Art Controversies: Graffiti Art


The scope of art is always perceived ambiguously. The art forms, genres and styles are subdued to controversial comprehension, wrong interpretation and resentment of society on the initial stage of development. The present paper aims to discuss the controversial nature of art phenomenon in general, and narrows the focus in order to analyze the controversies of graffiti art in particular.

Discussion and Analysis

The art is indeed a reflection of the society that is perceived and subsequently expressed by an artist. Hence, the art is obviously subjectively objective since it embodies the impression of the artist of the contemporary reality, namely, particular events, tendencies, priorities, outlook, beliefs and values. Kammen in his seminal work Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture highlights the following: “Art controversies matter because they are so symptomatic of social change as a highly visible but contested process… The ongoing democratization of American culture during the course of several generations has inevitably made controversies more likely to occur”.

Graffiti art is one of the most controversial, vivid and dubiously interpreted art forms. It is relevant to refer to the historical roots of the currently discussed phenomenon in order to identify its modern role, meaning and significance. Actually, the graffiti as an art was “a form of vandalism, a curious enigma, and a menace to society” (Hughes 1). The starting point of graffiti development was in 1870s, in terms of emergence of the hip hop culture in New York. It started as a violation of the city property and transformed to unique form of self-expression. Nonetheless, it was not a simple development of youth illegal activity – it was a real art, social and cultural revolution. The protest of the youth that belonged to the hip hop generation included painting the walls of the city as well as trains and subway cars. These paintings could be of any nature and direction, but primarily they conveyed objection to certain events or general deprecation of the modern society. The paintings were always bright, multicolored and meaningful. The actual transformation of the self-expressive activity into the art form took place in 1980s when graffiti appeared in the art galleries. Furthermore, it gained significant fame for its authors as well as financial success and social demand.

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The controversies of graffiti as the art form are connected with its origins, essence, ideology, medium and peculiarities. First, the origin of graffiti in the modern understanding of the notion is literally a street. It is not as sophisticated and ancient in its tradition as painting. Nonetheless, its origin is connected with opposing movement, extraordinary protest against the drawbacks and vices of society which is one of the most popular ways the new art forms and directions usually emerge. Moreover, it is an active process which requires not only specific skills, but also significant talent. Basically, it may be even aligned and compared with the art of painting since primarily they differ only in terms of canvas opposed by walls and trains.

One more controversy concerns the nature of the currently discussed phenomenon. The critics usually highlight that graffiti may be regarded not as an art form, but as an act of vandalism. Actually, this claim is rather miscellaneous since graffiti paintings may be regarded either as an artistic decoration of the city walls, trains and subway cars, or as a violation of the city integrity, authenticity and order. Therefore, graffiti paintings have been often positioned as illegal activity. Actually, the modern youth can hardly imagine the subways and particular districts of New York twenty five years ago since they are accustomed to modern interpretation of the street art, i.e., graffiti paintings. The native citizens of New York regard graffiti as an inevitable and authentic part of the urbanized area, a rebel spirit of New York and the specific freedom expression of the young generation.

The art status of the graffiti endeavors is confirmed by such events as book editions dedicated to the most significant pieces of graffiti masters heritage. They are photographed, compiled into editions, analyzed and compared. The starting point of such an approach was made in 1984. This year is a date of publication of the seminal work in the context of graffiti recognition and development Subway Art by Cooper and Chalfant. It was a collection of photographs featuring subways graffiti paintings as an innovative and creative art form of the future.

Rabine demonstrates a challenging and, at the same time, interesting approach to understanding the specific purpose and mission of the graffiti art. The study by Rabine (2014) is conducted on the basis of analysis of the Graffiti Art Movement in Dakar. Its representatives highlight that the public walls belong equally to every citizen and are not the property of authorities, but belong to people. Actually, they adherents of Graffiti art Movement believe that their creative art pieces make the city space more beautiful, attractive and authentic.

Aesthetic creativity, inspiration, technical ingenuity in the face of a dire lack of resources, and communal solidarity – these are enduring values in Senegalese culture. The graffiti artists both preserve and transform these inherited values to make them serve a globalized, urban society in economic crisis (Rabine 89).

Hence, the graffiti artists position their art as benevolent, not violating in terms of nature and purposes, whereas the critiques equal it to the act of vandalism.

One more controversy connected with the phenomenon of graffiti as an art form in the current course of time is based on the emergence of a qualitatively new type of this kind of creative work, commercial graffiti. Since the art is primarily perceived as a cultural phenomenon, it appears to be miscellaneous when the commercial type of art appears. Moreover, it is weird since graffiti is questionable as an art form, and comparatively rather young. Actually, this counter-argument may be reasonable since the value of the art is considerably lowered when it emerges as a simple medium of advertising. Though, on the other hand, Mona Lisa is also incorporated in many PR campaigns nowadays, and it does not eliminate its significance and uniqueness.

Finally, it is interesting to compare two types of modern art, such as street art and graffiti art. They may be regarded as almost identical notions, but it is not true. To be more precise, the street art is considered to be the subculture of the graffiti art which only supports its legal and culturally relevant position. The street art has the same purpose, but different medium: its artists operate not images, but words. Hence, they are similar in their essence; they impact and interchange as well as complement each other since the scope of beauty is multidimensional.


Thus, the controversy of art is an inevitable aspect of every cultural development. The analysis of the graffiti as an art form confirms its artistic status and outlines other key controversies. This twofold nature of graffiti refers to the dubious conception of commercial art, perception of graffiti as a mission targeted to beautify and improve the city streets or violate the common property, and relation between the street art and graffiti art in the current course of time.

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