Graffiti: Art or Vandalism?

Many people hold a very divided opinion on graffiti. If it’s aesthetically pleasing it’s usually left by the authorities for us to notice and is deemed ‘street art’. Whether someone considers graffiti vandalism or a masterpiece is indifferent, there’s an art to it. There’s a reason why people ‘tag’ places with a quick signature, whether it’s the back of a seat on a bus or a lamppost, it’s sort of a silent war that graffiti artists hold. Like a dog marks its territory, a graffiti artist tags where he’s been.

An electrical box in Burnley, Lancashire has both tags and arguably ‘street art’. Having passed the box for years on my way to school, I know that it’s been left for a long time, when other pieces of graffiti in the town have been removed. Why? It’s graffiti, the tags are not art, they are a mark of territory. But the love heart represented by ‘<3’ on the side of the box is the part probably seen as art. It represents love, which is something people don’t mind looking at.

Tags on top of an electrical box in Burnley, Lancashire

The same electrical box, but the aesthetically pleasing part

There’s examples of graffiti everywhere, a fallen tree on University College Falmouth’s campus has been defaced, with a smiley face. It hasn’t been removed because it’s not offending, and it’s not uncomfortable to look at.

The log with a smiley face

The most famous dispute between graffiti artists or vandals if you like, is the feud between Banksy, 21st century sensation of the cities and King Robbo, the first major graffiti artist to take society by storm in the 80s.
Many know that Banksy hides his identity, because his work is illegal, but he has become a commercial success. His work is seen as thought provoking and good to look at, it’s not just a name it’s a picture about war or it’s something controversial, Banksy’s most famous work is the ‘kissing policemen’.

Banksy’s work is endorsed by the authorities, where Robbo’s work is criminalised, but both hold the freedom of expression element that is visible all over the world’s streets. The stencil art made famous by Banksy is being depicted everywhere, arguably he took the style of Blek Le Rat of Paris, a famous street artist in Paris, but are people now trying to copy Banksy’s work?

Steps on University College Falmouth's campus, with stencil art of a lady

The lady on the step

When asked about his work gaining preferential treatment before the law, Banksy said this:

If you think my graffiti is overrated you’d be right.

I only hope that one day I get the lack of recognition I deserve.

A smaller scale example of what is seemingly a graffiti war between the artist and the authorities can be found on the seafront at Falmouth, Cornwall on a wall in a sheltered seating area. The previous artwork had been removed with paint, in the wrong colour. The artist makes a joke of it.

Stencil art of the famous Shakespeare

Like Banksy, Robbo hides his identity and has done for over 25 years. Robbo’s tag was made famous in the 80s and early 90s all over London’s trains and the underground system. Robbo retired from graffiti at the height of his fame, as he felt he had achieved enough by becoming the most respected graffiti artist in London. Gradually Robbo’s work began to disappear, as it was vandalism, but one piece remained as a testament to his work. A piece called Robbo Incorporated on a wall beside Regents Canal in Camden, London, which was barely accessible by water.

Banksy started the feud by defacing this masterpiece that had been left for decades and made it his own piece of art with his own brand of graffiti – stencil art.

Banksy painted the decorator painting over Robbo's work

Though illegal, the feud was allowed to be left as the art work was amusing to strangers that followed the argument, but it was personal to both Banksy and Robbo. By defacing trains and many walls, Robbo became famous with graffiti artists and infamous with the police.

Banksy disturbed Robbo’s retired peace and Robbo wasn’t about to stand back and let his respect dwindle away. Robbo retaliated to the mess Banksy had seemingly made of Robbo’s artwork by making it his own and started attacking Banksy’s work on his own piece.

The feud was documented on Channel 4 in August 2011 in a documentary called ‘Graffiti Wars’. In the documentary, Robbo talks of a time he was in a bar, called The Dragon Bar, and was introduced to Banksy, saying to Banksy he’d heard of him to which Banksy replied “Well, I haven’t heard of you.” Robbo claims he slapped Banksy and said “well you won’t forget me now will you?” Banksy denies that he was slapped, but Robbo’s account says that Banksy ran away from the confrontation.

Banksy also said that Robbo’s last masterpiece was in such a bad state he didn’t realise he was painting over it. The feud continued along the canal after Banksy painted over Robbo’s work and did stencil art on another wall. Robbo wasn’t going to let it go and so he defaced it. The war encouraged two teams to strike up, Robbo supporters and Banksy supporters.

Team Robbo tags started to appear, and Banksy supporters began to hate Robbo.

In April 2011, Robbo suffered serious head injuries, thought to be the result of an accidental fall, but to this day he remains in a coma. Banksy tried to make peace in November 2011 by painting over Robbo’s Camden mural with a black and white depiction of the original with crowns and a spray paint can with a hazard symbol above it. He did it as a tribute to him and with intentions of the feud ending.

Team Robbo didn’t like the fact that Banksy was trying to end what he started, and Banksy’s tribute was restored to its original form with slight changes on Christmas Eve 2011.

Whether or not graffiti is vandalism or art, there is always a superior, be it the authorities or another artist/vandal. Someone always wants to be the best and the one with the most street cred. Will Banksy reply to Team Robbo’s retaliation on his tribute? Or will the feud end?

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