For many, the word “graffiti” brings to mind images of crime and poverty. But why is this? The answer is perhaps more complex than it seems, and relies on varying historical context.
In this context, the idea of street art will have a strict definition, because it could be argued that the paintings of cavemen count as graffiti. The cavemen, intriguing as they are, aren’t part of the history which answers the burning graffiti question. Instead, it lies in the late 1960s with a boy called Cornbread McCray.
Darryl “Cornbread” McCray is generally revered as the founder of modern American street art. He gained his nickname at age twelve, from his love for the cornbread served at the juvenile correctional facility he was staying in. He began tagging the walls within the facility with his new moniker, and upon release, took to marking the streets of Philadelphia.
In fact, he’s famously known for writing on public property in order to woo a girl. One of his first notable adventures in graffiti was writing “Cornbread loves Cynthia” in her neighborhood. One of his last was sneaking into a zoo to spraypaint “Cornbread lives” on an elephant after news aired mistakenly saying he had been killed. The latter led to his arrest, but this didn’t dampen his spirits.
Cornbread lit the flame. It went from there, and the development of graffiti is generally credited to youth, particularly youth of the lower class. In the 1970s, the classic bubble letter style of graffiti came into existence, and as its popularity diffused, it was used increasingly often to make political statements.
To call late 20th century America (and the world at large) socially turbulent is an understatement. Street art was parallel to the news broadcasts and the radio stations telling of a world that, to some, was falling apart.
Artists such as Keith Haring created works protesting the 80s AIDS crisis. In the 70s and beyond, Latin American artists brought the public eye to the rampant poverty and ruin wrought in their countries by colonial rule. Graffiti protested the Vietnam war. Graffiti advocated for the end of communism in China. Graffiti begged for the tearing down of the Berlin wall. Today, graffiti tells of the opioid crisis, of police brutality, of the suffering marginalized groups face.
Above all, historical street artworks usually commentated on money–poverty, elitism, wealth gaps. Whether in Ireland, Brazil, China, India, Puerto Rico, or New York itself, the people painting on the walls were almost never of the affluent class.
So back to the question at hand: is this why “vandalism” is such a crime? Rich people who are mad about being dissed?
The answer is much more complicated than that. As deep as graffiti has been and continues to be, it cannot be denied that it’s also been employed to forward gang activity and other kinds of crime. As with most things, graffiti has both a positive and an ugly side.
The truth as to why people are so quick to point their fingers and shout “vandalism” is also ugly, though.
Historically, minorities make up a majority of impoverished populations. Impoverished populations are also historically the driving force behind graffiti. This means that predisposed racism, particularly among the wealthy, lead to a “dirty” or “criminal” outlook on street art.
So, yes, there is a negative underbelly to street art which may contribute to its bad reputation. However, since its creation, street art has functioned as a multifaceted outlet for creative expression and free thought. When used for good, graffiti is no less of an art medium than sculpting or oil painting. The difference, for most people, is the prejudice they hold against the artist.