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Is Graffiti Art?

CFA prof on Fairey, Banksy, and where to draw the line


Photos courtesy of Art of the State

When street artist Shepard Fairey was arrested on two outstanding warrants for property defacement last month — incidentally, on the way to the first museum exhibition of his career, at Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art — a representative of the Boston Police likened his work to graffiti.

But Fairey, who rose to prominence when his Obama Hope poster was featured in last year’s presidential race, has since pleaded not guilty to the charges, describing his work as “graphic art with social and political messages.”

The arrest, Fairey’s 15th, has provided new fodder for the long-standing debate about what is art and what is property defacement. Should Fairey be punished, or should he be celebrated?

BU Today asked Hugh O’Donnell, a College of Fine Arts professor of painting, who teaches CFA’s Site-Specific Art course, to weigh in on the discussion.

BU Today: When does graffiti become art?
Graffiti is literally the writing on the wall — the voice of those who cannot find any other way to publish their thoughts anonymously. The term is used to describe a public visual expression that has not been sanctioned by a commissioning authority, something that is placed in public view, unsolicited and without permission. Today, however, it’s no longer anonymous, but instead an esoteric form of self-publicity that seeks the widest audience possible.

Graffiti can be art. Art is what we call something when it carries significant human symbolic expression. It’s all a question of degree, and there is good art, great art, and bad art.

Is graffiti art any more or less evocative than other forms?
The freedom of graffiti, its ability to be anywhere and everywhere, and the sometimes daredevil places it is made give it a romantic edge and powerful exposure. Today, communications media have exploded and the whole issue of distribution of intellectual property has become as big for art as it is for scientific or medical research. Distribution of music has become revolutionized, but visual art lags behind in getting free of the gallery and museum, which are the traditional ways of controlling and providing access to the public.

But why should the hype be reserved for the selected few, with dealers, curators, and critics ruling the distribution of ideas? The graffiti movement is utilizing the public to spread its ideas. It’s the survival of the fittest — and there are downsides, because art now has to survive in the same arena as ad campaigns, and sometimes it simply suffers from the speed at which it is getting done as well as from the repetitive action of branding a recognizable image over and over again. However, Andy Warhol legitimized this as art back in the 1960s. In many minds, the idea of success even for art is that it communicates effectively even when it is little more than simplistic branding.

When the police arrest a street artist like Fairey, is it censorship? Does media attention help the message reach a broader audience?
Shepard Fairey probably embraces the fact that he gets arrested because it gives him the kind of prime-time exposure that he craves. If the police wanted to curb the glamour of his notoriety, they should arrest him only when he is actually in the act of making graffiti. The ICA exhibition is not graffiti.

Why do street artists like Fairey, or Banksy, in England, have huge, devoted followings?
When you are known to a lot of people, you are a celebrity, and our culture worships celebrities. When Banksy had his work collected by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, it made him a world-class phenomenon. He was able to make his photographic documentary edition of work the number-one book in England.

Street artists are often making social commentary — does getting arrested sometimes strengthen their point?
It strengthens their authority rather than their points. Often the point is rather glib and only noticeable because of notoriety. Being notorious is, I would say, an essential ambition for the graffiti writer.

What would you propose as a legal solution to this problem?
If someone put graffiti on my wall and it was bad art, I would want them arrested and made to restore the wall. More sites that are legal should be encouraged, with a percent for art made available by the owner of the space in the same way that new buildings in some states give a percent for art as a mandatory requirement. The owner needs to be a collaborator. With this plan, there would be no end of space to choose from.

What advice would you offer a student thinking about pursuing street art as a career?
I’d ask them to check out the Graffiti Research Lab for clues about ways to make public statements that do minimal damage to public property.

Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.


27 Comments on Is Graffiti Art?

  • Anonymous on 03.02.2009 at 8:25 am

    O’Donnell misses an important characteristic of grafitti in his description–VANDALISM! It is also the act of (in most cases) permanently defacing property the artist/vandal does not own or have permission to deface. Saying grafitti is “utilizing the public to spread its ideas” sounds like an endorsement of these artists/vandals actions. Why isn’t the discussion about negotiating with landlords to allow artists to paint cetain walls?

    I’ve lived in the Boston area my entire life. I visit NYC frequently. The fact is most grafitti is not of the Shepard Fairy variety–cool stencils, stickers, using well designed graphic images. Much of it is gang related, or the work of a disenfranchised people using it as their form of personal rebellion. It is a burden on private businesses and municipalities to remove it. Most can’t keep up. My friends in JP have had gangs tags spray painted on their mailboxes (on their porches), fences and houses. Private (residential) property adjacent to BU’s west campus has fairly new black spray paint all over it – a bunch of squiggly lines – can’t make out what it is (on a newly built brick wall)–it’s probably 20 feet long!

    Comparing it to the way recorded music is distributed — illegally, without compensating the artists is weak.

    Don’t get me wrong — I like Fairy’s work–but shouldn’t the the conversation be about HOW this can work? Not is it art? The ‘is it art’ conversation is so selfish–it accepts vandalism as a means of expression.

    *footnote–when ‘Wildstyle” debuted, it played at the Coolidge Corner movie theatre. The theater got permission from the landlord, and invited some of the grafitti artists/vandals to spray paint the entire wall of the alley opposite their box office. I thought it was beatuiful–vibrant, colorful, etc. What happened to that wall? It was painted over, because they were afraid this mural would act as invitation to deface the area. I remeber feeling diappointed that I would not get see this public art anymore (it was amazing)–but I understood that they were right to remove it — that in no time, Coolidge Corner would be covered in unwanted spray paint.

  • Dr. Dania Shapira on 03.02.2009 at 8:28 am

    Who decides if it's good art or bad art?

    “If someone put graffiti on my wall and it was bad art, I would want them arrested and made to restore the wall.”

    Who decides if it’s good art or bad art? The same work (of art, or not) can be perceived as art, and a good one, by one person, and just a filth, or bad art by another.

    And, of course, there is the issue of property’s owner. As long as there is no law that states that a specific portion of owner’s outdoor property should be dedicated to art, graffiti included, and if there were a law, it has been clear what portion was dedicated to that, everyone, including those who feel their expression is under exposed, have, BY LAW, to ask a permission from the owner to present their work on his/her property, and get the permission before presenting their work. Otherwise, it’s trespassing, and should be addressed as such, including an arrest.

    It’s true that street artists can gain a better recognition by getting arrested, however they still need to pay for the damage caused (in the eye of the owner) and restore the wall (or any other element used), even if their work is pure art!

  • David on 03.02.2009 at 9:07 am

    Mr. O’Donnell’s initial premise, that graffiti is: “the voice of those who cannot find any other way to publish their thoughts anonymously” is patently false. Graffiti artists choose the very public display of their work on purpose to either cause shock or some other reaction, or to garner recognition, since the work is usually signed with a symbolic representation of themselves. He then goes one to disprove his original statement by stating the the graffiti artist craves the attention he gets (both negative and positive). This is not the behavior of someone who cannot find any other outlet. However, his solution is quite sensible in that if the graffiti artist could collaborate with the property owner being amenable to displaying the artists work, a great deal of strife could be avoided (not to mention tax dollars used to clean graffiti art, arrest, process and prosecute graffiti artists, etc). Perhaps a web-site that matches property owners with graffiti artists?

  • Rascha on 03.02.2009 at 10:08 am

    Grafitti is art. Is that even a question?

    Great article. Thank you for covering such an interesting and pertinent story, although I don’t know if I appreciate the title. Shepard Fairey and Banksy are some of the masters of our generation. They should be celebrated. It’s exciting to have Fairey’s work in the Institute of Contemporary Art, but at the same time, it takes away from the mystique and story behind his work. Good art is not a crime, and in my mind, good art comes from thought, planning, intelligence, and talent. Random graffiti lacking social messages is a waste of space and time and could even be considered a crime. At the same time, though, it would be unjust to punish somebody for being a bad artist.
    In Boston, people who are looking for it see Fairey’s work on a daily basis. I give mad credit to anyone who can make a name for himself turning empty walls into masterpieces with just cans of spraypaint and stencils.

  • Anonymous on 03.02.2009 at 10:16 am

    Is Graffiti Art? Is not the issue

    The issue is not whether graffiti is art as what is art is always in the eye of the beholder and therefore trying to answer the question is graffiti art is a futile exercise. The issue in the case of graffiti is does the artist have a right to put his or her art wherever they so choose. The answer to this question is no and must be no to ensure a civil society. For if we say that a graffiti artist can play their craft wherever they choose then is the same true for a landscape artist, for example? Does this mean that a landscape artist can cut the tree down in my yard as a way of gaining voice? Where does it all end? Is there then any such thing as private property rights?

  • Anonymous on 03.02.2009 at 10:28 am

    Is graffiti art?

    I agree with the answer to this question. What would you propose as a legal solution to this problem? and yes graffiti is art.

  • Anonymous on 03.02.2009 at 11:01 am

    “The owner needs to be a collaborator”! I agree this. And of course responsible for maintanence of the canvis. Art should be publicly displayed without profanity of course.

  • Anonymous on 03.02.2009 at 11:02 am

    Re:Is Graffiti Art?, EA Brown

    The most important factor in my opinion has been grossly understated or ignored in this discussion; the idea property ownership and trespass. When I purchase a home or business, I believe I pay for the right to determine the color of the paint, the design of the landscaping, placement of artwork and within city ordinances, the signage. No one has the right to place their artwork on my property, no matter how beautiful or socially or politically meaningful it is, without my express permission. It’s no different for trucks, trains, busses and buildings owned by corporations rather than individuals. There is still ownership and a financial burden for their maintenance. The same can be extrapolated to publically financed property like walls, and bridges, etc. These are paid for and maintained by all taxpayers. Freedom of speech allows people to speak openly in public forums, to use their own money to print and distribute literature. It does not guarantee the right to enter my living room or use any other privately or publically owned space free of charge and without permission for their message. This is especially so when unlike words which linger only in our minds, painted works endure, costing money for the owner to remove.

  • Anonymous on 03.02.2009 at 12:09 pm

    Signs - Public and Private rights

    Local governments promulgate zoning ordinances to maintain the aesthetic qualities of the built environment. Zoning ordinances typically restrict the dimensions, shape, materials, height, and locations of signs that can be erected by right. A property owner who wants to erect a sign (temporary or permanent) generally must apply for a permit. Local governments have very strict sinage by-laws and often this creates a valuable property right for the property owner.

    When a street artist places graffiti on a public wall there is a violation of the owner’s rights as well as the local governments zoning regulations. As stated a street artist should be forced to get the owners permission though collaboration. At the same time however, the art should not be in violation of local sign regulations. Notable street artists such as Shepard Fairey who violate local zoning ordinances should be required to pay damages to a property owner and to the local government for violations of the sign by law.

  • monyet on 03.03.2009 at 6:09 am

    Good discernment of the graffiti writier makes the difference between art and vandalism. in my opinion.

  • Anonymous on 03.03.2009 at 3:48 pm

    graffiti is graffiti, and it is done for the fame of the underground recognition and will never go away. some people just get lucky and make money off it.

    • Dolly on 11.01.2017 at 12:03 pm

      Graffiti is art and we have to use art to be able to make graffiti as shown in todays daily life. people might make money off of it but we surly don’t just think there work is bad. There work practically makes up our cities today.We should appreciate what those people do.

  • Anonymous on 03.05.2009 at 12:44 pm

    Fairey is a hypocrite:

  • Anonymous on 03.05.2009 at 2:40 pm

    It's not about art!

    Doesn’t anyone realize graffiti isn’t about “art”! Its all about getting famous! No one goes out at night thinking they are going to share art with a city, its all about getting your name up so everyone knows who you are! Its actually a very self centered activity…

  • Mon Petit Chou on 03.05.2009 at 4:24 pm

    Street art and graffiti is art

    The subtlety of art is lost on most—I have no doubt in my mind that it is. Think of it as a craft. The more you do it, the better you get at it, thus shaping your own voice and refining your individual art form. Just look at history, it’s all there.

  • the brains on 03.05.2009 at 4:37 pm

    you ssay tax payers have the right to pay for any literature they wish to display among the people. what if my socioclass deprives me of the freedom. and instead i stand underneath that billboard to watch people spend money stacks to advertise an ipod? so i decide to climb up that billboard. ur gonna tell me that what i leave upon that billboard is an art or not. who are you tell me that. you are hman just like me. u can die from disease just like me. but because i push my life to the next level to show u something uv never seen before ur gonna assume im destroying it. graffiti is an art. no matter what any graff writer non graff writer says. its the art of life. the art that grows on with u as u live. and goe own after u die. being passed through genenration to generation. for ever evolving beyond your control. why ?u cant explain it. u cant even explain why the first human decided to eat meat. or why humans have wars, or why we are trapped on this planet. all u know is money. what can get you the money. and what can take away the money.life of a graffti writer consists of being remembered. being acknowlegd. not for the size of the wallet. but the size of the heart. what happened to heart. human creativity is an art.but because its not showcased within a frame or a meusuem people assume its garbage. graffiti is was made by the people for the people.but they have grown ignorant. living there lives by standards.a land of freedom.more like a planet of control where people follow those with power and money to rule there soul. but money wont make u live forever. life is too short to waste beeing upset because someone signed there name on a bus. that some one is just trying to show u something. even if it was for a split second.graffiti is life. its the aids to my fuckin life. only difference is. i wouldnt trade it for and amount of money or any drug. teach the kids something real. that they can put there minds to anything they want. dont tell them that theire limited on the decisions due to money. cuz what do u own when u die?

  • Anonymous on 03.05.2009 at 6:55 pm

    whos to be a critic?

    when you first ask someone if its art or not, they think of writing on walls. so they say no.
    basically what was said in this article, so what. paint brush or not, if your painting a mural and your into fine arts, its just writing on wall. the media just chooses to lower its quality of talent some of these young guys carry within themselves because they cant control us.

    Obey wont end up in jail, he got his work hung up in the white house, he obviously wont get sentenced to anything for the fact obey wont want him to be.

    all these articles on if graffiti is art or not, kids, its not about fame.. its about the fact you can do it or not, being apart of the only true free speech. how ever you look at graffiti is up to you, but to be judgmental in an interview shows your scared to face it. if your gonna doing something like this be honest.
    yes your breaking into places to get to spots, yes your trespassing yes your vandalizing.
    but that’s not graffiti. graffiti is an art for, the fact of putting it on property that’s not yours is illegal, not graffiti.

    everything has a price to pay with the actions they make. so what its not like your out there murdering people. your changing the color of a dull wall but using graffiti to do it.

    Graffiti its self is an art form,
    the vandalizing part is the illegal factor you have to pay if you want to risk it.

    so what not every bodies gonna get what they want in life, but to criticize something in an article is easy cause you have no one to back up the true factors.
    people can say what they want.

    but in the end, its still graffiti, and you cant stop it

  • 4NER FMR 418 on 03.08.2009 at 2:03 pm

    Obey Nothing

    Shepard Fairey is just a rich kid who advertises… and I suspect, pays other people to advertise his clothing company… if you paint the Che it doesn’t make you a rebel or revolutionnary… it makes you a scavenger… Besides, he’s got plenty of money to pay…

    PS: getting arrested is not well looked-upon from within the graffiti world… means you’re a toy who doesn’t know what he’s doin’, usually… but yeah shit happens

  • javs on 03.19.2009 at 1:14 pm


    hell yes it is because its the ability to get your name up in a short amount of time and worryed your not gona get caught so to me it is

  • Anonymous on 05.05.2009 at 10:09 pm


    I think graffiti is the best kind of art out there. It’s interesting, I have it all threw my bedroom from friends and just professionals. I’ve talked to professional graffiti artiest most of them say it isnt nothing to do with being famous or getting money. They say it was to do with art and just how they express themselves just like people create sculptures, he spray paints a wall. It’s the same thing and it’s amazing.

  • bathroom graffiti on 05.20.2009 at 8:00 pm

    is graffiti art?

    hell ya it is!

  • Amy on 02.08.2012 at 2:50 pm

    It is now three years since these comments were left, the B.U. Bridge has been repaired and repainted, at a cost of millions of dollars. Within days of completion, and even DURING refurbishment, graffiti “artists” arrived with paint cans and tagged or defaced the gleaming stone and freshly painted metal. If I took a can of spray paint and “expressed myself” on one of these self centered graffiti dope’s car or bike, you can bet there would be hell to pay. Funny how the defacement of an item of private property owned by one of them would be WRONG, but the defacement of public property, owned by ALL of us, is equated with self expression by some who live in the world of artsy fartsy.

    • LarryO on 11.06.2017 at 9:40 am

      Amy, EXACTLY!
      I’d love the punishment of every graffiti vandal to not only include the cost of complete and total removal of all of their so-call ‘art’, but to allow the victims of their crimes express their ‘artistic sides’ all over everything the graffiti vandal owns. Nice car – I’ll just leave my ‘tag’ all over your windshield, and your hood, doors, etc. Your house? Cool! I’m going to increase its value by painting my ‘art’ all over it. Nice clothes, but they would look so much better with my tag all over them.

      Graffiti vandals just don’t get it. Paint what you want on your own materials, your own personal property. You have no right whatsoever to vandalize private or public property, and should be made to clean it all up!

  • ManThatLikesGraffiti on 03.11.2013 at 4:10 pm

    Wow i love graffiti

  • makairin ervin on 01.07.2015 at 1:20 pm

    i think graffiti is art because you use spray cans and basically you use colors and emotion like a painting or a drawing i am in school right now learning about this on my computer and we have been talking about it for two weeks i really know what i’m talking about

    <3 <3 <3 makairin ervin middle schooler

  • Jmelton on 10.27.2015 at 3:43 pm

    Hey there guys. I don’t like art. It is somewhat childish and pushes off your views and expressions on others. If someone wants to view your art, they will. Graffiti doesn’t give them that option. Put it on a canvas, grow up and move on.

    • Jmelton on 10.27.2015 at 3:43 pm

      I don’t like graffiti. Duh

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