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Nichols Ashley Nichols ENG3083-03 Dr. Maggie Simon 20 March 2013

An Analysis of Early and Modern Graffiti in Light of Fleming’s Theory on Sanctioning Graffiti, in general, has been in constant debate about whether it’s artistic or simply vandalism. Some critics believe that graffiti is distasteful, because they only see it as criminal action and dismiss any hint of art. Others see early graffiti as a door to history and a way of past expression, even though the concept is the same as modern graffiti. Juliet Fleming said that “graffiti writing was once sanctioned in ways now foreign to ourselves” (Fleming 34). She was discussing early graffiti in a manner of artistic expression in a way that is now praised; it would seem that Fleming doesn’t agree that modern graffiti is or can be sanctioned nowadays. Although it can be argued that she’s right, graffiti is held in much lower standards today, it can also be argued that there are many types of modern graffiti that are overlooked as vandalism and are ignored as art. In today’s society many pieces of graffiti aren’t considered art, because they don’t always comply with, or appear to, governmental laws. Fleming says that graffiti is no longer sanctioned in the modern world, but I believe that it can exceed the limitations of modern society by eliminating graffiti criminal correlations. In the first chapter of Fleming’s book, she makes her case that early Elizabethan graffiti “was as common, and as unremarkable, in domestic interiors as it was in the churches of early modern England” (Fleming 38). Basically all of the mantelpiece-writings, bed etchings, and sexual smoke images were normal in that day-and-age, but now they act as a window into the


Nichols past. I look at modern graffiti in the same light; it’s seen almost everywhere and is expected, and sometimes accepted, from society. Although many people today correlate graffiti with vandalism, one day it could very well be a door into our own history. Graffiti definitely carries “a ‘paradoxical phenomenon…both aesthetic practice and criminal activity’” (Edwards 346). Graffiti without permission is indisputably considered illegal, but it is not always seen that way. For example, Banksy, a well-known graffiti artist, is popular for painting several somewhat controversial pieces and has yet to be charged with any criminal activity, even though he is clearly breaking the law. His graffiti may be renowned, but it’s considered art, even though it is vandalism according to the government. Why is it that not all visually-appealing pieces are considered art? In the Elizabethan time, what we consider to be early graffiti was then something of a diary to the people of that era; ‘graffiti’ was personal as well as “political commentary, erotic fixation, personal slander and the performance of signature are still recognizable as appropriate” (Fleming 58). People used bedside surfaces for heartfelt poems, churches as timelines, and even smoke to tell dirty stories; they used ‘graffiti’ as a way of self-expression and I highly doubt they planned to write for us to see their history. Modern graffiti can be viewed in the same light; it’s accepted in society as a way of telling a story or seeking attention, even though now it’s mostly considered illegal, it does often carry the same sentiments. It also holds true that “viewing ancient graffiti as acts of defacement is as likely to mislead as to illuminate” (Baird 4). It’s basically graffiti discrimination; you can’t view genre one genre of graffiti as illegal and not the other, because they are essentially the same thing and carry similar meanings based on their times. In the Elizabethan times, a man might make a posy for his woman and in modern society a


Nichols man might spray paint her initials; they are both very different, but hold the same emotions and sentiments, so why is one seen as vandalism and not the other? I believe that society has seen so many heinous acts of graffiti that it has come to associate artistic graffiti with vandalistic graffiti, completely ignoring the beauty it has to offer. For example, two graffiti artists, El Mac and Retna, collaboratively created a painting of a woman with intricate Native American background details (Kloo). This piece of art is so beautiful and yet many still view it as vandalism that cannot be fully appreciated. Many other graffiti artists like Mr. Mucho, Saber, 6emeia, and Paopao create very unique pieces that ‘disrupt’ society in a tasteful manner; some are fun to look at and others are a display of wonderful creativity (Freedman). Often times these works of art get lumped in with your run-of-the-mill teenage graffiti that are often distasteful and offensive (Hocking). Fleming has the right idea of graffiti not being sanctioned in modern times, but she’s missing the possibility that not all graffiti has to fall under vandalism. If there was someone to lengthen Banksy’s lack of criminal record onto equally talented graffiti artists, then I think people would begin to appreciate artistic graffiti in its true and natural form: creativity unleashed. “Defining graffiti as either art or vandalism is too simple” (Bowen 35). Tracey Bowen did a study on contemporary graffiti artists in the Greater Toronto area; part of his goal was to uncover the thought process and motivation of many young and talented artists. Many of the subjects said that they only painted in areas of given permission, which reflects the respect that most ‘professional’ graffiti artists obtain, clearly opposing the rebellious teen who managed to get his hands on a spray paint bottle. Graffiti that defaces “institutional surfaces as a random way to express or attack the ‘system’” is the immature path that many unprofessional graffitists take as a way to get their voices heard; they don’t seem to consider the negative effects and


Nichols connotations their actions have amongst the community. It is also due to the fact that the societal view on both early and modern graffiti is split between artistic and criminal, leaving each individual with their own opinion. Ron English states it best: “The problem is not with the artists, the problem is with society not knowing how to accept artists” (Graffiti). Graffiti encompasses more than spray paint cans and stencils on the side of a broken down car, it also deals with what Hermer and Hunt call official graffiti, otherwise known as signs. Signs are regulations “that not only mark formal legitimacy but also assert legitimacy” (Hermer 456). They are either warnings against a specific law or reminders of social cues (for example: don’t walk on the grass). One would think that since these signs are considered official decrees from our government/authority that they are commonly adhered to, but to anyone who has ever driven a car chances are a few laws were either intentionally or accidentally broken and received no criminal charges. “We are faced with such an array of injunctions, warnings, directions, and threats that the breaking or avoidance of regulation becomes expected and normal” (Hermer 457). Fleming said almost the same thing about early graffiti, that it was accepted and normal, but can’t the same be said about modern graffiti? It covers large portions of rundown areas and it’s not a secret that people go out there to paint and yet many of today’s society has a difficult time accepting and appreciating the graffiti that is also artistry. Early graffiti was sanctioned and expected, similar to bathroom art in public restrooms. Official art is unavoidable and respected, yet it is considered normal and in some cases acceptable to repudiate and disregard it even though it is the law. Modern graffiti can cover a wide expanse from creative to distasteful, but not all graffiti is vandalism and not all graffiti is necessarily artistic. Graffiti, no matter the type, is still art, whether it isn’t understandable, liked, or appreciated, it’s a method of expression for whoever the artist is. I believe that it is up to


Nichols society to move past their discriminatory manners and really take in true graffiti art for what it is. Art should be enjoyed, esteemed, provoking, and stir something within the viewer; it doesn’t always have to portray a message that is agreeable and often times it won’t, but it does need to be seen as art and not vandalism. Any criminal act should be punished, because it is in violation of our government, be it speeding or tagging in a public area. Modern graffiti done in legal limitations should be seen in its true entity without the distorting societal parallel of vandalism and criminal activity.

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Nichols Works Cited

Baird, Jennifer A., and Claire Taylor. Ancient Graffiti in Context. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print. Bowen, Tracey E. "Graffiti Art: A Contemporary Study of Toronto Artists." National Art Education Association 41.1 (1999): 22-39. Print. Edwards, Ian. "Banksy's Graffiti: A Not-so-simple Case of Criminal Damage?" Journal of Criminal Law 73.4 (2009): 345-61. Print. Fleming, Juliet. "Chapter One: Graffiti." Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001. 29-72. Print. Freedman, Vitaly. "Tribute To Graffiti: 50 Beautiful Graffiti Artworks | Smashing Magazine." Tribute To Graffiti: 50 Beautiful Graffiti Artworks | Smashing Magazine. Smashing Magazine, 14 Sept. 2008. Web. 18 Mar. 2013. Graffiti: Inspirational or Offensive? Dir. Tim Muffett. BBC News, 2012. News Broadcast. BBC News. BBC, 28 June 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. Hermer, Joe, and Alan Hunt. "Official Graffiti of the Everyday." Law & Society Review30.3 (1996): 455-80. Print. Hocking, Scott. "'Bad Graffiti'" The Full. Huffington Post, 17 Dec. 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2013. Kloo, Steven. "Elmac & Retna on Western." Flickr. Yahoo!, 31 Mar. 2007. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.