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The focus of this dissertation is to explore graffiti and street art and explain why this art form deserves to be respected. I will be challenging the negative connotations of street art and graffiti by looking at how graffiti has been used as a means for good throughout its existence and why it has earned its place in society. I will discuss its appearances in New York City and its importance in the Egyptian revolution, as well as why graffiti and street art should remain on the streets and not in a gallery.
Graffiti has been around since the late 1960’s and has influenced many people throughout time and has given the world some artists that are of great importance to art history like Jean-Michel Basquiat for example. It has its roots planted in struggle and the need to demand and receive respect and have a voice when you feel like you are being silenced. “It’s a chance to vent frustrations- to say things you wouldn’t dare speak up about”. Graffiti and street art are mediums that have always divided the public, some understand the motives behind them and believe that it is a beneficial art form that we all can appreciate however on the other end of the spectrum are people that have an extremely negative view of graffiti and street art.
This form of art is often frowned upon because it steps out of the box that society has painted for us. We are expected to remain inside this box and act accordingly to the four lines that surround us whether we like it or not. Graffiti challenges this psychology and is therefore seen as a gross display of disturbance and disrespect. However, if one is unhappy with the limits and restrictions placed by society and believes that there is room for change, it is much easier to change or challenge the system by stepping outside that box.
Taking action from the outside shows that you will not conform to societal norms and this is often seen as a shock because we as a society are so used to living within boundaries, even without realising. This therefore causes controversy and brings awareness to certain issues. The main goal of graffiti is not to bring about physical change but more to create a conversation and so there is much more significance in how the message is carried across than the actual meaning itself. “Medium is the message”
Not all street art has to have a political reasoning behind it in order to be appreciated however, nowadays we see everything in black, white and nuances of grey. Graffiti is imaginative, expressive and artistic, is something that shows us the colours of the world.
Graffiti initially began to make an appearance in New York City in the 1970’s. The city was in complete disarray; near bankruptcy, growing developing slums and seeing a rise in crime rates. The sudden blow up of graffiti was a visual representation of New York City at the time. Small tags with marker pens quickly evolved into vast elaborate art pieces and the bigger the art became, the greater the canvas. Subway cars became the preferred canvas of the writers of NYC, if you wanted to get a message across, scrawling on a wall in your neighbourhood wasn’t enough, the subway cars of NYC went around the entire city and it was guaranteed that everyone would see what you wanted to put out there. This is a key motivation behind graffiti and street art, to have everyone from different ranks of society to see the writings of these artists raises awareness about how the other half live.
The financial struggles of the city also aided the rise of graffiti – with the city unable to remove and combat it, the urban decoration built up around the city. Eventually graffiti began to become more associated with crime and thus came about the misconception that all graffiti artists are vandals and criminals. Whilst we can’t deny that graffiti is an act of vandalism, I don’t believe it is carried out just because someone wants to tag public or private property and be a menace to society. With the exception of some. There is a drive behind why these writers do it. The presence of graffiti – no matter where it is, automatically allows it to become a catalyst for dialogue, good or bad. While many graffiti artists gain experience by experimenting in forms of vandalism, some do not consider their art work to be defacing public or private property at all, but rather see it as bringing a voice to the disempowered.
Over time, the financial burden that graffiti held over cities has since changed, some graffiti and street art are arguably contributing to gentrification and contributing to increases in the appeal of certain neighbourhoods. An example of this is neighbourhoods like SoHo, statistics show that despite having larger collections of graffiti, crime rates are rather low.
And the street art in New York that was once seen as a sign of criminal disorder now attracts tourists and more urban consumers that businesses and advertises aim to reach. This in turn becomes a huge benefit to the economy, proving that street art and graffiti can actually benefit society and that these elaborate works bring a lot more to the table. The people who want to remove the graffiti and the people who do the graffiti ultimately are working towards the same goal, just on opposing terms – to make their surroundings a better looking place.
Terminology also has an effect on how graffiti is interpreted. Whilst ‘graffiti’ is mostly related to gangs and ‘irrelevant’ tags scrawled throughout cities, the term ‘street art’ softens the perception of these pieces, this could be because the use of the word ‘art’ shows that there is a process behind the piece and it literally calls it art, but you cannot have one without the other. This method of thinking is supported by the theory of symbolic interactionism: People act toward things based on the meaning those things have for them and that these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation. An example of this theory in practice is when faced with an artist doing the same graffiti but one with a brush and the other with a can of spray paint, the paintbrush is seen as a much less ‘criminal’ tool whereas the spray can already has awfully negative connotations so society will react as such. Graffiti artist Veng is the perfect example of this problem, he states that when painting outside with brushes he is ignored but when painting the exact same piece with spray paint he is viewed with suspicion and is often questioned by the police.
Graffiti and street art haven’t just shown to be a beneficial factor to a city’s economy and tourism, however. They are a sign of hope. Moving away from the painted subway cars of the 1970’s, we go on to the walls of Egypt.
In April 2008, the April 6 Youth movement was founded to promote peaceful political activism. Originally to support the workers of El-Mahalla, an industrial town in Northern Egypt. The workers intended on striking on April 6Th in protest for workers’ rights. The aim of this group originally was just to document the struggles of the country on social media however as a crackdown on protests continued Egyptian activists call for an uprising in January 2011, protesting against the poverty and corruption that the country had been facing for 30 years under the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. This uprising was incited by the death of Khaled Said at the hands of the Egyptian police a year earlier.
Graffiti became another tool for April 6 to showcase the struggle their country was facing. First small silhouettes of Khaled Said appeared and then stencils of other people who suffered at the hands of the authorities. When street art began to appear it confirmed that all these artists were a small part of something great. It did what art is supposed to do: showcase feelings, thoughts and impulses that were either shared by many or many needed to hear.
Many think that graffiti just manifests itself as paint on a wall but it can actually be exhibited in many other forms. There is a subculture of graffiti that is linked to advertising because it is something that is familiar to people and it will resonate with them. An example of this is Ganzeer, an artist who used posters and stickers to show his opposition. This type of graffiti might be more accepted by society because these are more appropriated methods.
The majority of artists involved with April 6 were young and educated. “The artists I have met were all courteous, intelligent minds that have a lot more to say than just making art on the wall”. This tackles the misconception that all graffiti writers are uneducated hooligans who otherwise would know better than to deface public property. Street art became such an important part of the uprising that posters on ‘How to Revolt Intelligently’ began to circulate giving individuals important instructions and tactics on how to deal with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets if they were to get caught writing by the authorities. This goes to show that graffiti can be a dangerous game and writing holds that much purpose that they are risking their lives in order to do it.
Another example of artists knowing their craft is a group of people in Cambridge who tagged luxury homes in Latin writing ‘locus in domos’ and ‘loci populum’ meaning ‘room in the house’ and ‘local people’. This is proof that graffiti artists can be intelligent people who know their area and their audience and that what is seen as ‘mindless vandalism’ does require a lot of thought.
Street art mirrors the difference between the revolution and the system. Whilst the system has murdered and caused pain to many, the revolution has immortalised and bought comfort, showing that the people of Egypt will never forget. Whilst the system built walls throughout the streets of the country, the revolution altered what was supposed be obstructive into colourful and playful pieces.
Once you have thrown a piece onto a wall and have publicised your feelings so publically, that emotion is no longer yours. It belongs to everyone. It shows the world the vulnerability of an artist. And this is an important factor in inciting change because not only does it communicate with people, it encourages them to interact with it, either through social media or even responding by doing graffiti of their own. This serves as a reminder that graffiti artists aren’t emotionless beings with no regard for their surroundings, because despite it being distasteful, graffiti gives the public a glimpse into the mind of these artists. From a graphic design perspective, encouraging conversation and interaction through my work is important because it shows that the message is being put out there and it has reached its target audience.
The political motivation of street art doesn’t just stand in the Middle East. Closer to home, artists like Banksy also produce their work with the intent to raise awareness and open doors for conversation. “I like to think I have the guts to stand up to democracy and call for things no one else believes in – like peace and justice and freedom”
Banksy turned this distinct, undercover hobby into a profitable career which proves the points Banksy and many other artists like to prove about society. His pieces have become very valuable and sought after, the popularity of his work has bought graffiti and street art to the forefront of contemporary art and in turn, has made graffiti a slightly more acceptable art form just because it brings in money.
Banksy’s works are almost always against capitalism and ‘making big bucks’. The people who run our country and our cities don’t believe that graffiti, along with anything else deserves to exist unless it makes profit “But if you just value money then your opinion is worthless. The higher ranks of society are always at the butt of his messages and yet it is those ranks of society that shun graffiti and want to restrict such art that are also very quick to pay £500,00 for a Bansky piece. When people buy pieces like this, they expect to be able to do what they want with it and capitalise on it some more. The city would be a lot happier if they could get that £500,000 Bansky piece off the wall and into a gallery however this is not well received by artists and those who have a genuine love for graffiti, like myself. Street art isn’t street art if it isn’t on the street. ‘Street art is meant to be viewed in its natural environment, not in a gallery or in some rich guy’s house. That’s why it’s called street art.’
The location of an artists’ work is just as important as the content of it and as such is better off when it is site specific. An example of this is Banksy’s work in The West Bank, the two freestanding walls were apparently sold to the Keszler Gallery by the Palestinian authorities who then attempted to sell these pieces on for as much as $750,000. This defeats the entire purpose of the piece. The works in Palestine are some of Bansky’s most popular pieces and were intended to showcase the struggle of the Palestinian people in the Palestine/Israel conflict and to bring a little bit of colour to a place that otherwise consists of dust and rubble. Using a visual approach like graffiti to explain a specific subject or issue that is abstract or unknown to the majority of the world is refreshing and brings these issues to the forefront.
Banksy inspired graffiti has more recently been used in primary schools as a means to facilitate learning and to help children understand current affairs. Children are often shielded from sensitive topics such as extremism and any opinions they do have are often overlooked because they are children. Certain topics are difficult to explain and are difficult to talk about with children and using graffiti is a good way of allowing them to express their feelings. A primary school in Slough used Banksy as inspiration for children to tackle the topic of extremism. Graffiti is a meaningful art form and can be beneficial to young minds, not only to encourage them to just appreciate the art form but it also encourages personal growth because it allows them to explore and develop their own personal identity. Because there is no right or wrong in how to graffiti, they are able to share their thoughts and emotions with those around them, marking their social and cultural identities. As well as finding a form of escape from their worries and changing those worries and fears into something creative and colourful, serving as a form of self-reflection and a message to others.
Graffiti and street art from the likes of Banksy and Blek le Rat gave birth to what is known as the guerrilla art movement, this movement still has the same intention as traditional graffiti however incorporates a variety of other mediums as opposed to just paint and wheatpasting posters. Some of these art forms include digital technology, performance art and installations. There are no rules as to which mediums can be used and this furthers the possibility of opening the minds of people, often without them even realising it. An example of guerrilla art is an augmented reality app ‘Frenchising the Mona Lisa’ created by Amir Baradaran. Baradaran created this channel in response to France banning the hijab in public. “In France, the hijab has become a lightning rod about “Frenchness,” a visual threat to the ideals of the so-called secular state. This app showcased the iconic Mona Lisa painting coming to life through a mobile screen and placing the ‘hijab’ of the French flag on her head. This provokes thought on what national identity is and if it even exists at all. After all Lisa del Giocondo was an Italian woman with no connections to France and she became a part of one of the most iconic landmarks in the country’s capital.
Graffiti also became an entire language for some groups of people. When addressing writing on walls, it is difficult to avoid the ancient hieroglyphics of Egypt. But in more recent times, there was what was known as the Hobo Code, a hieroglyphic like language used by the Hobo’s as a means of communicating with one another. Hobo’s were nomadic individuals who travelled around the country to find any kind of honest work. The travelled from place to place and were often treated as outcasts and did whatever they could to get by. In a bid to look out for one another they created a secret language of small icons. To the ordinary eye, these icons just looked like regular graffiti on a wall, however, to these nomads, these tags held so much more meaning. These icons both welcomed and alerted individuals. Letting them know that they weren’t alone and that someone was looking out for them whilst on their hunt to provide a better life for their families. These icons indicated a range of different things like; where to find food, if a certain area was safe to sleep in, if there was work available and even how to get food.
This language was very carefully thought out and required a lot of people to suffer and endure unfortunate circumstances in order to create this language in the first place. And this language was constantly changing as time progressed to keep up with the changes of life. As a designer, this is relatable because it is important to keep up to date with current trends and technological advancements. This was a very innovative language and is still carried through to the modern day, when looking at blogs and brochures and through word of mouth, for example, people tell you where to go and where not to go when travelling to new and unknown places.
The hobo’s developed a strict ethical code along with this language in the late 1880’s which again disproves many stereotypes of graffiti and graffiti writers. The code consisted of 15 different guidelines to living an honest life that was about being selfless and helping those around you if they were in need, no matter who they were.1 Living an honest and courteous life is something that the hoboes prided themselves on and the ethics behind their lifestyle are all something that we should follow through to this day. This proves that the notion of graffiti being intimidating and selfish and its writers being bad people with no regard for those around them, is wrong. If it were true, codes like this would not exist.
Graffiti and street art have always been controversial art forms and society has always questioned its legitimacy and this question will still remain to alternate between whether it should be accepted or not. Some will always link graffiti and street art to gang culture and hooliganism no matter how much positive attention an artist brings to a city and no matter who that artist is, even if their work is legally there. Regardless, these artists aim to put out a message to people, from the people on the outside looking in. There is a beauty within street art, the emotion that comes from an artist is such a personal thing that although others might be feeling a similar way or may be suffering from similar circumstances, no artist will project that emotion in the same way as the other and yet they all have the same intention- to remind society that they matter. Though they may be half way around the world or a couple of streets over, they matter, their emotions matter and that no matter who they are, their work is there for as long as they want it to be, until their target audience hears them.
The end goal of graffiti is never to intimidate the general public, but to open their eyes to the world around them. Graffiti and street art are considered to be a dishonest form of art, an art that you have to hide and remain anonymous within. However, when stripped down to its core, it is one of the most honest art forms out there. There is no softening of the subject, there is no elitism, there is no price to see it. It is showing the world what it really needs to see.
I found that when audiences become a variable, the quality of an art piece can vary dramatically. Graffiti requires those who see it to interact with it, even if there are negative perceptions towards it. The emotions towards a piece decide if that piece is complete. If you manage to walk by an elaborate mural showcasing political and social struggle without batting an eye, the piece is deemed worthless because it fails to resonate with the public.
No matter what your stance on graffiti there is no denying that this medium gives society that push for change and conversation that it needs. After all, the writing is on the wall.
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