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How Do You Decide Whether It’s Graffiti or Art?

Cities have been struggling with the question for decades. Some are welcoming the murals and other street painting they used to deplore. Others call it vandalism and are erasing it.

Colorado Springs mural
A 350-foot-long mural by an artist known as Paes 164 covers the side of a Colorado Springs police station. (Photo: Colorado Springs Mayor’s Office)
In Colorado Springs, a conservative town by any reckoning, a huge wall decoration went up this month on a building at the edge of downtown. It’s 350 feet long and 50 feet high, the biggest creation of its kind anywhere in the city. It pays tribute in huge capital letters to the ideal of community, but it’s also got squiggles and swirls and designs that are hard to figure out. To me, it fits the definition of graffiti. But to the city leadership, it’s a mural, and a proud example of one at that.

It’s not just the nature of this installation that makes it unique. For one thing, it covers the wall of a police station — not exactly a place where you would expect to see it. For another, it’s the creation of an artist who calls himself Paes 164, a man who was arrested years ago for criminal spray-painting of trains and overpasses in Texas. Paes 164 has not only gone legitimate, he’s a pillar of the Colorado Springs civic establishment.

There’s some disagreement about efforts like this, if not in Colorado Springs then in cities around the country. The same week that the work of Paes 164 was unveiled at the police station, volunteers in Santa Clarita, Calif., used 285 gallons of paint to cover 527 feet of spray-painted wall, one of 7,000 works of graffiti that have been removed by city staff and residents this year alone.

Meanwhile, New Orleans was in the midst of what might be called a graffiti crisis. The last straw was a wall mural of the Mississippi River that was vandalized, covered in spray-painted black. “The graffiti situation — and the tagging situation specifically — has definitely been on the rise in the French Quarter,” said a local official. A downtown development director complained that when tourists are seeing “a lot of tags and spray paint on private property it gives an overwhelming sense that the city is not taken care of.” The taggers have focused on the increased number of vacant storefronts and empty residences.

But when is street art an eyesore and when is it a welcome addition to the community? Paes 164 thinks he has an answer to that question. “Street art is more urban imagery, and the majority of it is typically done with spray paint,” he told a reporter recently. “Graffiti is wrapped-around lettering, characters, somebody’s name. Street art is a big mural by young urban artists. It’s got graffiti roots, but it’s definitely not graffiti.”

ALL OF THIS MAY BE CLEAR-CUT TO PAES 164, but it’s not so clear-cut to everyone else. The distinction between graffiti and legitimate art isn’t just a minor aesthetic issue. It’s emblematic of the much larger question of freedom vs. order in the precincts of urban America.

I have to confess I’ve come around a bit on this question over the years. Some years ago, we had an intern at Governing who badly wanted to write an article about graffiti. This seemed to me a good topic, and I encouraged him to do some reporting. But when he returned, I realized that he and I had very different ideas about what the story should say. I felt that cities were finally learning how to get rid of a criminal eyesore that was hurting their revitalization efforts. He had decided that these cities were cruelly snuffing out the legitimate desire of an entire youthful generation to express itself. I told him we would have to forget about the story. That intern’s view still strikes me as extreme.

But as I look at what’s happening in cities around the country — around the world, for that matter — I wonder if there might not be a simpler rule to apply than the one that Paes 164 has set out in Colorado Springs.

On a recent weekend, I stopped by a lavishly painted wall of abstract colors 400 feet long — nearly a full block — in Crystal City, a neighborhood near where I live in Arlington County, Va. I’m not sure what to call what I saw there. It’s not a depiction of lettering, characters or somebody’s name. It’s basically an indecipherable mishmash of undulating shapes, exotic colors, animal faces, feathers and eyes staring right at you. If there was thematic content, I couldn’t discern it. I’d call it graffiti.

On the other hand, maybe the question to ask is whether a given application of spray paint is actually defacing something. If so, it ought to be erased. If not, maybe it deserves to be left alone, or even promoted. The painted wall I visited in Crystal City would otherwise be a blank surface in front of a nondescript modern building. I can’t argue that a blank wall or no wall at all would be more attractive. It certainly would be less interesting. The Arlington County government definitely thinks that. It touts the Crystal City graffiti as a crucial element in its growing collection of urban public art.

MUCH OF OUR ATTITUDE TOWARD GRAFFITI dates back to the 1960s, when gangs wielding spray-paint canisters saturated the subway cars in New York and other large American cities. The purpose wasn’t to produce anything beautiful (although there were admirers) but to advertise gang hegemony and, more important, to strike a blow against the established public order. Given that intention, it was bound to offend people no matter what it looked like.

Unlike most perceived public nuisances, the subway graffiti menace was relatively easy to eradicate. New subway cars made of stainless steel were hard to decorate, and the paint was easily removed. But that just sent the spray painters into new territory — the sides of commercial buildings and the underpasses that train riders are forced to look at. If you found graffiti offensive, it was an improvement, but not a huge one.

Cities found ways to strike back against this second wave of illicit spray painting. New York City banned the sale of aerosol spray paint cans to anyone under the age of 18. Chicago created a team of graffiti blasters who guaranteed free cleanup of any tagged site within 24 hours of a complaint call. The state of Oregon threatened illegal graffiti artists with up to a year in jail.

But other forces were pulling in an opposite direction. Four years ago, a federal judge in New York awarded $6.75 million to 21 graffiti artists whose work had been destroyed by a developer without warning. According to the judge, the painters were entitled by a federal law called the Visual Artists Rights Act to 90 days in which they could relocate. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision.

SO WE CONTINUE TO BE OF TWO MINDS ABOUT GRAFFITI, depending on whether we consider it public art or a public nuisance. The trouble is that there’s no easy way to answer that question. What many cities have done is look for ways to proffer carrots to graffiti painters who are willing to abide by municipally crafted rules. Rapid City, S.D., created an art alley where graffiti, while still technically illegal, would not be prosecuted. In Billings, Mont., the downtown development association joined with a paint company to sanction a location for the work of a collective known as the Underground Culture Krew. These sites became tourist attractions of a sort, although the early evidence seemed to be that they did little to prevent illegal and unwanted spray paint tagging in other parts of town that didn’t want it.

On balance, though, the side that favors regulation rather than prohibition seems to be winning out. This summer, Pittsburgh is promoting the creation of a mural painted on 440 feet of the pathway along Strawberry Way, a downtown pedestrian alleyway. It’s a collection of angels and landscapes, flowers, birds and hearts, painted by middle- and high-school students, each of whom gets 12 feet of space to decorate. It seems too disjointed to be a genuine mural, but the city is proud of it. Pittsburgh officials have their own explanation for the difference between graffiti and murals. “Mural art is commissioned and city-approved,” one of them explained. “Graffiti art is noncommissioned and usually illegal.

That’s clear enough, but it doesn’t exactly reflect judgment of the content. It amounts to saying that if the city likes it, it’s a mural. If not, it’s graffiti. Maybe that’s the best we can do for now.

Or maybe it’s the best we can do, period. Artists have a right to express themselves. Cities have an obligation to reassure their citizens that they are not living their lives in an atmosphere of anarchic defacement and disorder. City officials aren’t perfect judges of decency or artistic expression. But it’s their job. Somebody has to do it.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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