Vandalism or street art?

It strikes and it shouts, it irritates or inspires. Graffiti is the most discussed form of Urban Graphic Design. Is it vandalism or street art? Judge for yourself.

Graffiti originates from the sixties. Activists in Philadelphia, and later in New York, use it to make a political statement and gangs mark their territories with graffiti. In the early seventies so called writers use spray cans to write their tags on as many subway cars as possible. Just for fame. To be able to distinguish themselves from others they experiment with different artistic styles, front size and colours. By then graffiti is no longer solely seen as vandalism, but also as street art. Meanwhile new forms of graffiti have come into being. For example, hackers nowadays leave their digital tags after they have hacked systems.
At the end of the sixties Martha Cooper is the first photographer who takes pictures of graffiti. “Graffiti is no vandalism, but a systematic way of design and a secret language by which people overtake public spaces and send each other messages. Many people don’t like graffiti, because they see it as a form of pollution. Besides they often don’t understand the language. However, I have always been fascinated by it. By bombing neighbourhoods gangs fought their battles. Not with guns but with markers and spray cans.”
Watch the short movie that Submarine Channel made about Martha Cooper >
The most recognized and admired graffiti artist is Banksy, a British artist with an unknown identity. Banksy often comes up with humoristic images and striking slogans. His street art frequently gets worldwide publicity. You will find his work in different European cities, in the Palestinian territories and in New York. Read more about Banksy on Wikipedia and his own site.
In 2009 graffiti artists bring colour to some boring grey power distribution stations in The Hague. They change them into true works of art. Although not every one in the neighbourhood appreciates this initiative, many residents are happy with the expressive make over.
In 2007 the Brazilian Alexandre Orion draws a mural of skulls in a Sao Paulo car tunnel. He does not use a spray can for his work of art but patiently scours away parts of the thick layer of soot on the walls. His aim is to protest against pollution. The city later removes the mural by cleaning of the rest of the soot and also cleans all other car tunnels in Sao Paulo to prevent other artists from making new murals. Mission accomplished?
Graffiti is a secret language, often unreadable and inaccessible for outsiders. Architect and artist Evan Roth, co-founder of the Graffiti Research Lab, has been studying the tags on Parisian walls for years. Writers in the French capital mostly use the following letters: A, E, I, K, N, O, R, S, T and U. Roth photographed more than 2400 tags in different neighbourhoods. For his project Graffiti Taxonomy he transcribed these tags into a digital graffiti alphabet.
In the late seventies K. from Amsterdam bombed walls throughout the city. Still his tag can be found in books about graffiti. Nowadays he calls his graffiti passion a sin of his youth. But back in the days he competed with other writers. “I did not have a strikingly well designed tag, but De Zoot sounded great. I put my tag on as many walls as possible only to be recognized and acknowledged by other graffiti writers who did the same. We used markers and spray cans. I admired Dr. Rat. He was really talented: some call him the godfather of the Dutch graffiti.”
The first graffiti artists came from New York. But today Berlin is trendsetter. In this city you see graffiti everywhere. Besides The Wall is the most extraordinary graffiti carrier ever. However, graffiti also gains ground in Eastern Europe. During the communist years it was a form of protest, but nowadays it is also a form of street art. It colours many drab neighbourhoods and graffiti artists show what they have got. Watch these examples of Serbian and Polish graffiti. Or read the German Ilovegraffiti, one of the best online graffiti magazines.

From writers to hackers

Cool Martha

Banksy’s fame

Energy station make over

Reverse graffiti

Graffiti alphabet

De Zoot

Eastern Europe gains ground