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Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism? A Photographer’s Perspective

Professional Photographer Paul David Smith Gives His Opinion As To Whether Graffiti Is Art Of Vandalism

Graffiti can be found in most cities around the world with a large section of the population seeing this as art and an equally large section of the population seeing it as vandalism. As a photographer who spends a lot of time photographing urbex locations I have seen some amazing graffiti in these buildings where people are free to express their creativity without fear of being persecuted for their art. In this article we’ll explores graffiti’s historic roots, the legal implications that graffiti artists face, its role in commercial spaces, and the ethical considerations at play. I’ll put forward a photographer’s perspective as to whether it is art or vandalism and I hope we can better understand the fine line between artistic expression and respect for public and private property.

Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism?

Historical Background of Graffiti

The story of graffiti, derived from the Italian word “graffiato” meaning scratched, begins in ancient times when humans first started leaving marks on their environment. These early forms of graffiti were found in the ruins of ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome. People etched names, messages, and simple drawings into walls and monuments. This early graffiti served various purposes, from commemorating significant events to expressing personal thoughts or feelings. For instance, in the ancient city of Pompeii, archaeologists have discovered walls covered with inscriptions ranging from political endorsements to declarations of love.

As centuries passed, the nature and perception of graffiti evolved. During the Middle Ages, graffiti was often carved on religious buildings and public spaces, sometimes serving as a form of political protest or social commentary. It wasn’t just the act of rebellious individuals but was used by people from all walks of life to leave their mark on the world, literally.

This journey from ancient marks to contemporary street art reflects changes in society, technology, and cultural perceptions.

The modern era of graffiti started to take shape in the 20th century, especially with the rise of urban culture in the United States. It became a symbol of rebellion, identity, and self-expression, particularly among youths. The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of graffiti as we know it today, with spray paint becoming the medium of choice.

This movement eventually spread globally, with cities such as London, Paris, and Berlin becoming hubs for graffiti art and artists.

Graffiti in the UK began to gain prominence around this time and was inspired by the graffiti culture of the United States, particularly New York City’s burgeoning street art scene. British graffiti started to take on its own identity during this period with the emergence of unique styles and messages that reflected the UK’s socio-political environment, including class struggles, political dissatisfaction, and the voice of the youth.

Graffiti as an Art Form

As graffiti gained popularity, it also gained recognition as a legitimate art form. Worldwide artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring transitioned from street art to galleries, and their work became highly sought after by collectors.

Graffiti in the UK has also undergone a significant transformation, moving from the fringes of urban culture to a celebrated and dynamic art form. This shift is reflective of the broader global trend but has unique characteristics in the UK context. British cities have become vibrant showcases of street art, with the works of graffiti artists gaining recognition and respect from both the public and the art world. This transition is largely due to the efforts of pioneering artists who have pushed the boundaries of what graffiti can represent, blending intricate designs with poignant social commentary. Their work has helped elevate graffiti from mere vandalism to a respected medium of creative expression, challenging traditional notions of art and public space.

One of the most significant figures in bringing graffiti to mainstream attention in the UK is the artist known as Banksy. Emerging from Bristol in the 1990s, Banksy’s work is characterized by its distinctive stenciling technique and its sharp, often humorous commentary on social and political issues. Banksy’s art has not only become iconic within the UK but has also garnered international acclaim, challenging traditional perceptions of graffiti and street art.

The UK’s graffiti scene is also notable for its diversity. Cities across the UK have become canvases for artists, showcasing a wide range of styles, from elaborate murals to simple tags. This diversity is a reflection of the UK’s multicultural population and the varying influences that shape its urban landscapes.

The evolution of graffiti into a recognized art form has been facilitated by the establishment of legal graffiti spaces, art festivals, and galleries dedicated to street art. This institutional recognition has not only legitimized graffiti as an art form but has also provided a platform for artists to showcase their work, engage with wider audiences, and contribute to the cultural fabric of the UK.

Lets Discuss Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism?

Graffiti Law in the UK

Graffiti is considered an art form by some but often seen as a nuisance by the public, linked to anti-social behaviour and gang culture. Clean-up costs for graffiti in the UK exceed £1 billion annually and as a result of this there are strict laws in place to try and keep it under control.

Graffiti law in the UK primarily views graffiti as a criminal activity under the framework of vandalism or criminal damage, governed by several pieces of legislation. The most relevant laws include the Criminal Damage Act 1971, the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, and various local council regulations. These laws make it clear that without the property owner’s permission, creating graffiti can lead to legal consequences for the artist. The approach to enforcement and the severity of penalties can vary significantly depending on the circumstances and the specific location within the UK.

If you wish to showcase your work in public or private spaces without permission, you should be aware of relevant legislation:

– Graffiti includes drawings, paintings, scribbles, messages, or tags on walls or surfaces.

– Criminal Damage Act 1971: Anyone found guilty of defacing property without the owner’s consent can be prosecuted. This act covers graffiti, and the penalties can range from fines to imprisonment, depending on the extent of the damage and whether the individual has previous convictions. The maximum penalty for criminal damage is ten years imprisonment, although such severe sentences are rare for graffiti offenses unless they are part of broader criminal activities or cause significant damage.

– Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005: Local authorities can issue fixed penalty notices for graffiti, with penalties often set at £75. Failure to pay can result in court summons and possible fines of up to £2,500.

– Public Order Act 1986: Offenses under this act, like inciting racial hatred through graffiti, can lead to a maximum jail term of 7 years.

– Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014: Local councils have powers to issue Community Protection Notices (CPNs) to individuals engaging in graffiti. Failure to comply with a CPN can result in fines or imprisonment.

It’s worth noting that while the legal framework treats graffiti as an offense when done without permission, there is also a growing recognition of its artistic value. This has led some local authorities to create designated areas where graffiti artists can legally practice their art, aiming to strike a balance between preventing vandalism and recognizing graffiti’s role in urban culture and artistry. However, outside these sanctioned spaces, artists who engage in graffiti without consent still face significant legal risks.

Community Perspectives on Graffiti

Community perspectives on graffiti in the UK are varied and reflect a complex mix of appreciation, concern, and evolving attitudes towards urban art. The perception of graffiti has traditionally been polarized, with some viewing it as an act of vandalism detrimental to public spaces, while others see it as a vibrant form of artistic expression that can enhance the urban landscape. These differing views are influenced by factors such as the content, location, and quality of the graffiti, as well as broader societal attitudes towards art, public space, and community identity.

On one hand, graffiti is often criticized for contributing to a sense of neglect and decay, particularly when it is perceived as random tagging or defacement of property without the owner’s consent. Such instances of graffiti can lead to concerns about crime and safety, prompting calls for stricter enforcement of anti-graffiti laws. Residents and business owners in areas heavily affected by unsolicited graffiti might see it as damaging to property values and community aesthetics, leading to efforts to remove graffiti and deter future incidents.

On the other hand, there’s a growing recognition of the potential for graffiti to be a positive force within communities. When executed with skill and creativity, and especially when done legally, graffiti can transform bland or derelict spaces into vibrant, engaging areas. Many communities have come to appreciate the cultural and artistic value that graffiti and street art can bring, celebrating it as a form of public art that can inspire, provoke thought, and express community values or identities. Cities like Bristol and London, with their rich street art scenes, illustrate how graffiti can attract tourism, foster a sense of pride, and stimulate local economies.

Worldwide, in cities like Melbourne and Berlin there are designated street art spaces which have transformed these areas into bustling tourist attractions, fostering a sense of pride among local residents. These spaces have encouraged community engagement, with artists and residents collaborating on large-scale murals that reflect cultural values and history.

In Melbourne, graffiti has ingrained itself into the city’s identity. Guided street art tours have emerged as a favoured attraction for visitors, highlighting the vibrant energy and creativity within the community.

Similarly, in Philadelphia, the Mural Arts Program has played a significant role in community revitalisation. This initiative has turned blank walls into a sprawling canvas for artists to depict stories of hope, resilience, and social change, effectively turning the city into an open-air gallery that celebrates its diversity and spirit.

These examples demonstrate that when embraced and managed effectively, graffiti can contribute significantly to the cultural and social fabric of neighbourhoods.

Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism Argument

Graffiti in Commercial and Mainstream Spaces

Graffiti’s transition into commercial and mainstream spaces represents a significant evolution of the art form, marking its journey from underground origins to widespread acceptance and integration into popular culture. This shift has not only changed the way graffiti is perceived by the public and art enthusiasts but has also opened new avenues for artists to showcase their work and for brands and organizations to connect with audiences in innovative ways.

The adoption of graffiti styles in advertising and branding has become increasingly common with graffiti’s vivid colours, bold lines, and unique creativity catching the eye of marketers and brand managers looking to inject a sense of authenticity and edginess into their campaigns.

Graffiti artists are increasingly commissioned to create murals for businesses, from small local shops to global corporations. These collaborations can transform the aesthetic of a business, attracting customers and creating a vibrant, engaging atmosphere that stands out. Graffiti art in commercial spaces often reflects the brand’s identity or the community’s character, bridging the gap between corporate interests and local culture. This fusion of art and commerce has helped legitimize graffiti as a professional art form, providing artists with formal recognition and financial opportunities.

The art world itself has witnessed a transformation in its approach to graffiti, with galleries and museums around the globe hosting exhibitions dedicated to street art and graffiti artists. These events offer a platform for artists to reach new audiences and challenge traditional boundaries of fine art. The increasing presence of graffiti in mainstream art institutions has sparked debates about its commodification and the potential loss of its rebellious spirit. However, it also reflects a growing appreciation for graffiti’s artistic value and its ability to convey complex social and political messages.

Mainstream acceptance of graffiti has also led to its inclusion in various sectors, including fashion, advertising, and entertainment. Collaboration between artists and companies has resulted in creating dynamic, impactful advertising materials helping to achieve significant commercial goals.

Ethical Considerations

Discussing the ethics of graffiti involves thinking about some big questions: Is it okay to create art without permission if it’s on someone else’s property? How important is it for everyone to have a chance to express themselves, especially in public places? And, what impact does graffiti have on neighbourhoods and the people who live there?

When someone paints graffiti without obtaining permission from the owner of the space they are painting, it can be seen as disrespectful and unlawful. Imagine if someone decided to paint something on your house without asking you; you’d probably feel like your space was invaded. This side of the argument is about respecting other people’s property and following the laws which are in place.

On the flip side, many argue that graffiti gives people a way to express themselves in a world where not everyone gets heard. Public spaces, they say, should be open for everyone to share their thoughts and art. This view sees graffiti as making cities more lively and interesting, a way for different voices to be seen and not just the ones that can afford to be heard.

Then, there’s the effect of graffiti on communities. Some folks think graffiti makes places look run-down and can even make people feel less safe. Others see it as a positive, adding colour and life to areas that might be overlooked or forgotten, and even sparking important conversations about society.

In the end, the ethics of graffiti boil down to finding a balance between allowing artists to share their work and making sure communities feel respected and safe. It’s about figuring out how we can all share the spaces we live in, in a way that’s fair and respectful to everyone.


As a photographer I have a huge respect for the artistic creativity and technical abilities of a graffiti artist. The work I see when exploring cities and abandoned buildings is often so good, I feel the need to capture it on camera and share it with the wider world.

There are areas in London such as Brick Lane where the graffiti is such a physical draw for tourists and photographers alike it has almost become synonymous with it. I’ve personally visited many times and often see tours being ran around the graffiti laden areas and likewise I’m never the only photographer there capturing the art on camera.

These areas however are often controlled in the sense that permission is sought and granted to create the artwork in public and I think perhaps that is the key. Whilst artists like Banksy don’t always seek permission, I’d be thrilled to find a Banksy artwork on my property in the morning, it would increase it’s price tenfold.

I’d be less thrilled however to find artwork by somebody who would devalue the price of my property and cost my money cleaning it up, had I not given them permission to create the artwork on my property in the first place.

For me, graffiti is certainly art, the artist should however seek permission from the property owner should they wish to create their artwork on somebody else’s property.