Let’s admire a wall for a moment. It’s made of red brick, and it’s about 18 feet tall. It runs about a quarter of a city block, around 88 feet. It keeps a building up, and it keeps the rain out.

Phillip Kurdunowicz
Phillip Kurdunowicz
Phillip Kurdunowicz

In short, it’s a good wall.

But it’s boring and, let’s face it, pretty unsightly. According to a graffiti artist, though, it’s about 1,584 square feet of unused canvas.

“I just have this desire to put graffiti on banks, and I don’t know why,” said an LSA sophomore and graffiti artist who agreed to be identified only by her initials, S.H.R, because her work is illegal. “I think it’s mostly because they have these big blank walls outside of them. Most of the buildings are pretty ugly as they are, so I wouldn’t care about putting paint on them,” she said.

And even though the artists view these paintings as art, graffiti carries different connotations and conjures stereotypical images of kids with spray paint covering street signs with drunken, low-brow homages to sweethearts. But, while some graffiti may be treated as such, it’s much more than juvenilia. There’s a whole culture of craftsmanship beneath layers of aerosol paint, an entire art form that needs to be unearthed with a discerning eye.

Take, for instance, some amateur graffiti that’s begun to appear around campus – it’s one word, written in an untrained hand: “FRESH.” Where do we draw the line between graffiti as vandalism and graffiti as art? Arguably, nowhere. “I get annoyed with bad graffiti. What are you proving, other than the fact that you have a lot of spray paint?” S.H.R. said.

There is a point to most graffiti. The pieces often have a certain relevance to the artists themselves, and graffiti for art’s sake is rarely done for the sole purposes of annoying property owners. The pieces intend to make a statement.

“One of the (graffiti pieces) I did was of a child who has an ‘M’ print on his back, and it reads, ‘UM Apparel Is Made in Sweatshops,’ ” S.H.R. said, referring to a piece of graffiti found near East Quad residence hall. “There was a protest last year against sweatshops, and I just wanted to put something out to support them, because there wasn’t a ton of publicity for that.”

She was referring to sit in held by Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality in April. Twelve students were arrested after they refused to leave University President Mary Sue Coleman’s office. They wanted the University to sign on to the Designated Suppliers Program, which would require the University to only license its apparel to companies that adhere to the program’s labor standards.”I originally wanted to put (the graffiti piece) near the Fleming building so that Mary Sue Coleman would have to walk by it every day and see it, but I never got to finish the one I put over there, and it just got defaced, unfortunately,” S.H.R. said.

The meaning and culture behind this urban art form has spread widely beyond the “local kids fooling around” connotation, becoming a national phenomenon. Websites such as Streetsy.com seek to unite graffiti as a cultural art form, linking the street art created in big cities like New York, Tokyo, Reykjavik and Tel Aviv.

“Graffiti is used for all sorts of purposes and for all sorts of causes,” said Jake Dobkin, the website’s founder, about the use of graffiti in politically-charged cities. “Take (the conflict in Israel) – there’s plenty of anti-Israeli graffiti on the Palestinian side of the separation wall. But there’s also plenty of pro-Israel stuff on the other side of the wall, and in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,” he said. “Both sides use graf(fiti) because it’s an easy way of getting attention.”

It’s also an easy way of portraying personal or cultural views to a big audience: the public.

Graffiti is a transient art. What may be on a wall today might not be there tomorrow. Graffiti Archaeology, a project dedicated to the study of graffiti, treats graffiti as an artifact preserved through pictures that the site’s founder, Cassidy Curtis, assembles in a timeline format.

nce almost the very beginning,” Curtis said. “The fact that writers expect their work to be painted over eventually creates an entirely different value system around the work. It’s not the finished object that’s important, but the act of painting it.”

The website considers graffiti a social art form – the graffiti on a building from three months ago might not be the same graffiti that exists there now, but there’s often a dialogue between different artists who approach the same canvas.

“Graffiti does have a social aspect to it, certainly,” S.H.R. said. “It’s awesome to see what other people are doing and take ideas from them, just as much as any other form of art when you play off other people’s ideas.”

Graffiti is controversial in relation to the dynamics between legal and illegal, public canvas and private property. The issues are subject to debate, especially between the people who advocate graffiti as a legitimate art form.

According to Dobkin, the difference between graffiti being legal or illegal lies in questioning the role of anti-graffiti laws themselves, and not in questioning graffiti’s role as an art form. “Obviously, graffiti takes a different view of property, so it’s not surprising that most ‘upstanding’ citizens react to it with disdain,” Dobkin said.

S.H.R. agrees that there are certain complexities put in play when people relegate graffiti to the “art of the slums and ghettos.”

Curtis, however, thinks differently.

“You can’t separate the destructive component (of graffiti) from the creative,” he said. “But you can choose to perceive graffiti as a gift, a piece of free art done at no cost to you; or you can choose to perceive it as theft, as the taking of public or private space. It’s all a matter of perspective.”

Either way, the artistic, social and cultural roles graffiti plays shouldn’t be holed into preconceived notions of the graffiti artists’ intentions. Graffiti is a charged art form with a charm that bridges the concepts between “high art” and the perception of “low art,” between what’s in the Museum of Modern Art and what’s on the streets.

“In the end, I think all that matters is what’s on the wall,” S.H.R. said.

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