What is legitimate Street Art?

September 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Social Responsibility, Society | 2 Comments
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There is a person in our area whose tag is scrawled on almost every sign, including safety and speed limit signs, between us and the town 10km away. It appears on the roadside reflector posts, on people’s fences, and on the walls of local businesses. Is it street art?

Every time it appears, it has to be cleaned off, costing Council, businesses and individuals a lot of money – not to mention angst. This sort of antisocial, self-aggrandising, destructive, uncaring behaviour makes my blood boil. This is not street art; it is vandalism.

I have also seen some stunning pictures painted on walls and fences. They are original, colourful, and present a message. They are street art. But are they legitimate art?

The term ‘street art’ is used to encompass all the written, painted and drawn expressions that appear in public places. This does not include advertising signs (though many of those are visually polluting). It covers the range from Yawk’s crude tag to brilliant art works.

But is any of this legitimate art? Here are some meanings for the word that are appropriate in this context.

Legitimate: 1. according to the law, lawful; 2. in accordance with established rules, principles or standards; 3. of the normal or regular type; 4. genuine, not spurious.

According to meaning 1, anything painted, drawn or written on a surface where permission of the owner has not been obtained is not lawful, therefore not legitimate. If permission has been granted, it is lawful (as long as it doesn’t break some other law – e.g. obscenity).

Meanings 2 and 3 deal with a commonality of what ‘art’ itself means, and therefore involves acceptance by the community, or artists, or individuals in determining if it is legitimate art for art’s sake.

Strret Art by Beastman, Sydney, Australia

The last (4) involves the attitude and purpose of the person creating the street art. This person must be doing it for a purpose. What that purpose may be, some art critics would argue, is irrelevant. It is this argument to which I have a strong objection, as it does not take into consideration the respect one should have for others’ property. Doing it just to put one’s tag out there does not constitute a valid purpose. To do it for justifiable political reasons may. However, there is more to it than sending a message.

In this blog entry, apart from looking up the dictionary meaning of ‘legitimate’, I have done no objective research. I am writing this from my point of view, but expressing also what I believe are views widely-held by ordinary, thinking members of the public, and I am using the commonly accepted meaning of words.

I am not an artist who creates work onto the surfaces that other people own and/or maintain. I am not one to scrawl messages on public buildings. I respect the property of others and, in an orderly society, I see it as at least morally wrong, if not criminal, to deface the property of others, regardless of the quality of the art.

To me therefore, street art is legitimate when it expresses some sort of idea in a creative way, and in places where the custodians have granted permission for it to be there.

If that permission has not been granted, then the street art, regardless its quality, is not legitimate. It is simply graffiti – and that means it is also vandalism.

What is your view of ‘street art’?

Do you see it as legitimate art no matter where it is posted?

© Linda Visman


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  1. Hi Linda, I coincidentally was working on this topic for Uni this week.here’s my draft.
    Citizens are made, not born, and education has an enormous influence in the “socialisation” of people, especially with civics programs in schools (Galligan & Roberts, 2004, p 17). A newly erected town boundary sign for Morisset has a stylistic leaf pattern on its front surface (representing the nearby Watagan Mountains), prominently displayed on a brass plaque, but it is clearly not the work of an attributed Aboriginal artist, nor does it have an Awabakal translation (a stated LMC Council aim). The rear of the sign has been the object of tag graffiti, painted over with new tag graffiti on top.
    This could be as Preston & Symes write “There are some individuals who when they feel disempowered by an institution, will creatively make jokes or graffiti as a form of anti-hegemonic commentary (1992, p 7).” LMC Council paid for classes some years ago to teach High School students to use spray paints ‘artistically’ rather than ‘criminally,’ that is to differentiate tags from talent, and they beautified several public toilet blocks.
    This town boundary sign is a site of rebellion and non-conformity to the ruling Council authorities. “As resistance is criminalized and rendered into delinquencies, the capacities for collective working-class actions are weakened. Criminalization and the production of delinquencies are historically-situated tactics of power,” writes Turkel, (1990, p 187). It intrigues me though, because where the graffiti-ing sub-culture have done some amazing art on public spaces in Morisset, and these were immediately painted over by Council as if they were simply tags.
    Preston and Symes write “(…) education is perceived as a controlling mechanism, one concerned to generate particular kinds of human beings, in line with the demands of society (1992, p 25).” It seems clear to me that it didn’t warrant the money spent on the program. Unless undertaken as an “essential continuity” between morality, family and politics (La Mothe Le Vayer cited in Foucault, 1979, p 440) governance fails. As Arvanitakis (2008, para 22) writes “This means that there is no connection between the population and the civic institutions around them – there is no loyalty or belief that efforts to be involved in political and civic processes will be rewarded.”

  2. I have seen a few examples of what I would consider to be ‘street art’ and I am sure that they are ‘legitimate’ in the sense that they would have been approved by the owners of the property. They can be quite artistic and interesting if done well. But I deplore graffiti, and it’s hazardous (as well as ugly) to deface signs.

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