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Graffiti: Is It Art or Vandalism?

Introduction – What is Graffiti?

Graffiti is a word used to describe any writing or images that have been painted, sketched, marked, scrawled or scratched in any form on any type of property. It can be a design, figure, inscription or even a mark or word that has been written or drawn on either privately held or government owned properties. While graffiti refers to an entire scribbling or drawing, graffito describes a single scribble. Graffiti can be any form of public marking which appears as a distinguishing symbol and most of the time it comes out as a rude decoration having the form of simply written words, elaborate and complicated wall paintings or etchings on walls and rocks.

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Graffiti can also be described as an unauthorized drawing or inscription on any surface situated in a public area. Apart from this graffiti also includes hideous scribbles which we often find scrawled and painted on the fences of a house, in subways, bridges, along the sides of houses and other buildings and even on trains, buses and cars. Although some look like elaborate paintings most of them are garbage which appears to have been done by small children.

Graffiti vandalism has a number of forms. The most harmful and destructive of all are the gang graffiti and tags. The former are generally used by gang members to outline their turf or threat opposite gangs. These often lead to acts of violence. Tags represent the writer’s signature and can also be complicated street art. Conventional graffiti is often hurtful and malicious and generally the act of impulsive or isolated youths. Ideological graffiti is hateful graffiti which expresses ethnic, racial or religious messages through slurs and can cause a lot of tension among the people. Sometimes the graffitists also use acid etching where they use paints mixed with acids and additional chemicals which can rankle the surface making the etchings permanent. (Wilson, 52-66)

Graffiti – Art or Vandalism

Graffiti cannot be considered as a form of art since its basic difference from art is consent or permission. Although a number of people consider graffiti to be one of the numerous art forms, most of the times graffiti is considered as unwanted and unpleasant damage to both public and government properties. In modern times almost all of the countries in the world consider the defacing of public or government owned property with any type of graffiti without taking the owner’s permission or authorization to be an act of vandalism.

Had graffiti been created without destroying someone’s belongings then even it would have appeared artistic, due to their bright use of colors, and not as an act of vandalism. Graffiti scribblers often claim that in order to improve the look of the walls and fences of one’s property they make colorful paintings on them. But this is highly questionable since they almost never take the permission of the owner of the property before making their art, turning the entire thing into vandalism. They do not have the right to destroy or change the look of one’s property without taking their permission or authority. (Smollar, 47-58)

All throughout history people have considered graffiti to be an act of vandalism since it incorporates an illegal use of public and government property. Such an act is not only mutilation of property and an ugly thing but is also very expensive to remove. Although graffiti artists use their talents to share and express their feelings, until and unless graffiti is done on an area designated for it and by somebody authorized to do so, graffiti in any form will remain to be an act of vandalism and not art.

Graffiti done without proper authority cannot be considered as art since immature vandals simply use graffiti as a means to seek infamy. Graffiti is noting more than an irresponsible and dangerous form of art promoting gang activities and truancy. Thus, we can see that there is nothing artistic about graffiti vandalism. (Austin, 450-451)

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The Problem of Graffiti


The problem both the government and the people of the world face due to graffiti is not at all a new one as it has existed for centuries, and sometimes it is even dated back to the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece. Some people even consider graffiti as an act of terrorism which is in its larval stage. The main problem with graffiti is that it is fundamentally unauthorized and is created by destroying someone’s possessions.

Today graffiti vandals use markers and spray paints as their most common medium for creating graffiti which makes it a much bigger problem. Painting over the graffiti is a costly affair which the owners of the property vandalized have to bear. Graffiti makers tend to remain unknown and thus, never even make an offer to pay for the repairs for vandalizing someone’s property which at times could even be thousands of dollars.

Sometimes due to graffiti a property’s value gets lowered by a huge rate due to some inane scribbling across the wall or fence of the property. Not only do these graffiti vandals scribble on the fences and walls of the property they sometimes even destroy them by breaking a window, door or fence just for the mere sake of art. They slash the seats of the cars, buses and trains for which the government has to pay. (Ley, 491-505)

Recent History

In the last few decades the problem of graffiti has become far reaching and has spread from the largest of cities to small localities. Graffiti should not be viewed as an isolated problem since it leads to other public disorders, like loitering, littering and even public urination, and crimes, since most of the time the graffiti scribblers unable to pay for the markers and paints shoplift the required materials. Since graffiti is considered to be a public disorder it is sometimes even perceived as a means of lowered quality of living in certain communities.

As graffiti is almost always associated with crimes, it tremendously increases the fear of various criminal activities among the families of a community. Sometimes graffiti vandals even arouse questions in the hearts of the citizens by making them feel that the government authorities are incapable of protecting them from graffiti scribblers, thus making them further insecure.

Graffiti vandals have no concern for public or government property near public areas and deface anything they can lay their hand on including blank walls, trees, alley gates, monuments, statues, utility boxes, schools, furniture in parks and streets, buses and bus shelters, pavements, railway areas, utility poles, telephone boxes, street lights, traffic signs and signals, inside and outside of trains, vending machines, vacant buildings, freeway, subways, bridges, billboards, parking garages, sheds and road signs.

In a nutshell, graffiti is present almost in any area that is open to the view of the general public. Since graffiti vandals even mess with street signs and traffic signals that help the drivers navigate through busy towns, graffiti poses a threat to the safety of those drivers. Sometimes due to depreciation in land value or excessive nuisance created by these graffiti vandals, families and businesses alike have to avoid certain areas and may even have to move out of it completely. People facing graffiti vandalism and living in areas with graffiti have to face reduced business activities since common people generally associate criminal activities with graffiti and are thus, afraid to set up businesses in those areas. (D’Angelo, 102-109)

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Cost of cleaning

Prevention and cleaning up of graffiti is associated with high costs. The government and the public have to bear heavy costs in order to protect themselves from the graffiti vandals. Currently, it had been estimated that almost $22 billion is spent in the US each year for cleaning up and preventing various acts of graffiti. It was also found that England almost has to spend £26 million every year to remove graffiti which is present in almost 90% of the places in the nation.

It becomes the headache of the local authorities to clean up the graffiti and fix whatever has been destroyed as soon as possible. Councils and government officials have to maintain quick responsive units who can rapidly and effectively clean out graffiti and fix damages the instant such an act is reported. Government authorities and councils even have to take up a combination of protective, preventive and removal strategies to fight back graffiti vandalism, making the whole process extremely costly. But since protecting or deterring property will not completely eliminate graffiti, it is better to remove graffiti as soon as it is reported. (Ley, 491-505)

Negatives of Graffiti

Graffiti not only causes danger to the citizens of a neighborhood but it also creates a huge mess which government officials have to clean up by paying from the city funds. Since the government has to bear the cost for cleaning up graffiti, it has a direct impact on the budget of a city too. Government officials have to use a significant amount from the available city budget for fixing damages to public buildings, streets and other properties. A huge amount of money also goes in the eradication and prevention of graffiti vandalism since this requires special equipment, materials and trained labors, making the entire matter highly expensive and time consuming.

Graffiti also adversely affects the taxpayers who have to pay extra for fixing damages to public properties, circuitously, during their yearly property taxes. Sometimes businesses pass on the cost for cleaning graffiti off their property on to their customers, who have to make larger payments for their goods purchased, for no fault of theirs. (Rafferty, 77-84)

Further, graffiti also causes losses in revenues related to reductions in retail sales and the transit systems. Thus, the money that needs to be spent for cleaning up and preventing graffiti can also be used for improving an area and may also have other valuable uses. Since graffiti contributes to a reduction in retails sales, businesses plagued by graffiti is least likely to be sponsored by others. Also the general public will be afraid and will feel unsafe when entering a retail store scrawled all over with graffiti. Graffiti vandalism is not always simply limited to spray painting and destruction of property since the graffiti vandals often commit severe crimes like rape and robbery. Given that they are not caught or reported most of the times, graffiti vandals think that they can do anything and get away with it. (Austin, 450-451)

Graffiti is frequently associated with gangs, although graffiti vandals are not limited only to these gangs. It creates an environment of blight and intensifies the fear of gang related activities and violence in the heart of the general public. It has been seen that gangs often use graffiti as a signal for marking their own territory and graffiti also functions as a tag or indicator for the various activities of a gang. In those areas, where graffiti is extremely common, tag and gang graffiti is extremely widespread and also causes a lot of trouble.

Gangs commonly make tags using acid spray paints or markers on apartments and buildings and they serve as a motto or statement or an insult. Such graffiti also include symbols and slogans that are exclusive for a particular gang and may also be made as a challenge or threat for a rival gang. Not only are graffiti made to disrespect other gangs but sometimes racist graffiti is also scribbled on walls which creates a lot of racist tension among the people of certain communities.

Such activities shock the residents who are indirectly forced to move out of the areas for the safety of their families. Graffiti scribblers who are also members of a gang or part of its crew sometimes get involved in fighting, and every now and then a number of them end up dead due to these gang wars. The messages relayed through graffiti are taken very seriously by gang members and the threats are almost always acted upon. (Smollar, 47-58)

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Another problem with graffiti is that although sometimes a single act of graffiti may not be a serious offence, graffiti itself has a cumulative outcome which makes it even more serious. Its original emergence in a particular neighborhood almost always attracts even more graffiti vandals. At certain areas graffiti tend to occur over and over. Graffiti offenders are inclined to attack those areas that are painted over to clean the graffiti. Such areas act as a magnet attracting graffiti offenders to commit re-vandalism repeatedly.

Some graffitists commit acts of vandalism since they are extremely stubborn and do so in order to fight an emotional and psychological battle with the city council and government officials. They deliberately commit graffiti vandalisms in order to establish their authority and claim over a specific area. Graffiti offenders do so with the intention to defy the government authorities. (Wilson, 52-66)

Sometimes graffiti is extremely repulsive and thus, gets people, especially teenagers into extremely bad habits. They stop caring about other people or the government and develop a tendency to scribble anywhere they find a blank space. They stop respecting people and their property and the kids even start to make graffiti on the desks and tables of their schools. Graffiti vandals have no concern for the people around them and thus, increase the pessimistic attitude of the neighborhoods around them.

Not only does graffiti lead to crimes but the scribblers also harbor disruptive anti-social feelings and behavior inside them. Sometimes teenagers and kids place graffiti on other people’s property without their authority or consent as a mischievous act, not realizing that they are committing a crime which is equivalent to vandalism and punishable by law. These juvenile scribblers are accountable for almost all of the graffiti we find on the buildings and streets and they do not even realize that their graffiti sometimes even becomes offensive and racist in nature. (Rafferty, 77-84)

Juvenile crime

City officials are also concerned about the fact that when juveniles take part in graffiti vandalism it may be their initial offence leading them into much more harmful and sometimes even sophisticated crimes. Not only does graffiti create a gateway for these juveniles into a world of crime, it can sometimes also be associated with truancy due to which the juveniles may remain uneducated their whole lives.

Deprived of a proper education these young minds get involved with alcoholism and drug abuse, thus leading to even severe problems. Adolescents and juveniles become astray sending a message to all that graffiti give rise to various criminal activities. In those communities where people gather in groups at street corners during late hours, it is easier for the drug peddlers to promote their products among the juveniles without being interrupted either by the authorities or residents. (Smollar, 47-58)

Graffiti as a Social menace

Graffiti is a huge problem since it contaminates the environment of a locality. It is undeniably a plague for our modern cities since it leads to visual pollution. City officials and councils have to spend huge sums in order to clean the ever present graffiti on the walls and fences. But even an expensive cleaning strategy is not but a useless and ineffective way to deal with these graffiti vandals since they almost always find a way to reproduce graffiti.

Graffiti vandalism is an extremely complex and multifaceted public disorder which does not have any easy solution. Not only is the cleaning of graffiti an expensive affair, it is also an extremely difficult one since it involves a lot of hard work. Sometimes graffiti damages certain surfaces to such an extent that they remain permanently impaired as the graffiti vandals change the entire nature of the surfaces they paint on, thus changing the nature and environment of the whole neighborhood. If an act of graffiti vandalism is left unchecked, then it may even lead to urban decay by causing further decline in property value and increasing fear in communities.

Most of the times when graffiti is cleaned or painted over a part of the damage always remains. For example, the paint does not match entirely or sometimes the area becomes darker than before, making the cover up completely visible. Graffiti has a significant impact on the overall appearance of a neighborhood and almost always lowers the quality of life of the entire community. When these graffiti scribblers destroy train terminal and subways they immediately create a harmful first impression on others, of that city, all over the country.

Graffiti simply does not give rise to maintenance issues but it gives rise to a complicated social problem, one that makes people feel extremely unsafe in their own neighborhoods. Communities become unlivable due to reduction in the beauty and pride of their neighborhood. Graffiti completely destroys the design and scenic beauty of the entire community and the hate messages conveyed through graffiti hurts the people of the community.

Sometimes graffiti becomes so offensive that it disturbs the local residents making it a concern for the entire community. The residents not only feel unsafe themselves but also fear for their children who have to grow up in such a disturbing and troublesome locality. Though graffiti may appear to be a radical form of art, to the people whose belongings have been disfigured by graffiti it is nothing more than an unwanted form of vandalism, which is not only distressing but also extremely difficult to remove. (Rafferty, 77-84)

Consequences of Graffiti

Since defacing of public or government property without the owners authority is considered to be vandalism, offenders are even punishable by the law of many countries. Graffiti is like a crime since its creators steal the rights of the owners of the property to have their possessions look well and clean. Police authorities all over the world refer to graffiti vandalism as criminal damage. Graffiti vandals should be made to face strict penalties which should not only include jail time but also large fines, so that they do not repeat their actions again. The offenders not only have to pay huge penalties but can even be prosecuted for their crimes.

The graffiti vandals should not only have to pay fines for destroying properties but should also be made to clean the graffiti themselves, as a punishment. Juvenile scribblers have to carry out community services as a punishment for their crime. Graffiti vandals who have committed serious crimes, like rape or murder can even be imprisoned for life. Not only do these graffiti vandals damage other people and government properties, they also risk their own lives in making the graffiti. They often display their stupidity by gambling with their lives while trying to create graffiti on trains and bridges. It has often been seen that these graffiti scribblers suffer from dreadful injuries and some even end up dead. (D’Angelo, 102-109)


Some countries do not view graffiti as a major problem since they may not have encountered widespread incidences of graffiti vandalism, which may have been focused on only a few relatively hot spot areas. But the areas facing the problem of graffiti vandalism realize its intensity. Since graffiti is a highly visible form of vandalism, it greatly affects the people living in that area since it completely changes their existing perception of the entire neighborhood.

Graffiti scribblers carefully choose those locations frequented by passersby so that they can be affected by the drawings and scribbling even more. Graffiti becomes a form of vandalism due to the medium the graffitists use to display their art which is almost anything other than a piece of canvas. Graffiti vandals somewhat force the viewers to view their work, even if they do not want to do so.

They have no consideration as to where they place their work or that it may become a problem for the general public or that the medium which they are using either belongs to the government or to an individual. All these add up to people’s perception which views graffiti as vandalism leading to urban decay and crime and causing depreciation of business and property value and in the growth of industries.

Works Cited

Austin, J. “Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A.” American Ethnologist 29.2 (2004): 450-451.

D’Angelo, Frank J. “Fools’ Names and Fools’ Faces are Always Seen in Public Places: A Study of Graffiti.” Journal of Popular Culture 10.1 (2006): 102-109.

Ley, D. “Urban Graffiti as Territorial Markers.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 64.4 (2001): 491-505.

Rafferty, P. Discourse on Difference: Street Art/ Graffiti Youth.” Visual Anthropology Review 7.2 (2005): 77-84.

Smollar, J. “Homeless Youth in the United States: Description and Developmental Issues.” New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 39.5 (2006): 47-58.

Wilson, J. “Racist and Political Extremist Graffiti in Australian Prisons, 1970s to 1990s.” The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 47.1 (2008): 52-66.

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"Graffiti: Is It Art or Vandalism?" StudyCorgi, 29 Oct. 2021,

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StudyCorgi. "Graffiti: Is It Art or Vandalism?" October 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Graffiti: Is It Art or Vandalism?" October 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Graffiti: Is It Art or Vandalism'. 29 October.

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