I come from a small town in New Jersey with polished sidewalks and pristine buildings. During my college search, I was drawn to Philadelphia because of its elaborate street art. I love the parts of the city that are splashed with color, from large-scale murals to graffiti-filled alleyways.
And even though I regularly see creative graffiti throughout the city, many people fail to recognize it as a viable art form. Instead of being considered a meaningful expression, graffiti is seen as vandalism. This is an unfair label to give to something that requires the same creativity and hard work as other forms of street art.
“I think people automatically jump to conclusions that it’s illegal and not artistic,” said Dermot Mac Cormack, the chair of Temple’s Graphic Arts and Design department. “These forms of artwork are very valid in their own right. You just have to see it in a different way.”
“I think if it’s aesthetically pleasing and playful and adventurous, I really appreciate that,” he added. “I see it as a form of expression.”
For me, graffiti is interesting and eye-catching. The blank wall of a building or an untouched alleyway becomes something brand new with the addition of graffiti. It becomes the expression of an individual’s artistic vision.
According to the Mural Arts Philadelphia website, the city’s first legitimate effort to eradicate graffiti began with the formation of the Anti-Graffiti Network in the 1980s. In response, artist Jane Golden launched the Mural Arts Program, which encourages graffiti artists to use their talents for “constructive public art projects.” Golden is now the executive director of the program.
The existence of a legitimate street art collective is a positive form of expression in Philadelphia — but it shouldn’t discredit independent graffiti art.
Graffiti offers something that other forms of street art can’t. Because of the lack of control or direction from outside influences, it conveys a raw, uncensored message.
Banksy, an anonymous graffiti artist based in England, comments on controversial social issues in his work, like violence and homelessness. He’s able to communicate his thoughts to the public without anyone’s approval. This is what makes graffiti an incomparably powerful kind of art.
A 23-year-old art education major, who works under the nickname Gunk, has been creating graffiti art for nearly a decade. The Temple News is withholding the student’s name because his art is considered vandalism.
He was introduced to graffiti in high school, he said, and it eventually became a regular hobby.
“I don’t look at it as me doing something illegal,” Gunk said. “I think of it as me being in a competition with my surroundings. I’m not a criminal by any means. I’m not a violent person. I just enjoy making art.”
Just like anything else that’s created by humans, graffiti can be used negatively. And even when it’s not the artist’s intention to cause a disruption, there will always be people who disapprove. But censoring artwork of any kind is complicated and problematic. Leaving graffiti to the artists’ discretion is what makes it beautiful and uninhibited.
“You can take your own power in it,” Gunk said. “I don’t have to ask anybody to do this, I just go and do it.”
I’m a strong advocate for any visual and artistic display of character, and I think graffiti is a perfect example of this. The world is a canvas, and strokes and sprays of paint make any city more stimulating and colorful.
Graffiti is no less artistic than the murals in Center City or the painted trash cans down South Street. It should be embraced and encouraged, not denounced. I don’t believe Philly would be the same without it.