Wether graffiti is art or vandalism is a complex question with so many points of view and concerned parties that to make a call one way or the other is pretty much impossible. This is even more difficult as street art is a form of expression that exists outside a gallery situation and the mechanisms that back up the classification of art. There are also the issues of respect and property that add complexity to the question.
An article I read tried to answer the Art or Vandalism question by approaching it from the view point of, What is a public space? and What is ownership? The point was that the ownership of a public space that is present in vandalism is not present in street art and that street art has the ability to open up spaces as public by inviting participation. This way of looking graffiti makes a clear distinction between pieces and tagging. Though I’ve heard it argued that tagging is akin to an artists calligraphy, I think in most cases it’s more about claiming and taking up space and an attempt at marking territory. What ever the motivation for tagging is, usually when you name or sign something you are declaring that it is yours. Tagging is not about discourse, sharing a concept or contributing.
Another question that arises from this way of approaching the subject is. Is advertising vandalism. Advertising privatises our public spaces. It can be seen as an effective way of informing a public about products and services but at its worst it is coercive, manipulative and by playing on peoples insecurities is designed to trick people into buying what is not needed, nor really wanted and that in some cases, the funds aren’t there for. Don’t think just Buy!
Street art at its best enhances the public space. It’s a commentary and a concept that offers more than an attempt at ownership as an ideal and wants to share something that its creator feels is relevant . It has the ability to cut through the blandness of everyday existence and can be a mirror in which to see the absurdity of the world we live in. It can ask you to perhaps look at your world from another perspective or add some colour and interest to a person’s mundane working day. Its strength in being able to do this, is that its found in our everyday environment and not within the walls of a commercial or institutionalised space. It’s public nature is what makes it unique and gives it its wide reaching power and inventiveness.
Banksy is perhaps the best known of the street-artists and has become through his, sometimes described as, subversive work, an international icon. He has been described as graffiti master, painter, activist, filmmaker and all purpose provocateur.
Banksy conceals his identity while advocating a direct connection between artist and constituency. There is an element of activism in his work and a need to communicate ideas which he does with strong images and humour. “There’s a whole new audience out there, and it’s never been easier to sell your art. You don’t have to go to collage, drag round a portfolio, mail off transparencies to snooty galleries or sleep with someone powerful, all you need now is a few ideas and a broadband connection. This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people. We need to make it count.”
His art has a distinctive stencilled approach. In conversation with a friend he said. “As soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.”