swords and the prow of a ship.  

Unlike the artist who can change as the will determines, the bowl remains just a bowl, however decorated, and the maker remains just a worker. 

With graffiti it is even worse.  The scrawlers mostly create tags - in essence logos.  The logos can be for them graffiti writer or for a gang, but that is all we have, logos.  So the makers are at best craftsmen and have very limited range or imagination.  

Still any painter worth his salt can’t help but admire the unexpected gems.

These are in the Paterson Great Falls historic district and most were done in one of two area that had been abandoned for decades:

This first piece is one of the rare ones by a budding painter.  In a way it is the least interesting among the bunch.  

This was done at Hinchcliffe Stadium - closed in 1996 and still awaiting money to restore.

This seems to recall Picasso. 

This one was hidden by the summer foliage.  

Like most of them, the beauty is unintentional and includes the tags that were painted over.

Two more

The once famous writer of Taki 183 was in essence a bored kid.  As soon as he began to move into the adult world, his graffiti stopped.  

For these kids, it will be the same.  But in the meantime we can enjoy.  

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