Graffiti – art, statement or defiance?

I surprised myself. I was actually angry about it. I knew it is the result of a culmination of factors but this gawd damn graffiti pissed me right off.

Is it right to deface your public environment? Is it defacing? It certainly didn’t feel hip or edgy to me and I am clearly both of those things 😃 It looked dirty, inconsiderate, shabby and definitely not chic.

The more I absorbed it, the angrier it made me feel. Like ‘the people’ just don’t care and didn’t see it.

No surprises that ancient Greece is involved in the evolution of graffiti. Language is one of the many legacies of how the Greeks have hugely influenced the modern world. The Greek language has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Who knew but graffiti is the plural word! From the Italian word graffio (“a scratch”) and graffiato (“scratched”), originating from the Greek word γράφειν — graphein — meaning “to write”.

Additionally, evidence of the first known ‘modern’ graffiti survives in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus now modern-day Turkey. BUT is it graffiti? Local guides say it is promoting prostitution so is this not early proof of the ‘ad man’?

The current Oxford English Dictionary definition is:  NOUN – treated as singular or plural

Writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.

The public canvas. A very important factor. Does the person creating the graffiti consider this? A big white wall in the heart of a city must be an attractive proposition to paint but what if this wall is a hospital, a church, a restaurant? Is this art or vandalism?

Prague's Lennon wallWhat is art? The expression of creative imagination producing something in visual form to solely be appreciated for its beauty and the emotion it can convey. A branch of art is painting, therefore, graffiti ‘must’ be art. Or is it?  Do you like the Lennon Wall in Prague pictured?

Art is also considered to be a skill and a craft, is graffiti a skill? The biggest discussion relating to art is that it is subjective. What I like and appreciate may be completely nonsensical to you.

So, a modern definition then is that graffiti IS street art. If it were that simple.

Since the invention of the spray paint can, the individual would covertly tag walls in the night. Possibly to communicate a gang area or just to occupy a bored brain. For me, this is plain vandalism. No great art or skill to spray a circle or graphic text on the property of someone else’s business or home. No consideration of the consequences to the person who owns the wall now adorned. Public opinion on whether tagging is acceptable remains very divided.

In Athens, for me, the graffiti was everywhere. On the walls of the shops, cafes, empty derelict houses and the list continues. It was part of the fabric of the city but its the capital of the country, approximately 5 million tourists visit annually to delve into mythology and history to be greeted with more than half a city that’s neither pretty to wander nor atmospheric or in places, safe to wander. Generally, the residents don’t seem to see the issue.  It felt like they didn’t care enough about their own city then why are we, tourists, coming to explore, to spend our time there and even more so, our money.

I was completely ignorant of the history of a modern Greece and I do mean modern; 1950s onward. They have never had it easy. After reading up on the state of play for their last 60+ years, Greece has undergone many reasons to not care. Most of us are aware of the 2010 European sovereign debt crisis of which the country’s stability remains off kilter. The current population is still suffering from high inflation, unemployment, immigration and 7 years later it didn’t feel like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. In September 1999 and February 1981 the city was hit by devastating earthquakes, damaging housing and industry. The country was under a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974.

I’ve listed just 4 human experiences from the last 6 decades that must have impacted greatly on the Greek individual. I can imagine that the urge to look after only yourself and your own becomes greater in time of crisis and strife.

I felt the people may have lost a connection to their community, their environment and the effect each has on their neighbour. One lady I worked with stated there is no sense of society. No great pride for environment. It feels like the pride for their history is also deteriorated too.

Maybe too much has happened for the locals to recognise how important the city was, it should never be forgotten that Athens was the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, theatre, medicine and science.

Others say Athens is a paradise for graffiti artists, however, I didn’t see much quality just the quantity. The usual spray can tagging is put down to high youth unemployment, a general sense of unrest, and authorities being stretched too thin to do much about it. Frankly, the police have bigger problems if they deigned to show they actually do want to uphold the laws of the land.

Whilst I was there, I also heard from the locals working at the hostel that the police do nothing hence there is little to no respect for authorities even if they did try to clamp down. Few walls were spared. If these ‘defiant artists’ are broke then why are they wasting their money on spray paint?

Now let’s look at street or urban art. Graffiti has evolved, murals are much more considered.

Banksy Pulp Fiction

I’d be surprised if you have not heard of Banksy, one of the UK’s most prolific street artists.  Now internationally renowned.Banksy Bristol





Plus Blek le Rat and Stik below – all said to be the Picassos of urban art. I don’t know if I’d go that far but the fact their works are in the public domain, they must have more visibility than a framed picture in a gallery.

I am a walking contradiction because I believe the urban murals to be colourful, provocative, accessible, stylistic and opinionated. I have to admit I like it and I do consider it to be art. Yet it is still a crime if the owner of the public canvas did not give consent. My simple reason for accepting it, at least it shows a talent and is almost always aesthetically pleasing.  The rubix cube from Budapest and the women’s face in Poland.

Potentially created to portray a message, a statement that can be connected to the location. I don’t mean it has to be frescoes of Athens, all twee olive trees and sunsets belying the real Athens life. It can still be gritty and aggressive. Graffiti art is a form of communication and self-expression. I believe the art adds dignity to the message.

Athens what nextThe photos above and below are two examples I saw hidden away in Athens.  I particularly like the one below as it communicates exactly how the artist and community are feeling – Zero cent-iment. 

0 centi-mentThis is what the city needed more of. I encourage and promote examples such as this. This can add character to a city location and not forget this can result in visitors and visitors bring money.

In a city as advanced as Athens then why not ask business owners to connect with street artists, why not permit large-scale public areas such as bridges or parks where people are allocated specific spaces for their creations – sounds far too organised and regulated for it to happen.

What do you think? Does it make a difference to you on holiday or at home? These are just a couple of impressive features I’ve seen on my travels – art or vandalism?

Bratislava street artSalzburg underpassLodz urban mural