The recent bouts of graffiti being enacted around Manila by a youth group have fired up discussions regarding which platforms should (or shouldn’t) be used to voice out concerns. Acts of grandstanding by a certain mayor paint the situation to be highly subversive and incendiary — but is it? Such extreme reactions to protest art drawn on public walls and spaces begs the question: when is graffiti art and when is it vandalism?
First, let’s dispel the idea that all forms of graffiti are bad. There are many examples of graffiti which, either by historical verdict or societal consensus, have been deemed acceptable. You need only look to the examples of Banksy or Jean-Michel Basquiat to realize that graffiti has very much found its place in the art world. Two artists whose chosen medium is objectively illegal have gone beyond those technicalities to find international acclaim and esteem anyway.
Then there is the case of politically-charged graffiti. When street art showed up on the walls of Cairo in response to the Arab Spring protests back in 2011, you would have been hard-pressed to find legitimate voices in the international community condemning these acts simply because they were unlawful. The art marking the West side of the Berlin Wall became a symbol of freedom and democracy, as the East side’s cleanliness was an indication of oppression.
So, what do these examples have in common and what makes them art? Meaning. Meaning is art, message is art. If you break down and define what makes up art, you’ll find that what it boils down to is the attempt to communicate something. Whether it be a literal message or just an emotion as long as your creation tries to impart something — then it is art.
This is the most basic delineation of art that pervades society. Sure, some will disagree and say that an element of aestheticism ought to be present. Or perhaps that skill has to play a part in considering something as art. But the fairest definition is the one which is most generally encompassing.
So by the easy process of elimination, graffiti such as “x wuz here” probably doesn’t count as art. Drawings of male private parts or ugly renderings of names probably aren’t art either. But other than the obvious, things get a bit hazy. Most works are created with intent and contain meaning so are they immediately art?
Hate speech splattered across walls or derogatory depictions are all intentional works of graffiti with very clear meaning behind it. Random curses and hastily drawn lines and squiggles might possibly contain a message. Do these forms still count as art? Does it matter?
Perhaps the line isn’t drawn as to whether something is or isn’t art but whether something being art and containing meaning makes it universally permissive. As with all forms of expression, those that incite hate or harm towards the defenseless are still probably not justified forms of art. Graffiti done in protest, made in anger and made to anger, is a more difficult question.
It becomes a question of appropriate platforms and the presence of alternatives. While these kinds of messages aren’t ones that can or should be censored, it’s a matter of voicing them out in the proper spaces. It is also about evaluating whether or not any other space to accommodate these opinions exists in the first place.
How do you feel about this?