Is it Graffiti, or is it Art, or is it Both?


, originally uploaded by ‘stpiduko’.

The BBC news is reporting that an iconic and very famous mural by artist Banksy has been painted over in London. The image, pictured above, was a classic of modern and pop culture and featured John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson clutching bananas instead of guns in a classic Pulp Fiction pose.

According to the BBC, London transport workers painted over the mural because they said that the “graffiti” created an “atmosphere of social decay.”

Which brings up a point of contention. Was Banksy’s mural art, or was it graffiti? And how do you define art and the work that graffiti artists create? Typically most graffiti artists are creating their work on property that they don’t own. Many consider it vandalism.

My own opinion is that much of the graffiti art in the world that is created is very much legitimate art. And in my own mind, I think that the government agency that destroys a great work of art by Banksy on public property is no different than a government who walks into a public library and shreds a great work of literary art. In fact, because much of the graffiti art is one of a kind original, destroying this may be far worse. Years from now will society regret having destroyed much of the great graffiti art?

Banksy makes the world a more beautiful place. His work carries important political messages and his take on modern culture is frequently brilliant. Banksy’s vision of pop culture in my mind is quite similar to some of the brilliant insights that Andy Warhol brought us years before. The difference is that Banksy’s chosen to use the public world as his canvas vs. Andy’s use of more traditional art mediums.

In fact, I applaud Banksy for using the public world as his medium even more as it allows much broader public viewing than many of the images of Warhol which are now locked up in private collections.

One of my favorite things to photograph is grafitti. Last Sunday I went over to an abandoned swimming pool on Treasure Island and shot some of the artwork in the pool. It was all different than the last time I shot it. I’ve seen some fantastic works of art there. As a photographer I’m committed to preserving as much of the great mural and graffiti art as I can.

You can see a collection of some of the mural and graffiti artwork I’ve photographed in my Zooomr set, “Art for the Benefit of All.

Regretably I’ve yet to come across a Banksy in San Francisco. But I have shot the work of many talented artists that I run into as I do my daily photowalks around the Bay Area. To me this great work is art and I view myself as a preservationist of sorts by trying to get as much of it as I can on film before it quickly disappears

Aesthetics are of course intensely personal. Where I see great art, you may see blight. What do you think? Which is the greater cultural sin, destroying this work by Banksy, or allowing it?

Yesterday I was kind of bummed when I was running around and shooting San Francisco’s Mission District. It seems recently so much of the great graffiti there has been freshly painted over. I suppose this gives my own mission to photograph as much great graffiti as I can find that much more urgency.

To see more of Banksy’s work, check out his website here.

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2 Comments

  1. matt says:

    Thomas – great question and a nice if not unfortunate example from London.

    I think most graffiti is art. Unfortunately, anything anyone does to mark on the side of a building or wall gets categorized as graffiti.

    If a disgruntled high school student takes a can of spray paint to the side of the school to simply write some choice words about the principal – that’s not art nor should it be preserved, but it’s called graffiti.

    It’s the other stuff – the traditional view of graffiti that you shoot and that most of us think of – that’s closer to art.

    One thing about this kind of graffiti – it’s usually done on buildings that are abandoned or unkempt anyway, and most examples I’ve seen actually make the building or wall look nicer and more interesting. In some cases, cities hire graffiti artists to paint murals or huge sections of buildings or walls. There’s a nice example of this in Downtown Dallas where I live.

    In these cases I agree that graffiti is art. It’s a reflection of a culture or sub-culture, it’s a statement, or simply a means of brightening up a dark space.

  2. It’s both, graffiti and art, the two should never be separated,
    art should express a truth, a real truth, that is got lost in the decades, most of the art we can see in the galleries has lost it completely, sometimes is just a show of technique without meaning ,
    sometimes a show of meaning without technique necessary that would make us understand.

    Graffiti shows weakness sometimes putting the medium as message, but it keeps true to its nature, it is hated by many, loved by many too.