A thin line between vandalism and art: the graffiti controversy

CultureMap Houston recently reported on Houston’s new Graffiti Mobile and a photo opportunity featuring the truck and Houston Mayor Annise Parker. The story describes the event and contains a few key quotes from Mayor Parker which I would like to address:

“I have mixed emotions about being here,” Mayor Annise Parker told the crowd. “This is a great new graffiti truck and we are going to do wonderful things with it. The bad news is that we have to do it at all… As we get more aggressive, they [graffiti artists] seem to get wilier and find new places to put graffiti.”


“This is a feel-good event,” Parker said, “but since the media is here, I think we need to make a really strong point: Graffiti is a crime. We spend tens of thousands — in fact, I think it’s about a million dollars a year cleaning up graffiti. Those are your tax dollars we’re spending.”

A previous story on Culturemap Houston takes a different tack and features an interview with well-known urban artist GONZO247 of Aerosol Warfare. These quotes in particular stand out (from Carolyn Casey, the education program director for Aerosol Warfare):

“Awhile back, they [City Council] had a meeting open to the public, and they specifically invited all the art people and us because they said they wanted to discuss the graffiti problem,” Casey says. “We thought they were being open to an idea of ours, but they really just called us all there to tell us to tell our friends to stop doing it. They weren’t open to new ideas, and said that as long as they’re spending money on abatement, they’re not going to spend any money on programs.

“But the city’s going to continue spending money on abatement if they don’t have a real solution for it. We see vandalism as different from art, and they consider them to be one.”

I think it’s rather cowardly and pathetic on the part of our city’s government to blur the lines between vandalism and art. There is a huge difference; the most obvious component of the difference between the two is the consent of the owner of the property being “decorated.” If the owner approves, it’s art; if the owner has not consented, it’s more than likely vandalism. I would usually define most lower forms of graffiti such as “tagging” as vandalism. In fact “tagging” is usually what comes to mind when most people think of graffiti. I believe this is a shame as there is a huge difference between legitimate street art and marking one’s “turf” with spray paint. The latter is more directly compared to the behavior of animals who urinate to mark their territory. Unfortunately, spray paint is more visibly noxious and permanent, as well as more difficult to clean up.

I do not support vandalism. I support art, and more importantly I support public awareness of the differences between vandalism and art. If the government of the City of Houston cannot understand the difference between the two, I believe they have failed us all.