You Call graffiti art? What’s vandalism? What’s “Guerilla Art”?

Graffiti in Amsterdam

Art or vandalism? Photo by Dohduhdah

Is graffiti public art? My answer to that is that some graffiti can be artful, especially if it carries a high energy, emotional or socio-political message. This stuff represents a generation that wants to state an anti-establishment message or attitude by violating public or private spaces and places. Sometimes this type of expression can be a powerful outlet. But is it responsible and respectful? No, not if it damages someone else’s property.  Another type of graffiti called “tagging” is usually less artful…and merely serves to put the graffitist’s signature on the property, like a dog declaring turf by peeing on it. The bottom line for me is that if either of these occurs in an unsanctioned manner on public or private spaces it is disrespectful and should be discouraged. This is especially true when graffiti occurs on other art objects.

Jean Michel Basquiat

"Untitled" by Jean Michel Basquiat

An interesting solution to this problem is occurring in many cities around the world. I first encountered it in St. Petersburg, Russia, where city officials allocated a large brick courtyard surrounded by blank walled buildings to be a ‘free expression zone’. Anyone could come into the space and graffiti the walls with any images, messages, and other graphic symbols. In this space, anything goes, and one would not get arrested for defacing property. It provides an outlet for the emotion that compels graffiti artists. Anywhere else in this beautiful city, however, and graffiti is illegal and subject to jail time.

FYI some graffiti artists have gone on to make successful careers as professional artists harnessing their imagery on painted canvas. Examples include Basquiat and KOS.

Monolith in Seattle, New Year's Day 2001

Guerilla art is a horse of a different color. This kind of art is also unsanctioned, and it usually occurs in public spaces, appearing as a surprise, serving as provocateur, then disappearing without a trace. Its roots are in performance art, and often involve live artists and collaborators in the streets or city plazas and parks. An example of this is the aforementioned giant monolith that appeared on a hill in a Seattle park on New Year’s Day 2001 (referencing the movie “2001 Space Odyssey”), then a day or two later, it disappeared and then reappeared on the little island in the middle of Green Lake, no mean feat since it was made of steel and weighed over 1000 lbs.Ball and Chain, Hammering Man

Another guerilla artwork Seattleites may remember is the gigantic ball and chain that appeared on Borofsky’s Hammering Man at the Seattle Art Museum early on a Labor Day morning. These artists were adding a message to an existing artwork, and did so with such respect for the original artwork that they even placed rubber protectors inside the chain’s ankle cuff to prevent the original’s paint from scratching. I enjoy this kind of quick, temporary intervention, especially when the guerilla artists show respect for the place or piece. And especially if the guerilla work provokes thought about social, ethical, political, or aesthetic mores. Guerilla art can be an effective wake up call to our culture and society. Many artists enjoy making this kind of art because it involves direct interaction with the public in the streets, instead of the very private interaction with materials in the studio.

About The Author

John T. Young

John T. Young, host and writer, is a renowned artist in his own right. He’s also Professor of Sculpture and Public Art at The University of Washington in Seattle

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11 2010


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