Intent and purpose separate vandalism and artwork in graffiti

Rafael RiveroAs I walked into the bathroom of Clark A last week and closed the stall door behind me, I was immediately confronted with a hastily drawn phallus sporting a biologically impossible set of testes. Taken aback, I looked around me and noticed that I had been effectively surrounded by a wide range of vandalism. Whether it was a simple drawing, a phone number, an unabashed reference to fellatio or a “tag,” the graffiti was everywhere.

Now, in the graffiti’s defense, I was already somewhat primed for the situation. The Clark buildings, and specifically Clark A, are well-known for their preponderance of vandalism. Outside or inside, no wall, stall, computer or microphone (check A206 and its student microphones) is safe.

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The first question that comes to mind is: why?

As someone who hails from Puerto Rico and has been involved with various people that were part of graffiti crews, I believe I can shed some light on the issue at hand.

From my experience back home, the main point of any “tag,” “throw-up” or “piece” is to stick it to the man via clever subterfuge. The law says that drawing anything on public and private property is an illegal and criminal activity. But who the heck is the law to tell you, a self-proclaimed artist, how to creatively express yourself? Better write on this wall when the law isn’t looking. That’ll show ‘em.

The problem with this way of thinking comes from all fronts, but I will only discuss the two most important ones. First, unless the graffiti qualifies as a work of art (which the vast majority doesn’t), it detracts from the aesthetics of the location. Does your name signed in a stylized way somehow add to a building’s freshly painted walls? I don’t think so.

Second, by sticking it to the man, you are sticking it to yourself because the process of removing graffiti is taxing, literally. The official numbers big cities spend annually range from $3 million in Las Vegas, NV to upwards of $28 million in Los Angeles, CA. Our very own Mile High City, Denver, spends around $1 million on removal. And that’s taxpayer dollars. It comes from the pockets of your neighbor, that one guy on the plaza, the person in the other stall and you.

Does this mean that all graffiti is detrimental to society? Well, no.

Again drawing from my experience, I have learned to value beautiful and poignant graffiti. Back home, since the names of most of the graffiti crews were well-known, when there was an abandoned building or decaying wall in an urban area, the city would reach out to members in an effort recruit their services. Different crews would work together on intricate artwork that employed both actual paint on rollers and spray paint, creating a mural that represented the cooperation between two traditionally warring factions.

Sometimes, though, beautiful graffiti is also created illegally. For instance, anyone who knows something about graffiti has heard the name Banksy. He is a mysterious figure from England who’s work offers more than just defacement of property. His art, which is stenciled with spray paint, offers political commentaries, upends social stigmas and details harrowing facts about love and war. As a result, his work manages to capture the public’s attention and respect, to the point where they will rise up and defend any city’s effort to remove the murals.

If you haven’t seen any of Banksy’s artwork, I would recommend “Rage,” “Cave Painting,” “Sniper & Boy,” “Girl with a Balloon,” and “Bang.” A simple Google search will serve to show the simplistic elegance and inherent meaning behind his work that puts it above mere vandalism.

A subtle line exists between vandalism and art, one that may vary from individual to individual and between the people and their governing bodies. Without condoning illicit activities, it can also be said that there’s a difference between doing graffiti for its own sake and doing graffiti as a means to communicate and combat woes, afflictions, beliefs and stigmas through art.

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Though all of this comes spiraling back to me in the stall in Clark A. Is what surrounds me necessary? No. Does it achieve communication of something worthwhile? No. Is it respectful and tactful? Definitely not.

So, before you grab a sharpie or spray can and head out to leave your mark on the world, take a moment to reflect upon what it is you’re trying to achieve and if graffiti is the proper way to go about it.

Rafael Rivero is a senior zoology major. His columns appear every other Tuesday in the Collegian. Letters and Feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.