Unsanctioned vs. Sanctioned Graffiti

Graffiti is a very broad category of art. The art form includes tags, throwies, throwups, pieces, practically anything that could be described as writing or drawing on a wall and because of this wide range of types, graffiti can either be as simple as writing a name or as complicated as an elaborate depiction. The type of graffiti an artist puts up on a wall is a result of several factors. A primary one would be personal preference; some artists are interested in simply leaving their mark by writing their name on the wall, others intend on drawing complicated pieces that express a message of some sort. Several other reasons exist that influence an artist’s decision. Though it may not be the most important factor, the legal status of the artist’s act of putting up the graffiti quite often dictates the kind of graffiti that is put up.

Figure 1: Unsanctioned piece of graffiti by unknown artist located behind a parking structure off of Thayer Street in Ann Arbor, MI. Image was taken by myself on October 10, 2016

Figure 2: Unsanctioned piece of graffiti by unknown artist located behind a parking structure off of Thayer Street in Ann Arbor, MI. Image was taken by myself on October 10, 2016.

The primary factor that makes unsanctioned graffiti different from sanctioned graffiti is the fear of repercussions. While graffiti artists put up unsanctioned works, they must do so quickly to flee the scene to evade persecution by the police (AntiMedia). As a direct result of this, unsanctioned graffiti is typically far less elaborate and time-consuming than sanctioned graffiti. Figures 1 and 2 clearly establish this point. Hidden behind a parking garage, the unknown artists that put these tags up did so in hiding from the police, yet still feared persecution and therefore did not spend much time on the works.

Figure 3: Unsanctioned work of graffiti, by Greek artist iNO, located in Athens, Greece. Image was found on a New York Times Article (Alderman).

In the United States, where the policing of graffiti is relatively strict, the fear of persecution forces graffiti artists to rush their work. Contrastingly, in Greece, where the policing of graffiti is relatively loose, artists have much more time to work on unsanctioned pieces (Alderman). This idea helps prove the fact that fear of persecution by the police is what causes graffiti artists to quickly put up simple tags and flee the scene. This can be seen in Figure 3, which is a piece by iNO in Athens, Greece. Because iNO did not have to fear being arrested as much as he would have in the United States, he had more time to work and made a more elaborate unsanctioned piece than those in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 4: Sanctioned wall of graffiti done by Shepard Fairey in Wynwood Walls, an exhibition in Miami, FL. Image was found on the Wynwood Walls website (“Wynwood Walls”).

Figure 5: Sanctioned wall of graffiti done by Lady Pink in Wynwood Walls, an exhibition in Miami, FL. Image was found on the Wynwood Walls website (“Wynwood Walls”).

Coming back to the context of the United States, graffiti becomes much more elaborate and time-consuming when it’s sanctioned. This is due to sanctioned artists having the time to plan out the piece, spray an outline, color it in, and add finishing touches. They can do this in one day, or even over the course of several days because regardless of how long they take, they are not rushed by the fear of persecution. This can be seen in Figures 4 and 5. Both are works put up in an exhibition in Miami known as Wynwood Walls, which invites famous street artists from around the world to put up large, abstract, and colorful pieces on the walls in the area. Both images are very elaborate and colorful and demonstrate the idea that sanctioned graffiti artists have the leisure of planning, sketching, and detailing their complicated pieces.

Figure 6: Unsanctioned work of graffiti, by Shepard Fairey, located in Detroit, MI. Image was found on a Hyperallergic Article (Sutton).

Figure 4 is a work done by a very famous street artist known as Shepard Fairey. He has put up pieces all around the United States, both sanctioned and unsanctioned. His unsanctioned work presents a counterargument to the claim previously made about unsanctioned graffiti that is important to analyze. Though it is argued that unsanctioned graffiti is simple and typically just a tag of someone’s name, Fairey and several others have proved that unsanctioned graffiti can be more elaborate. This can be seen in Figure 6. His piece seems to destroy the claim that unsanctioned work is restricted to tags because in the United States the fear of prosecution forces artists to quickly put up their work and flee, not allowing time for something as elaborate as Figure 6. This image represents a development in street art that allows unsanctioned work to be more elaborate. Artists have created posters and stencils, which allow the time-consuming work to be done in private at home and require very little time to apply to walls (Waclawek 33). Figure 6 is a poster that Fairey quickly put up on a water tower and the time he saved by using a poster is what prevented him from being vulnerable to persecution.

The previous example narrows the argument initially made: unsanctioned art must be put up on the wall quickly to avoid persecution, which makes the most popular form of unsanctioned art to be tags though there are other rapid forms of unsanctioned street art such as posters and stencils. Before the development of tools such as stencils and posters, artists were limited to tagging or very simple pieces as they could not stay at the scene of the piece for very long. Adapting to this, graffiti artists eventually made developments that allowed them to make more elaborate and expressive unsanctioned street art. This adapting by graffiti artists represents something humanity has experienced for years now: innovations that make something possible, even though it once seemed impossible. These innovations are what allow for the development humans have made in fields such as social media, health, infrastructure, and even tourism. Just like humankind has progressed as new innovations were made, the art form of graffiti continues to grow as artists make developments and break boundaries within the art form.


Works Cited

Alderman, Liz. “Across Athens, Graffiti Worth a Thousand Words of Malaise.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Apr. 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

AntiMedia. “While Banksy Makes Millions, Street Artists Are Going to Jail.” Disinformation. Disinformation, 06 Apr. 2016. Web. 17 Dec. 2016.

Sutton, Benjamin. “Detroit Police Issue Felony Arrest Warrant for Shepard Fairey.” Hyperallergic. Hyperallergic, 25 June 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2016.

“Wynwood Walls.” Wynwood Walls. Wynwood Walls, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2016.

Leave a Reply