The History of Graffiti and Hip Hop, Graffiti Art History Research by All Weather Artist Rik Cheetham

CHAPTER 11. Celebrated and Censored


“I often say, it’s the same legal difference as being a a pharmacist or a drug dealer”





The paradox of the use of the label ‘graffiti’, is not one that should be taken lightly. Its is not limited to artists feeling angry because their work has been cleaned off or painted over. The punishments for graffiti can be severe. There are many current cases of graffiti artists being prosecuted and sent to prison for criminal damage or trespassing. However the public attitude towards the artwork in recent years has changed to such an extent that there are also campaigns and protests to free graffiti artists under the belief that art should not be punished as a criminal act. The phrase rings true; “Art is not a crime”. Unfortunately criminal damage, regardless of form or artistic quality, is. As such we must accept that the difference between what is deemed art and what is deemed graffiti in a legal scenario, is permission...Or at least it should be.


Upon launching a graffiti based video game in 2006, even the likes of fashion designer, Marc Ecko was exposed to the control the title of ‘graffiti’ enables those who would try and control art. On planning to launch “Getting Up”, a new graffiti based video game, with a block party in Queens, New York, Marc Ecko had planned to have artists creating pieces on replica subway cars in reflection of the roots of the New York subway graffiti culture. (“Urban Scrawl” Washington Post Monday, February 13, 2006) Peter Vallone Jr, a Queens councilman asked that Ecko’s permit to hold the event be revoked as the event would encourage vandalism. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was also in favour of restricting the event stating “graffiti is just one of those things that destroys our quality of life.” - With that the city removed permission for the event to go ahead. Claims of censorship and freedom of expression were voiced eventually lead to Ecko filing a law suit against the City of New York. Judge Jed Rakoff of the U.S District Court in Manhattan ruling in favour of Ecko made the statement “By the same token, presumably, a street performance of ‘Hamlet’ would be tantamount to encouraging revenge murder. . . . As for a street performance of ‘Oedipus Rex,’ don’t even think about it.”


The event went ahead and the game was launched and released in stores Worldwide. However why did this case go far in the first place in a legal industry in which the diligence of the legal professionals ‘nit-picking’ is notorious and within a city, a state and a nation who celebrates liberty and freedom of speech? New York’s place within modern graffiti perhaps created fear of another wave of hardcore localised bombing reflecting that of the early 70’s which motivated the action. The simple fact remains that with permission, the artwork produced would not have been graffiti.


What this demonstrates, is that the potential to censor artistic endeavours under the title graffiti, is present and active, although not always justified. We can now recognise, the effort to censor ‘graffiti’ does not need justification under that label, regardless of quality or location. The difficulty when approaching graffiti as art and more specifically art as part of a cultural movement is that the specific characteristics of the art produced or methodologies associated with the culture will often fall in the line of fire.


A couple of years later in 2008 New South Wales was to become the first Australian state to propose actions to ban the sale of aerosol-based paint under radical anti graffiti reforms. A review began to assess the “feasibility, effectiveness and potential implications of a complete ban on the sale of aerosol paint in NSW”.


In order to see the cultural implications of this we must go back to basics. Graffiti is an unpermitted mark on a surface, regardless of media of form. Aerosol paint is not only used only one popular media applied as graffiti, the result of a cultural movement which made graffiti artistic. By banning spray paint as a specific medium for graffiti only means an alternative tool will be found. A ban will not change graffiti in regards to someone wanting to mark a surface without permission but it will change the form of graffiti applied. Pens, knives, stones, brushes; any tool can make a mark on a surface. However it is artistic graffiti which most commonly adopts aerosol paint. By banning a practical medium for producing what might be considered art, we are only left with the tools to produce what we might consider vandalism.


Whilst the ban identifies the association between graffiti and aerosol specifically (rather than technology as a whole), it has also shown that society is conscious that there is a point between prevention and repression when art is concerned. Paint manufacturers, Artists and even anti-graffiti campaigners have been united under what has been referred to as a ‘draconian proposal’. Paint makers slammed the ban as a morally bankrupt and draconian legislation. “Bans have not worked overseas. Knee-jerk reactions and heavy-handed reactions do not solve the social problem. It will remain and manifest itself in other ways,” the Australian Paint Manufacturers Federation’s Michael Hambrook said, adding; “It’s a Nazi response.”


Elsewhere in the world, Chicago is the only American state to attempt such a ban previously and the results simply showed a modest reduction in aerosol paint based graffiti, with an offsetting increase in other mediums. Graffiti will often be produced initially with what is available at a specific moment and like any artistic production will find a medium which works to the best effect through experimentation. Graffiti exists as it does today because of resourceful, creative use of technology. There is only one-way to “eradicate” graffiti and that is to remove the condition of it being so, then you are left only with art.


Graffiti is the chosen canvas for art in the 20th century. Is this because art has changed from being largely decorative and ornamental to being communicative and functional? Art now exists as graffiti on both sides of the tracks under various labels denoting value and credibility and in every shape, size and form imaginable. But what are the consequences of the graffiti paradox for art?


On one hand the art is celebrated and appreciated, It is exhibited, it is taught to young people as a means of engagement. City wide exhibitions celebrate Global names in graffiti art. What an amazing thing! Art is exhibited in public spaces in our cities. This is an exciting time for art and presents opportunities for established artists. For those who might be inspired however, the consequences can be adversely negative. Prison sentences are not uncommon for prolific or persistent offenders and once in that system the psycological affect on a creative young mind can be profound. The lifestyle of a hardcore graffiti artist in the modern day is one of secrecy. An artist may need to hide sketches, materials, cameras, computers or phones with evidence of their crimes, knowing that discovery could mean a long stint in prison.


We also like to celebrate the bandits of art. Graffiti Illustrator, Banksy remains anonomous. Having gained celebrity status and a stream of speculation as to his identity and huge excitment generated by claims by someone having witnessed his work. However, as a serial offender, I wonder if we would imprison Banksy should he be apprehended? The file of evidence against him is available for £30.00 in your local book store :)


Is it the quality of the work which dictates the opinion about the severity of the crime? Should it be a qualified art critic who should judge the case? Talented artists have been prosecuted before. What is considered art is a question of opinion but what is graffiti is a matter of property ownership and the ability to grant permission.


The fact that we celebrate art in our cities is an important step in the right direction. However what graffiti born from Hip Hop did for art is make it both credible and accessible on street level. Art was, for many centuries an interest concerning the educated, upper classes. An artist who was not classically trained or apprentice to a respected master would not be in the right circles to be successful. Art was once elitest. Graffiti broke that boundary down and reconnected people with an interest in art and provided an accessible canvas on which to perfect the skills. It would be a shame to create that same divide again by celebrating the elite and prosecuting the young “apprentice”. Will the paradox which exists in art and graffiti have an impact on art in the future? Where a measure of control can be applied to what is deemed acceptable content as art or punishable as graffiti?


What’s in a name?


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