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Graffiti - When Art Becomes a Crime

Jun 18, 2008
As the train pulls into London Victoria train station and commuters arrive for another day's work in the city, those that look out of the window will notice an abundance of 'tags' that adorn the carriages and walls. There will be many reactions to these pieces of art ranging from appreciation of the skill involved to disgust at the lack of respect for private property. Whether you love or hate graffiti and the various forms of graffiti art, the main issue that critics raise is that it is illegal and the artist is therefore a criminal.

The most famous of all graffiti artists is the notoriously elusive Banksy. His pieces are generally satirical statements and his targets have ranged from Disney to the Mona Lisa. The so-called 'guerilla art' that Banksy is responsible for has become hugely popular with the general public as well as with art-buying celebrities including Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera. At Sotheby's in 2007, three of his works fetched a combined total of 170,400 pounds with one piece alone selling for over 100,000. Banksy reacted to this growing popularity by adding the following comment to his own website 'I Can't Believe You Morons Actually Buy This S***.' Enough said.

As the most high-profile graffiti artist in the UK today, Banksy's work encourages many copycats and aspiring contemporaries. However, for every Banksy there will be so many more graffiti artists that lack the creativity, wit and skill to produce 'art' and so their stylings will be regarded solely as a nuisance. Can we really set one rule for Banksy and another for a young kid spraying his name on the side of someone's house? Critics will point to the fact that graffiti is criminal damage and its artistic merits are irrelevant to the argument.

The law surrounding graffiti is far more black-and-white than people's reactions to it. Banksy's murals spark debate wherever they appear and moreso due to the high value that the pieces now achieve at auction. In a London street, council workers recently whitewashed a Banksy original after some residents complained. One council spokesman commented that 'it's graffiti and we treat it that way' proving that if residents complain then the 'art' will be removed.

The law denotes that graffiti is criminal damage and the maximum sentence if convicted is 10 years imprisonment. The severity of this sentence indicates how seriously the government considers graffiti to be, and the impact it will have on the wider community. Residential areas with excessive levels of graffiti will often be associated with neglect and poverty. However inaccurate or accurate this assumption may be, it is believed that when graffiti has been removed quickly then it is less likely to reappear. People take pride in where they live and should not have to suffer for someone else's art.

It is hard to associate Banksy with the graffiti artists that spray poorly designed and conceived logos on bus shelters and shop windows across the country. But we must compare them as they adopt the principles that constitute the fundamental qualities of graffiti. However much we appreciate the intelligence behind the design and the skill in its execution, graffiti is in its very nature a criminal act and little more.
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