Five Definitions of Graffiti


Graffiti is defined; 


  1. As Vandalism:

When graffiti first starting appearing in the 1970’s in New York on walls with scribbling’s like the famous “Taki 183” and then started expanding as a movement to include other mediums like spray paint and other platforms like train cars, it was rejected as a destruction of property with no artistic merit. While graffiti as vandalism is probably one of the most antiquated and simplified definitions of this social phenomenon, there are still many people who hold steadfastly to the rather close-minded and uninvolved perspective that graffiti is nothing more than illegal, ugly scribbling’s on a wall. In fact, the New York Times covered one of the very first articles on graffiti, “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals” and today it is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, who says, “Whether particular viewers find any given piece of graffiti artistically compelling is irrelevant. Graffiti’s most salient characteristic is that it is a crime.”


  1. As an art form of gangs.

Graffiti has been associated with the artwork of gangs for a long time. Tagging and throw ups have been a way for gangs to mark their territory and show off with intricate pieces of graffiti often done in “wild style” graffiti calligraphy. There is, in fact, a large element to graffiti that is about demarcating some part of public space for one’s own. While this element of graffiti is particularly evident in the showmanship side to gang graffiti, the theme of “writing ones name on a wall” to take possession of it rings throughout graffiti writing culture. Often used to communicate certain things in code to other members of the gang, graffiti is not only used by gangs as a mark of their prominence in the area but also as a method of secret language in the gang world. As one researcher of a Hispanic gang comments, “many of the markings of gangs are symbols and they have symbolic meaning for gang members. Some of these symbols are so meaningful that disrespecting the graffiti can be lethal for the person who paints over it or disrespects it in some other way.” The two most notable gangs with their own unique symbols are the “crips” and the “bloods.” Their respective logos are below.



  1. As an indicator of societal and economic decline.

Graffiti has been associated with the moral corruption of society. Linked with the efforts of gangs to claim their territory and linked with the notion that graffiti is destruction of property, people have viewed the increasing prevalence of graffiti as a moral and societal issue. For instance, in Greece there is graffiti around every corner, most of which is politicized and represents social commentary in resistance to the social and economic infrastructure established in Greece. For instance, when venturing into one of the most dilapidated neighborhoods of Athens, Exarchia, a tourist commented, “I haven’t seen so much graffiti in my life.” Detroit, one of the cities struggling the most financially and socially has been called the new graffiti center of the world. While there may be some merit in the linkage between societal and economic struggle and the increase in graffiti, that is often perceived as a negative linkage rather than a positive one. In my opinion the fact that people in Greece and in Detroit are expressing their feeling of disempowerment within their own constructs represents a positive movement – an artistically and creatively manifested dialogue with their own communities and state. To this end, Exarchia, one of the largest hotbeds of graff writing, is also, “a hotbed of ideological resistance.”


  1. As an art form through which members from all woks of society express themselves.

More recently, the perception of graffiti has expanded from a cultural expression for those in downtrodden positions to include the expression of all types of people from all woks of life. The emergence of Street Art and the differentiation of certain graff writing from vandalism demonstrates that it is no longer a medium simply being left to fester at the fringes of our society— a fact apparent in both increased scholarly research and in its coverage in the news. For instance, the creation of Waclwak’s book, “Graffiti and Street Art,” demonstrates that the academic community is giving graffiti more attention and thus elevating it from a stigmatized destruction of property to something that deserves real analysis within human culture.


  1. As a juxtaposition to the validity of street art as an art form.

With the increasing validation of graffiti, comes the distinction between graffiti and street art. Street art has evolved out of graffiti, as an art form of murals and large pieces in public spaces and on community walls. While it emerged from the concept of graffiti and is in a sense a more stylized version of graffiti (just perhaps without the addition of tags), it has been placed in juxt-a-position to graffiti as a more legitimate form of expression; art more pleasing to the eye. One of the most current debates is the question of street art versus graffiti. Scholars have been questioning: what makes something street art and not graffiti? What makes street art a more valid art form than graffiti? How is the actual “term” street art defined? What pieces does that include or exclude? Is street art a form of graffiti or something else entirely?


  1. As an art form, with unique rules and concepts in its own right.

The perception of graffiti by academics, and by society has in some ways come full circle; first considered vandalism by most, it is now recognized as an art form by many. While a large number of people still think of it as destruction of property, there is clearly a growing discourse over the concept of graffiti as an art form, including the discussion of its artistic merit and its cultural value to society. In some ways people maintain that graffiti has lost its authenticity by being placed in galleries and being hailed as an art form. For instance, pieces by famous street artist, Banksy, have sold for upwards of a million dollars. The most recent discussion of the recognition of graffiti as a valid art form has been whether the validation of this art form actually strips it of its unsanctioned and raw power.


The most important question rests, however; must graffiti be defined?





Works Cited

Carlie, Michael. “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals.” Into the Abyss: A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs. N.p., 2002. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.


Charies, Don Hogan. “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals.” New York Times 21 July 1971: n. pag. Proquest. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.


Gordts, Eline. “Where The Anarchists Go In Athens.” The Huffington Post., 4 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.


“Graffiti Is Always Vandalism –” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.


Graffiti Paint. 1 Mar. 2014. 10 Interesting Graffiti Facts, World Interesting Facts, n.p.


Rizzle, Abbey. West Coast. N.d. Unkown, n.p.


Fiasko. Taki 183. N.d. Unkown, Flickr, n.p.


Bright Side. Unknown. N.d. Unknown, The 20 Most Stunning Works of Street Art We’ve Seen Lately, Paris.


Unkown. N.d. Culture Pop Street Art, LikeSuccess, n.p.


Untitled. N.d. Unkown, Penascola News Journal, Penascola

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