The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.

The Last Public Space

Graffiti is a hallmark of rebellion. It is a feature of every urban landscape, ranging from the mundane tags of self-aggrandizing teens to intricate murals covering the face of a building. It has been around as long as urban landscapes have existed – “I am amazed, o wall, that you have not collapsed and fallen, since you must bear the tedious stupidities of so many scrawlers,” reads a piece of ancient graffiti on a wall in Pompeii, Italy. It also remains illegal, punishable in most states by fines and imprisonment.

Anti-graffiti organizations and police departments say graffiti is a blight on the city, causing depreciation of property values, creating an eyesore, and serving as a vehicle for maintaining gangs. Graffiti costs millions of dollars a year to clean up, and millions more to prosecute graffiti vandals. The cost to neighborhoods may also be high, as graffiti may be seen as a mark of a crime-ridden or poor neighborhood, reinforcing the culture of poverty. As such, graffiti must be eradicated, where possible.

Of course, graffiti is not homogeneous – the purposes and impacts of graffiti may be political, artistic, or simply expressive. But the term is used to apply to any unauthorized modification of private or public property, no matter what the nature of the change. Whether you scrawl a circled-A or political statement on a wall, or paint your rendition of the Mona Lisa – as graffiti artists in New York and elsewhere are doing more and more – or simply leave your name wherever you go, it all qualifies as graffiti. The failure of anti-graffiti groups to make this distinction belies their stand on graffiti as inherently and inevitably destructive. Sara Rudin writes in defense of “art criminals”: “If graffiti writers are not a violent threat in the community, if the work they do is not merely destructive scribblings, if the only crime they commit is writing on a wall (in many cases making the usual drab city-scape a bit more bearable to look at), what or whose quality of life are they offending?”

In contrast to graffiti, advertising holds a sacred spot in the eyes of the law. Cigarette companies, banks, phone manufacturers, face no prosecution for renting billboards or walls in public spaces. But groups who deface these advertisements – some of which, like cigarette ads, have been shown to have a depressive effect on society – put themselves at the risk of considerable legal repercussions. The debate over whether advertising has adverse impacts on the public good does not exist – because, as a right of property, it is state-sanctioned. Graffiti, however, remains under attack. Graffiti is illegal not because of its negative effects, but because it is an offense against property.

Some anti-graffiti groups attempt to redirect artistic energy away from “destructive” unsanctioned art by providing purchased or sanctioned spaces in which artists may operate. Graffiti artists respond with an old adage: “The only difference between art and graffiti is permission.” A writer in an anti-graffiti forum states it poignantly: “When you don’t put it there with permission it isn’t art! When you put it someplace where you have permission, no matter how ugly it is, it is art! Understand, aerosol breath?”

When faced with such restriction, it’s inevitable that graffiti would become a political tool. Often times, it’s the most accessible method of public discourse for young people with an idea. Dead Prez, a rap group that focuses on prison issues, uses graffiti to spread their message, leaving the tag “No More Prisons” all over cities through which they tour. And no doubt readers are familiar with the “Stop Slavery” anti-Nike stickers that have decorated bus stops and lampposts in recent days.

Recently politically active artists assembled in Chicago on the last weekend in April, for the first campaign of the Department of Space and Land Reclamation (DSLR). The DSLR assembled to combat what they perceived as a purchase and commodification of public space, with graffiti as one of their tools. In announcing their campaign, DSLR spoke of this transformation: “Global capital has reached such a point that both the physical and intellectual landscape have been completely purchased. To exist today means to tread on the property of others. The city has increasingly become a space completely built around consumerism. The freedom of expression has come to mean the freedom to advertise. Advertisements on billboards, advertisements on public buses and trains, advertisements on benches, advertisements on clothes, advertisements on radio, advertisements on television, advertisements on menus. Like a minefield of manipulative codes, urban space has been designed to maneuver us from one point of sale to the next.” The transformation of graffiti into an explicitly political tool has begun.

Of course, nothing resists commodification for long, and even graffiti is not immune. While the political import of graffiti increases, corporations are already seeking to use it for their own purposes. Recently in Australia, Nike purchased 900 billboards which were “pre-jammed”, made to look like they had been defaced by activists, with the name of a mock-activist website scrawled across them. The campaign failed when outraged activists responded by replacing the site with the name of an actual anti-Nike site Still, the attack demonstrates the willingness of corporations to enter into and subvert classically anti-corporate and anti-property tools for the purposes of advertising.

More recently, IBM and its advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather launched a “grass-roots” ad campaign across several cities in the U.S., where they illegally stenciled the symbols for peace, love, and Tux the Penguin, the Linux mascot, on building walls all over the country. In Boston, Cambridge and San Francisco IBM went further, stenciling the symbols all over sidewalks and even in MBTA stations. The phenomenon is catching on: a recent stencil advertising shoes for Aasics reads: “Keep Running!” Even this counterculture, it seems, may be purchased.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.