Art Talk: Graffiti — Virtuosity or Vandalism?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Crime is low and rents are high in New York, but graffiti is back.

The elusive British artist known as Banksy is staging "an artist's residency" this month, creating a new piece of street art almost every day at different locations throughout the city.

In the meantime, 16 artists at the graffiti mecca in Long Island City known as 5 Pointz received a restraining order against the demolition of the warehouse.

Does that mean graffiti is coming back, after its heyday in the 1980s? WNYC's art critic Deborah Solomon thinks so.

"What we are seeing is really the mainstreaming of graffiti, and we are going through a period when artists want their work to endure, and owners of buildings want to keep some of the graffiti that is on the building because it's worth something," she said.

Solomon actually thinks graffiti should be decriminalized in New York City. Do you agree, or do you think graffiti artists are vandals? Leave your comment below.

To listen to the whole interview with Solomon, click on the audio player.

Hosted by:

Soterios Johnson


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Comments [43]

Jeremy from Montclair, NJ

I'd also like to just add that graffiti is so unique in its ability to be viewed by the masses, regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status, etc. If these artists actually disappeared because of the illegality of street art/graffiti, then we'd have a situation where, per the status quo, only those within the upper ranks of society would have the opportunity to view works of art in museums, galleries, etc, once again limiting the scope of what art is to that which is accepted by the upper classes.

Oct. 29 2013 09:03 AM
Jeremy from Montclair, NJ

First off, I just have to ask whether or not Rosalyn is serious in her post and if so, how she can both call herself a liberal and how she can sleep at night with opinions such as granting the death penalty to those convicted of doing graffiti??? Anyway, I also just want to add that, as is the case with entirely too much of our own culture, it is the "haves" - as opposed to the "have nots" - who seem to UNFAIRLY get to determine what is or isn't art. One of the greatest examples of graffiti-turned-art when the white, upper-class decided so, was in the case of SAMO, aka Jean Michel Basquiat. Prior to being "discovered" by the one-percenters, Basquiat's work was just the graffiti work of some vandal. Following his recognition, however, he not only emerged as one of the most famous and influential artists of the 80's, but the public themselves then turned into vandals while trying to remove Basquiat's works from their natural environments -i.e. people tearing doors of their hinges because the door had a SAMO piece on it.

Oct. 29 2013 08:53 AM
Jackov from Newark, NJ

I consider graffiti as ART. Personally, it is more relevant than an 18th century painting from a time or culture that I have no connection (especially, being a modernist).
BTW--many "classic" works of art would have been considered scandalous or blasphemous when created.

You can view my photos of Queens graffiti:

Oct. 26 2013 04:26 PM
SPR from S.I., NY

Just curious: If I were to go out and spray paint over some graffiti 'artist's' work, would that be art, too?

No matter: it is vandalism on both counts.

Oct. 26 2013 03:39 PM
Harlan Barnhart from Brooklyn

Brown people in America create an art form which lies unappreciated until some thin white people from the UK bring it back to the US to widespread acclaim. I've heard this story before.

Oct. 25 2013 07:44 PM
Alicia Bliffeld

Art is always Art, no matter the form. Great graffiti can can be great Art Good graffiti can be pleasing to the eye, or not. It depends on the eye of the beholder. Bad graffiti is and always will be BAD GRAFFITI.

Remember the CAVES??? Remember Underground [subway] Art? It's only a matter of medium used.

Oct. 25 2013 05:37 PM
Roslyn from Manhattan

Here I am a progressive/liberal/educated/New Yorker who would not blink an eye if the death penalty was enforced for anyone/any age/on any structure for those defacing any property. Trust me - one or two examples would end the issue permanently.

Oct. 25 2013 05:24 PM
Mike Storms from New York, NY

When graffiti is tagged on structures whose owners don't want it because 1) it's usually ugly and 2) it negatively impacts the property's value, that's vandalism. Graffiti, executed with the permission of the property owner and drawn, tagged, sprayed or otherwise applied on a level that can be appreciated by most humans who have any feeling for beauty in any any of its forms, is probably art.
About ninety-eight percent of graffiti that we are assaulted by on a regular basis is vandalism, pure and simple. Congratulations to Banksy and other artists in that medium who can actually create some beauty.

Oct. 25 2013 05:13 PM
Richard from from NJ

As the plural of graffito, the word graffiti has an ancient history and so does the act of creating graffito, on everything from cave walls to walls in the bordellos of Pompeii. In my opinion, graffiti are vandalism, pure and simple. In some cases(depending on one's art tastes) the act may be called "artistic vandalism." What's to be gained by decriminalizing it? It'll go on regardless of what the law says. Consider that despite laws that prohibit "defacing" money, people flout that law every day, as can be seen in 1000's of examples at They exist because someone broke the law. If people perceive any of these to be art, who's to argue?

Oct. 25 2013 04:05 PM
klaus moritz from queens

Let this guys socalled art go to the modern museum of art,where they have a lot of crap like that/ But lets not deface personal property walls.

Oct. 25 2013 03:42 PM
Leslie Lowe from New York, NY

As an artist myself and harsh judge of other's efforts, I've seen some brilliant graffiti and haven't we all seen some dreadful graffiti. Is it 'Art?' Some of it definitely is. Besides the skill (with spray paint no less!) with which graffiti is rendered, I am often impressed with the composition, color, etc. And whether it be the a corporate building or a housing project, one has to admire the human compulsion to manifest one's identity, even if one does not approve. 'Art' is often in the eye of the beholder.
I think decriminalizing graffiti and assigning sanctioned space for graffiti is a great idea and it should be NON-TAXABLE!

Oct. 25 2013 03:08 PM
Keira from Manhattan

The first wave of NY graffiti art was in the early 70s, not the 80s, and if you designate certain areas open to graffiti, as Ms Solomon suggests, than whatever the resulting work,—boring, interesting, ugly, beautiful—it would certainly not be graffiti. Mr Banksy himself has long ago left the ranks of graffiti artists and his current endeavors in NY would be better classified as street theater or an outdoor gallery showing in the faux grittiness of the downtown gallery world. The early 70s NY graffiti had its flowering in the magnificent full length subway car murals that were both beautiful and a blight. The great ones were jaw-dropping the first time you would see them. But they also made it impossible to see out the window of 4 and the 5 trains—no small problem—along with the accompanying plague of tagging and "scratchitti". That's the inherent contradiction that exists in all great graffiti. You cannot institutionalize that.

Oct. 25 2013 02:57 PM
stan rom somerset

Alec Guiness in "The Horses Mouth" said it all.

Oct. 25 2013 02:52 PM
Nick Farr

I don't believe it's a question of graffiti versus art. It's a question of violence vs. love. Defacing property is a violent expression that should be prosecuted as we would any other crime of violence. Political or cultural expression, on the other hand, should be tolerated by society as we, say, tolerate innocent curfew violations in Central Park.

Example: Drawing or writing in permanent marker across the advertising side of a CitiBike station or Bus Stop is very unlikely to be considered a violent expression by a panel of New Yorkers. Smashing the glass covering it is almost certainly going to be considered a violent expression. Of course, there will be people who find both to be violent expressions and both who find them to be acceptable speech.

What's missing entirely in this conversation is a concept of discretion and judgment. The real societal issue here is the zero-tolerance approach to everything.

Oct. 25 2013 02:51 PM
thom from NJ

I think graffiti/street art can be beautiful, but what if I don't like what you paint on my property. Who is responsible for cleaning it up. Does the artist have the right to paint anywhere just for because? Without the owner's permission, it's vandalism..

Oct. 25 2013 02:30 PM
Deborah Solomon from Art critic, WNYC

Hey everyone,

Thanks for your smart and interesting comments. Andrea, Jeremy from Montclair, NJ, Ann from Jersey City, Elizabeth Jaime from NY -- I appreciate your supportive tone. I continue to think that graffiti needs to be decriminalized in NY. Right now it's a class A misdemeanor and convicted graffiti artists can spend a year in jail, much like those convicted of third-degree assault, forgery, bail jumping, sexual abuse, etc. New York is the ART CAPITAL of this country and possibly the planet and we need to find a way to allow street art to flourish legally. Why not start by permitting graffiti on -- for instance -- three subway cars?

Oct. 25 2013 02:22 PM

Yes to both- graffiti artists are vandals and Yes! they are artists accomplishing innovative and amazing works. Cities should make venues for his dynamic and very large art, allow vacant property to be used for the large murals and erect walls on vacant lots

Thank you for airing this topic

Oct. 25 2013 01:59 PM
Jeremy from Montclair, NJ

I am absolutely AMAZED that the majority of responses here have placed graffiti SOLELY in the category(ies) of illegal/vandalism/NON-art! Forget amazed actually, I'm downright DEPRESSED! To use the cliche of giving a dictionary definition of a word before exploring/defending its application, "ART," as defined by the Oxford dictionary of American English is "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination...producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power." Adhering to this most basic definition of art, there is no way that graffiti does not fit! So much of the graffiti that is done shows INCREDIBLE "human creative skill and imagination!" If you've ever tried to simply write your name in a graffiti-style font, you'd understand the creative skill that this entails and the inumerable styles that exist show the vast imaginative nature of graffiti. Of course I absolutely do not indiscriminately feel that ALL graffiti is art, just like I do not consider every single drawing or painting to be art. What separates art from non-art in this context is the state of mind/intentions/etc. of the graffiti artist themselves and there is no way that one can determine any of that based solely on the graffiti piece itself. Open your minds up to self-expression that falls outside of the status-quo; afterall, that's how great innovation takes place.

Oct. 25 2013 01:51 PM
Bob K from New York City

It's dishonest, destructive and demoralizing to see these scrawlings on public and private property. I think it's further evidence of a decline in civility. Perhaps Banksy could use some of his/her newfound wealth to construct a wall somewhere for fellow graffists.

Oct. 25 2013 01:35 PM
Christine Blossy

I'm amazed that Deborah Solomon would encourage illegal destruction of private property. If someone wants a mural there are plenty of artists looking for work. I agree some grafitti can be interesting but it doesn't change the fact that it is illegal and most of the time downright ugly.

Oct. 25 2013 01:25 PM
Raul R Nunez from Manhattan

Art sinks to a new low when accepting graffiti as an expression of it. Period.

Oct. 25 2013 12:41 PM
Lofty from Newark, NJ

How would Deborah Solomon fell about her building being "tagged"?

Oct. 25 2013 12:25 PM
Lofty from Newark, NJ

How would Deborah Solomon fell about her building being "tagged"?

Oct. 25 2013 12:24 PM
Brooklyn Through & Through from Brooklyn

Under NO circumstance is Graffiti ever Art. It is Vandalism, pure and simple. If Graffiti vandals ever came home one day to find that all of their property (say for, example, their Bed & Bedsheets, TV, Fridge and stereo) had been scrawled on, defaced and permanently damaged by spray-paint they'd be livid.

We all feel the same way.

If you are a good artist, find your self a mural and paint on it, legally, with permission. Or a canvas.

But stay away from our private and our public property!

Oct. 25 2013 12:01 PM
Joe Heaps Nelson from Brooklyn

Advertising is just grafitti that's paid for to sell you something. They will pay for your attention, and then you pay again when you buy their product.

Oct. 25 2013 11:40 AM
Ann from Jersey City

Oh Banksy. The lovable goofball. His easy puns and smiley style are very accessible to most people and as an introduction to graffiti, this is a gentle primer for the non-art crowd. I think this is the substitution for real street art which jives with my impression of present-day Manhattan as an unaffordable international rich-kids' playground.
In the Riverview Arts District of Jersey City artists are using more desirable graffiti to fight less desirable graffiti. The security gates of most businesses in this area have been tagged or in some cases, just squiggled on, and it looks like bored kids who don't really care what marks they make are in charge. Neighbors and businesses are currently working with young artists who take their street art (and compositions, images and meaning) a little more seriously, to create stipends and cover material costs in order to repaint the metal security gates with images created a little more purposefully. There's still spray paint, stencils and the same imagery that these street artists are known for, but as an arts community, we're choosing it over unremarkable and destructive-looking marks and showing the youngest taggers what they can aspire to.

Oct. 25 2013 11:02 AM
susan from Hoboken

Blogs do not appear on private property. They must be tuned into-they do not impinge on public space unasked for.

Oct. 25 2013 10:47 AM
Hepzibah from Murray Hill

Graffiti tells us that the Vandals are loose. It's aggressive, hostile, sinister, threatening. What a message sprayed on to the public!

So-called, self-appointed 'art critics' are selling (pitching) themselves for their own grandizement. Posturing.

Oct. 25 2013 10:36 AM
elizabeth jaime from new york, new york

Banksy is doing what bloggers have been doing for a few years now--providing quality content for free therefor providing art for the masses. Of course, whether you like the art or not is up to taste but there's no question that his art is paving the way for a new kind of art.

Oct. 25 2013 10:32 AM

The purpose of art is to move people in a unique way, so by this simple definition Banksy is an artist. From what I've seen of him, he is also cognizant of the risks involved in making his art. I'm sure he is more than prepared to pay the price of getting caught.

Oct. 25 2013 10:12 AM
Augusto Villalon from Pine Island, Florida

There should never have been this question posted. There is no "Option" to consider anything illegal and immoral a piece of art. The problem is that we, as a society have given up on a bunch of principles that existed before. I you paint on a wall that do not belong to you, furthermore, it has been paid by an owner or the public treasure (which belongs to me as a tax-payer) you are infringing not only on the law but on human rights and the right to private property. There is no art... only criminal vandalism

Oct. 25 2013 09:55 AM
JF Purcell

The difference between as grafitti vandal and an artist is whether the artwork is put up voluntarily or not.

Oct. 25 2013 09:55 AM
frank caropreso from Sunnyside, NYC

I've lived in NYC during the heyday of the Graffiti blight: the subways were scary, the glass of the windows could not be seen through as they were covered with tags. How dare anyone consider decriminalizing this blight. I love art. I love art. I love art but I don't love tree trunks spray painted with scrawls from idiots professing their latest teenage love; I don't love the elderly woman's brick facade of her home with smiley faces; I don' t love swastikas on places of worship. I don't love gang markings on sidewalks denoting turf territories. I don't love acid wash on glass and I don't love vans parked on the street destroyed by spray paint.

I am a fan of the art covered factory in LIC,( the Phun Factory) which has been sanctioned as a place to exhibit street art and which I have loved since my youth. Stick to such a canvas to paint but if such places lead back to the general sense of lawlessness and fear that was the 80's New York, then it should go too. How simplistic for so called street artists and those who see it as harmless to believe that it's just art.

Oct. 25 2013 09:15 AM

It is debatable wether or not graffiti is art (whatever art is) - but when someone paints on private or public property without permission, it's vandalism, no debate.

Oct. 25 2013 09:10 AM
Mybarkingdog from Rockland

The subversive aspect of street art is a large part of its appeal (hence Banksy-mania) and, if you want to be involved in subversion, there's always a price to pay. Ideally, there should also be places like 5 Pointz and commissioned murals where artists can stretch out and make art without a look-out.

Oct. 25 2013 09:02 AM
OK Tamease from Newark and New Brunswick NJ

Yes, in theory, there are some forms of graffiti that are indeed art. But the majority of it is not. Mostly it seems to be the artist’s name, in some unintelligible lettering style. I would suggest that most that engage in graffiti are uncouth calligraphers with a narcissistic streak. The idea of making graffiti legal is a bad idea. However, setting aside certain areas for those that truly wish to make art may be a good idea. (Note: I work in a historic building that was recently defaced with graffiti; the vandal sprayed his or her initials all over the stone front, horrible and nearly impossible to remove.)

Oct. 25 2013 09:01 AM
stan chaz from brooklyn usa

The streets belong to the People,
Private property is theft.
Everything is permitted.
That's not a slippery slope.
It's a damn ice rink!

Oct. 25 2013 08:57 AM
Nathan from Brooklyn

The celebrities will be tolerated, the kids will be painted over. Keep it illegal, and keep it going. Art is irrepressible!

Oct. 25 2013 08:54 AM
wynn from Manhattan

What an honor to have this ingenious artwork on your property...

Oct. 25 2013 08:38 AM
Ron Steelman from NJ

Oh, please. A real artist PAYS for his/her canvas. It's so dishonest to paint or draw on someone else's property. It took years to rid the city of this horrible blight. I went to Naples, Italy and it looks like NYC used to look. How sad. . .and ugly. Even if the graffiti is "artistic", there's no way that it's art. These sad people are simply anarchists who are destroying the property of others.

Oct. 25 2013 08:36 AM

This conversation has been going on since the Lindsay era! Graffiti is vandalism. There are plenty of opportunities for an artist to practice his/her art, venues that don't require everyone to see it, whether they want to or not. For those who believe it is art, perhaps could display some photos of the subway from the 1970's, or mailboxes, call-boxes, or the Manhattan Bridge of today! You can't say that some graffiti is ok, and some graffiti is not. It's a blight if done somewhere without the owner's permission.

Oct. 25 2013 08:14 AM
Ken from NJ

Banksy is brilliant, but most graffiti artists are not. I'm afraid defacing buildings, etc., should not be tolerated. I guess we need a dedicated graffiti venue, although Banksy would have trouble remaining anonymous.

Oct. 25 2013 07:52 AM
Dave K from Manhattan

I'll say it as often as called for:
Corporate and Hollywood ADVERTISING are what truly blight our landscape.
Your question is squarely posited in the pov that a wasteland of visual capitalist brainwashing is normal.
There doesn't seem hope for such as you.

Oct. 25 2013 07:40 AM

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