What some call vandalism others call art. Mary Kate Hickey spoke to graffiti artists and art experts to get their perspective on graffiti culture.
Graffiti has become a popular part of modern day culture, with some museums and galleries even featuring it in their exhibitions. However in many countries including Ireland, graffiti is still illegal unless the property owner has given their permission.
Can graffiti be considered art, or is it simply a form of vandalism? Smer, a 20 year old Dubliner in his third year in a Dublin college, and Trevor Coulahan a graphic designer and street artist share their opinions on graffiti with FILTR.
“Smer is my tag name, it’s what I write on the walls and trains I paint” he said adding how he wishes to remain anonymous as what he does is illegal. “My friends got me interested in it there’s a group of us who go out to paint or write together, we’re called BPK” said Smer.
“Personally I don’t consider myself an artist, I’m a writer. To me a writer is someone who paints the streets, tracks and trains, we do tags, throws and dubs*. While I think of an artist as someone who is spreading a message with what they paint, someone using stencils, or creating original and elaborate imagery. But it’s all objective these labels we’ve been given, some people might see it differently” he added.
One of the people Smer said he considers an artist is Trevor Coulahan. “I paint on the streets, on canvas, and do design work for companies. Technically I’m a graphic designer, street artist and fine artist, so I guess artist is fine, it covers all bases!” said Trevor. “But if I was to say I considered some graffiti writer an ‘artist’ I could in actual fact be insulting the individual. Graffiti has its own rich history outside of the art world” he added.
But just because graffiti can be considered apart from the art world does not mean it has no connection to art at all. “I really think graffiti has the capacity to be both vandalism and art, I don’t necessarily think it has to be one or the other. But I think people need to educate themselves to what graffiti actually is” Trevor stated.
Graffiti is a sub culture, it stems from, and is one of the four main elements of the hip-hop culture that emerged in the late 60s in America. Young writers often begin with ‘black books’, where they draw letters and figure out what letters look nice next to each other and how they flow together. It takes time and a lot of practice to develop a style, and to learn how to be confident with a spray can.
That’s where tagging comes in, it allows writers to practice their hand style while at the same time getting their tag seen. “People always give out about how unsightly tags look, but without tags you don’t get the amazing pieces that devolve from that practice” Trevor explains.
This somewhat non-acceptance of graffiti from the general public however may well be okay with those who do graffiti. “Graffiti is insular, and it is for graffiti writers. I don’t think they really want acceptance from the general public” Trevor said.
“I do graffiti because I always liked the bit of mystery that comes with it. I like to improve my writing for myself and see how far I’ve come,” Smer revealed. “It’s also the sense of pride seeing your name emblazoned on a wall or a train as you’re passing by, and have other people ask how you even got away with painting where you did!” he added.
A big part of the graffiti culture is based around the fact that it isn’t legal. “I think a lot of people who do graffiti do it for the thrill of doing something they’re not supposed to be doing. If it was legal I don’t think there would be that same buzz, it wouldn’t be graffiti anymore really” Smer explains.
That’s why graffiti and street art are polar opposites explains Trevor, “I think the only thing graffiti and street art have in common are that they both mainly happen on the street with spray paint.
“I think street art gets a lot more respect from the general public than graffiti. Which isn’t that fair, considering without graffiti, there would not be street art” he added.
Graffiti as a form of art is hard to explain, given that many of those who do it consider themselves writers, and the law states that it is a form of vandalism. Personally, I think the cities of the world would look awfully bare without the brightly coloured tags and paintings covering their walls, bridges and trains.
*Graffiti Fact File:
– The word graffiti comes from the Greek word ‘graphein’ which means ‘to write’.
– Many graffiti artists prefer to be called writers, each with their own unique tag name to identify their own work. Some work in groups and also have a group tag name.
– Tags – A quick written way of signing a name which can be embellished with stars, halos and crowns.
– Throws – Bigger, and more easily read. Most likely bubble letters, with some colour but still quick to do.
– Dubs – Take the longest to do, again bubble letters but probably nicer. They’re usually fully filled in and have shines, secondary highlight, and backgrounds.
– To keep up with competition, and to speed things up, some graffiti artists use rubber stamps, stickers and stencils when tagging.