Graffiti: is it art or is it vandalism?

My colleague Euan Kerr’s story today on street artist “HOTTEA” has inspired Today’s Question.

Namely: When is street art art, and when is it vandalism?

The question has already drawn quite a few responses, with many agreeing that if the artist didn’t get permission to create the work of art on someone else’s property, then it’s vandalism, no matter how good it is.

However, one commenter named Brian, thinks it’s more complicated than that:

“Vandalism” is a legal term, and “art” is not, so the two are not mutually exclusive. I can appreciate the artistic merit of something, while also condemning its creation as an act of vandalism.

Certainly our view of graffiti changes depending on the context and time. Ancient graffiti in Rome (carved into buildings – imagine trying to clean that up) included curses, magic spells and declarations of love as well as political rhetoric. Now those markings leave important clues for historians and anthropologists.

In the case of HOTTEA, he switched from spraypaint to yarn to create a work that doesn’t last much more than a couple of weeks before breaking down.


HOTTEA – a.k.a. Eric Rieger – says he got tasered four or five times as a graffiti artist before he switched from spray paint to yarn.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Banksy, a graffiti artist in England, has become so wildly popular that many building owners choose to leave his stenciled works up as an attraction.


Stencil graffiti by Banksy

Photo Adrian Pingstone, Wikimedia Commons

One of Banksy’s pieces reads “If graffiti changed anything it would be illegal.”

Sao Paulo, Brazil is generally considered to be home to one of the richest graffiti scenes in the world.

In an article for Time Out New York, Terrance Lindall, executive director of the Williamsburg Art and Historic Center said graffiti is a necessary means of expression for the poor and oppressed.

Graffiti is revolutionary, in my opinion and any revolution might be considered a crime. People who are oppressed or suppressed need an outlet, so they write on walls–it’s free.

So what do you think? How do you differentiate between art and vandalism? And, how do you tell the difference between graffiti that’s art, and graffiti that’s simply writing on a wall?