Is graffiti street art or vandalism?

Graffiti as vandalism
Graffiti as street art
April 21, 2021
Sara Quattrocchi Febles

Everyone knows Banksy

With the recent 14.4 million pounds sale of a work by Banksy, one of the most celebrated street artists in the world, we are led to question the exact meaning of ‘street art’ once again. While the work in question, Game Changer, is a painting, Banksy is primarily known for his famed works on public walls, such as Love is in the Air (Flower Thrower) (Jerusalem, 2003) and Girl with Balloon (London, 2002). The controversy and clear political undertones of some of his works have made them famous internationally and have led to more debates about art to take place all over the world. 

Even though he might be celebrated now...

Banksy began working like any other street artist, spraying paint on Bristol’s walls in the 1990s, making us ask, at what point does a street artist go from being a ‘vandal’ to being an artist with a capital ‘A’? Can graffiti be so clearly categorized into either street art or vandalism? 

1. A way of expression freely under oppressive regimes

Creating graffiti has been one of the ways to reach a wide audience and to publicly highlight the oppression at hand, as seen during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile from 1973 to 1990. Groups such as the Brigada Elmo Catalán (BEC) worked to propel Salvador Allende’s win in 1970 by painting political murals on public walls; once Pinochet got into power in 1973, their practices were cut short and their murals were covered. Yet, they continued painting in defiance of the government. 

Let’s look at an example

BEC, El presente es de lucha! El futuro es nuestro, Tenement block, Villa Francia, Santiago, Chile (1986) (Photo: Street Art Chile)

The BEC painted the mural The present is a time of struggle! The future is ours in 1986, directly subverting the fascist regime they were living in. The mural is still intact after the fall of the regime that provoked its creation and acts as a historical marker for the past. The BEC mural and others that still persist today could be seen as echoes of the political sentiments of Chile’s people; they might provide a more honest and insightful view than official monuments mediated by the government as they are unofficial monuments for the people made by the people. 

2. A democratic form of art

Entering the art world as an official artist is no piece of cake. Being one of the most competitive industries in the world, not many people find opportunities to show their work without some sort of external help. Certain artists have resorted to using public spaces as their blank canvases, displaying their art around cities. Oftentimes they sign their names with their Instagram handle, as a way to let intrigued passersby familiarize themselves with their works. For instance, Tokyo-born, New York City-based artist Aiko signs her work with her Instagram handle (@ladyaiko_nyc), leading people to find more of her work posted on the social media platform. 

Not only for artists

Graffiti has also become one of the most accessible ways for people to access contemporary art as it is displayed in public. The boundaries set by galleries and museums as to how art is defined are destroyed as street art provides an open space where anyone is free to discuss it. 


The Wynwood Walls in Miami started as a project in 2009 to transform the abandoned Wynwood warehouse district and repurpose it into a new pedestrian area where people could enjoy street art-covered walls. Referred to as the ‘Museum of the Streets’ by American art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, the abandoned area has become a new cultural hub for the city, where people can freely enjoy the art of different celebrated street artists. 

1. A breakdown of social structure

The New South Wales (NSW) government explicitly states that ‘graffiti vandalism’ is ‘a crime’ and defines it as ‘the act of marking or defacing premises or other property without permission.’

What does this mean from a political point of view?

If a government cannot even control the defacement of public buildings or private premises, then people might be instigated into causing more chaos and disorder, possibly leading to a breakdown of the set governmental systems. The ‘Broken Window Theory’ discusses this idea as it suggests that small but visible signs of disorder can provide the right environment for more extreme forms of disorder to take place.  

This might be a stretch but...

Someone who believes this Broken Window Theory might argue that the graffiti that covers the trains and the shopfronts of the city of Rome might strengthen the stereotypical views that foreigners have of Italians – of being unruly, disorganized, and chaotic – even though this is not actually true. 

2. It is no longer vandalism once it is legal

The NSW government defines graffiti as a crime when it is done ‘without permission’, which is why some might argue that the best way to make street art more widely accepted is if they become officiated projects, like the Wynwood Walls.


Once governments and groups establish formal and legal street art projects, these lose their credibility as they no longer become works of individual creation disassociated from everyone except the creator; they become attached to the group who might be sponsoring the project. By officiating these spaces, they also become tourist attractions, slowly separating themselves from what might have been the original intended meaning of the artists involved and becoming beautification projects to satisfy the urban landscape of the city. 

Ok, like?

The Graffiti Tunnel in London is a repurposed tunnel space that has become a tourist attraction connecting to restaurants and bars around it. After Banksy hosted the 2008 Cans Festival in the tunnel, it grew in popularity and became one of the few spaces in London where people do not need a license to graffiti. Its popularity has led the adjoining eight railway arches to also be repurposed, becoming restaurants, bars, and entertainment spaces. While this might have helped the tunnel become a new cultural hub, the work of graffiti artists in the tunnel is attached to the space’s commercial value.

How we should consider graffiti is an age-old debate that has widely been discussed by many, such as BBC, Vans, and The New York Times to name a few. It is still a topic that should be reflected on, especially now, when street art might be the only form of art we can enjoy in person as persisting lockdowns have closed museums. 

And maybe with this in mind, we realize how important it can be to have free access to art and you might even ask yourself, how will you react the next time you encounter graffiti on a wall?

Disclaimer: We are by no means supporting one side of the argument over the other. We collate different views and expand on them to give you a better understanding of the motivation behind these views.
Photo credit: Brett Sayles (Pexels)
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