What Happens When Graffiti Becomes Art?

Ward 6, a waterfront district in Washington, D.C., is shining a bit brighter today. With the recent mural installation by Hense, an Atlanta-based artist, a once historic church now stands tall – decked out in bold, vibrant colors and  painted textures. Hense’s process was astonishingly similar to that of your everyday graffiti artist, slowly and meticulously layering the exterior of a building with spray paint, rollers and brushes. The only difference? It was entirely legal.

The project was a private commission for an area of D.C. that has been pegged as the next big art district. “This project is the first step in bringing some life and color into the area,” Hense writes. “Taking an existing object like the church and painting the entire thing recontextualizes it and makes it a sculptural object. With projects like this one, we really try to use the existing architecture as inspiration for the direction of the painting.”

After completing several concept drawings, Hense and a small crew covered every side and surface of the building, developing additional layers of large shapes and marks over the course of several weeks. “We really wanted to turn the church into a three-dimensional piece of artwork,” Hense writes. This idea harkens back to a long history of artists who use a term called ‘ready-mades‘ in their practice. From Moma:

“Ready-mades originated from Marcel Duchamp, who borrowed the term from the clothing industry while living in New York. ‘In its strictest sense, [the term] is applied… to the product of an aesthetically provocative act, one that denied the importance of taste and which questioned the meaning of art itself.'”

This means, of course, that graffiti (whether identified as commissioned murals, street art or public art) does indeed qualify as fine art. So why isn’t it regarded as such?

“There is a negative connotation with the word ‘graffiti.’ People see it as crap, but there’s so much good. There [are] so many amazing artists out there who have come from a graffiti background that are doing things that are really highly recognized in the world,” Hense writes in an interview with Atlanta-based culture site, Purge. Take 2011 TED award winner, JR, for example, who illegally posted huge-format portraits of suburban “thugs” from notorious outskirts in the bourgeois districts of Paris. Or the group of South African artists experimenting with reverse graffiti to clean their city’s walls. Or how about the painstakingly secretive moss graffiti from UK artist Anna Garforth?

It’s an art form that originated long before a gallery exhibition or solo show was necessary to justify the act of creative purpose. (Some argue even earlier still.) And according to Anne Pasternak, a contributor to Wooster Collective‘s groundbreaking title, Trespass, it’s an art worth noting:

“There’s a bit of trespass in all of us. And the thing that’s so great about these artists [is that they’re not doing it] for the sake of trespassing…they’re doing it because there’s a poignant reason to do it. Because they believe in free speech. Because they believe in our democracy. And because there are issues that they feel are important to tackle. So, to me, so many of these artists are not in fact vandals, but they’re heroes.”

p.s. Just for fun: geode street art in Los Angeles and a public art installation in Madrid.

Image Credits: Miguel “M.i.G” Martinez via Hense

  • You can call anything “art,” it’s a bit of a meaningless word in that sense. I think the question is really whether graffiti is ethical or unethical, and in most cases, I side with the latter of the two. The defacing of public or private property is inherently an unethical practice, regardless the level of talent involved.

    Whether it’s Banksy with a rat stencil or a teenager drawing genitalia on a bathroom wall, it’s vandalism at the time and expense of others. Let’s not conflate the issue by comparing that to legal, commissioned work. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel isn’t graffiti, and neither is this work that Hense has done legally.

    (And I say this as someone who grew up in the heyday of early ’80s NYC street and subway art, much of which I did and do think was quite beautiful, vital and culturally important. Sadly, its cleanup came largely at the expense of taxpayers in an already financially troubled city with too much derelict property on its hands. For all of the political dreams of what graffiti can accomplish, I’m not sure how much of that has actually come to pass.)

    • @Anna – You’re right; ethics plays a larger role in this discussion. I’m curious – do you deem reverse graffiti to be ethical? In this case, it’s still defacement (albeit temporary), but I wouldn’t call it vandalism. And even though the intention is to improve the original form, isn’t that the intention of every artist? And who decides what merits ‘improvement’?

  • Beautiful images! I feel graffiti artists transcend beyond the boundaries of relationship between an artist and their expected audience. When you’re placing your artwork in a public space it screams a sense of validity that isn’t contingent upon a gallery exhibition or show. And I guess the question becomes does that relationship or need for validity restrict or dim an artist’s work? The graffiti artist is freed from the expectation of amusing or delighting. And I personally want to see more artwork that is from a place within the artist that forces them to spray out their fantasies upon my everyday space with or without my permission. And when you have artists like Pobel or Banksy how can anyone complain? Thank you for sharing the Hense mural!

  • My husband is a police officer (and artist) and he’s been collecting images he likes for years. There are fabulous whole building murals, with interesting things to say, throughout Chicago (where we are). And of course there’s the graphiti artists who have been exhibited in museums, such as Fab 5 Freddy, Keith Haring, Banksy.

    • @Kathryn: I’m glad you mentioned Banksy – it’s hard to write a graffiti post without including him. :)

  • By current definition, graffiti must be done with illicit intention. So the legally commissioned work done by Hense in this example cannot be graffiti.

    So what do we call something like this? ‘Street art’ does not necessarily convey that something like this has the same aesthetics as graffiti art. This work is outside, but that doesn’t sum it up. This work is definitely site specific too — its location/physical environment and shape influenced what Hense created.

    So does the term “graffiti art” need to expand to cover art created legally but in the same aesthetic or does a new term need to be created for this type of work?

    • @Jacqueline: SUCH an awesome point. Even though Hense’s work is graffiti-inspired, it certainly doesn’t qualify as graffiti itself. In a way, it’s more of a public art installation, don’t you think?

  • I would say that there can be a big difference between graffiti and street art- graffiti is all about the artist- art is about truth and beauty (even if it is not particularly beautiful)

  • Sometimes, art is illegal. Love this project, especially the colors. I wish more things had colors, including my wardrobe.

  • I love graffiti – and here where I live (Vienna, Austria) there are parks or spaces designated for graffiti. Not all graffiti in Vienna is limited to those areas, but I do think that having the open legal venues has improved the quality of graffiti, and created positive peer pressure that reduces tagging.

    • @Kelly – That is fascinating! I love the idea of creating a designated space for this kind of creative outlet. There is something to be said for eliminating the risk/thrill of tagging – if it’s legal, it might be less in demand?

  • Okay, i’m gonna split some hairs here… Some graffiti is cool, very cool and in some cases rises to the status of art. Jean Michel Basquiat comes to mind as the ultimate in high art graffiti. In my opinion tagging is vandalism and really means nothing, NOTHING to anyone but the tagger or gang involved, sorry.

    The painted surface of this church is quite nice. I really dig the all-over approach rather than following the architectural lines and basic structure. It is successful as public art. I do not view it as graffiti.

  • I agree with Jacqueline’s point – I think it’s the WORD “Graffiti” that is muddy by itself, but no term has been marketed to address legal graffiti. I would say that Vandalism is an aspect of Graffiti (albeit a massive historical aspect) – it is not Graffiti that is an aspect of Vandalism. Lots of other arts have practiced vandalism. Yarn bombing trees? Massive sculptures set up anonymously in public spaces? Is it still art? I don’t think legality constitutes what is and isn’t art.

    I know graffiti crews, my brother himself is a part of an international one, that practice legal graffiti. In fact, these crews have created public spaces for interested youth to practice their art and teaching them to reject vandalism. Graffiti itself IS indeed an art – there are techniques, styles, and mediums to master, just like any other craft.

    • @Karen – Excellent point! And you’re right – legality certainly doesn’t constitute art. Like Anna mentioned, you can call anything art!

  • In what way is graffiti not art? Also, I think in a lot of cases graffiti is a reclaiming of space that was once stolen, so claiming it as unethical because it is a destruction of something public/private is not necessarily valid. Not that I would call it destruction, but some do.

  • The graffitis featured here definitely upgrade the city view! I think if they are made in a meaningful way then they become part of the city and bring a human touch to all this slate. Isn’t it cool to think as the city as a big canvas?

  • Sorry, but I totally hate this. That gorgeous historical building needs to be maintained, not turned into a circus tent. Some day, some poor guy is going to have to sand blast all of that **** off in order to return it to it’s former glory (if some idiot doesn’t tear it down to make room for a shopping mall.)

  • I think this work is amazing and looks fantastic. As with all art it’s totally subjective – you’re never going to please everyone – as it is with whether one building over another would benefit from a bit of artistic zsushing. Typically graffiti is considered illegal and, as other readers have said, is thought of as vandalism. But semantics aside, I don’t think any building should be defaced without prior permission. But if you get it, go for it!

Comments are closed.