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Your Crime is Your Trademark

When Vandalism Becomes Street Art

By Durga Sharma

Street art outside an art supplies shop
Photo: Robinson Greig via Unsplash

I think we have all heard of Banksy by now, whether you are familiar with his art or joined in with the thousands lamenting over the shredding of ‘Girl with Balloon’ (now known as ‘Love is in the Bin’).

By extension, most of us will be privy to the eternal debate over Banksy’s status - specifically, whether he is an artist, or a glorified criminal. The question over where the line is between crime and art is one that has stretched over decades, and ultimately still has no clear answer. Having said that, it does seem to hinge largely on public perception of the artist, allowing them to make their crime their trademark. But when does this happen? When does a professional vandal become a recognised artist?

Graffiti is defined by Collins Dictionary as “words or pictures that are written or drawn in public places, for example on walls or posters”. Generally, graffiti has negative connotations, and is typically associated with crime and antisocial behaviours. This may be due to the process of ‘tagging’, whereby people use their name or symbol to mark their territory, a technique commonly used by gangs.

Tagging falls under the umbrella of graffiti, which is itself within the remit of Section One of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. There is also a related offence under Section 18 of the Public Order Act 1986 for ‘use of words or behaviour or display of written material’ which contributes to the negative image associated with graffiti (though it is more to do with stirring up and spreading hatred).

So how is this different to street art?

Collins Dictionary does have a definition for street art - “art produced in a public space without formal permission”. Suspiciously similar to graffiti, street art is legitimised due to its iconic style, and generally has more positive connotations as a result.

Image of Bobby Sands Mural in Belfast
Photo: Allan Henderson via Flickr

Additionally, street art tells a story - among other things, the Belfast Murals remind citizens and tourists alike of the Troubles, and their lasting impact on society.

The Bobby Sands Mural (right) is one of the more iconic ones, and has been restored many times, with the most recent version being completed in 2015. When compared to “traditional graffiti”, it does have a lot more character. Yet the purpose is the same - to leave a mark.

Instances of graffiti have certainly risen in the last couple of decades, but it is not a new concept; originating in New York, graffiti and street art have been around since the 1960s, with the first prominent artist being Cornbread (Darryl McCray) in 1965. By the end of the decade, graffiti had come to Britain, and gained traction through the 70s and 80s, before truly morphing into street art in the 1990s.

This was also around the time that Banksy became active, producing his first work - “The Mild Mild West” - in 1997. Though he had a huge following in Britain, Banksy rose to international fame in 2005, after stencilling over the West Bank or Segregation Wall, which separates Israel and Palestine. Such actions again demonstrate the difference between pure graffiti and street art - Banksy’s works send a message and allow him to work as a political and social activist, whereas graffiti sometimes appears to be an idle pastime quickly forgotten.

Banksy is a particular enigma as he remains anonymous to this day. Many would revel in the fame and following he has cultivated, yet he hides from the public eye. Many argue that the main reason for this is that his works are technically illegal - he does not have permission to paint as mural artists do. Additionally, he does not appear to be using free walls. Free walls were introduced in the UK in 2016 in an attempt to combat vandalism by providing spaces for people to graffiti without fear of prosecution. This is a trend that caught on, with 2206 free walls around the world to date according to Yet many free walls are home to street art as well as graffiti, as seen in places such as Amsterdam’s NDSM (above). Again, this makes me question when exactly it is that a person stops doing damage to a place, and starts to improve it through art.

Banksy essentially commits criminal damage each time he creates a new piece. This of course begs the question of why nobody is pursuing him within the legal profession. Quite apart from anything else, you can’t prosecute someone if you don’t know who they are!

Street artists thrive on public perception of their art - when thinking of Banksy, most people would come up with ‘artist’ rather than ‘criminal’ in the first instance. Perhaps this is why Banksy has managed to elude authorities for so many years; his art has reached such a status that people do not associate it with crime anymore. This is not to say that prominent graffiti artists cannot be prosecuted, as proven by the jailing of Charlie Silver (the man behind the Oxford ‘SOAK’) in 2015. It is this sort of double standard which really makes me question when a person crosses the border from criminal to artist, and what other factors besides their art play into this. Is it solely Banksy’s anonymity which allowed him to do this? Perhaps.

So, when does vandalism become street art? It does seem to be very unclear with no set criteria, although if Banksy is anything to go by, anonymity and an ulterior purpose such as activism seem to play a huge part (with the latter allowing the art to move away from basic tagging into something more). Also, social or historical background can improve the overall image of what in the first instance appears to be graffiti, as well as the intricate detail seen in murals. Above all, persistence is key. To go from a vandal to an artist, the person must keep going across several years and in multiple locations to truly make their crime their trademark.


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