Graffiti: Art or Vandalism

Topics: Graffiti

Graffiti has the capacity to effectively encapsulate the sentiments of the oppressed in war with its integration of form and function, acting as a protest against a dissatisfied and disinterested world. Graffiti, as a universally accessible tool for the impoverished and marginalized, is the vehicle to understand the intersection of visual media and the soldier’s experience in war, as both the perpetrator and the victim, through their respective parallels. As both graffiti and the war experience are decontextualized, the content is altered.


In Red Dawn (1984), there is a brief scene where the young paramilitary group, The Wolverines, use graffiti to dictate their presence in light of Communist oppressive forces. Graffiti is intentionally used in the scene to propel the expression of the Wolverines as desperados in their own homeland. Graffiti, art in the form of vandalism, encompasses their actions. When faced with invasive forces, the Wolverines use violence as a means to a positive end, just as vandalism, an illegal and formerly ostracized tool, has transitioned into celebrated art for the masses.

The scrappiness of graffiti imitates guerilla warfare, highlighting the same desperation. They utilize brutality for the innocent masses, seemingly justifying their barbaric actions and condemning any recoil against them. This mise-en-scene technique transforms Red Dawn from a conservative storyline to anti-war propaganda where, through the use of graffiti – a tool representative of the oppressed – Red Dawn critiques the role of invasive forces in Vietnam through role reversal. The Wolverines shift to represent the destitute civilians of Vietnam while the Communist invasive forces function to represent the United States military, reasserting protagonists in an American context.

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Graffiti, through its basic concept and definition, has the capacity to effectively encapsulate the sentiments of the oppressed during war with its integration of form and function. Approaching the ambiguous topic from the perspective of Pearlstein, graffiti is viewed as “Any coherently-intended presence written, scratched, painted, engraved, printed or pasted or otherwise impressed in a public place. There are two basic motivations behind it: the need of the moment to personalize, integrate, and possess the environment, and the desire to make one’s presence and/or perceptions known to otherwise unconnected persons who share the environment” (3). Therefore, the only tool necessary for the spread of ideology is the freedom of the public space that may be occupied.

In this minimalistic requisite for artistic expression, graffiti becomes unique in the communities that have access to view and contribute to it. Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing where, “even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty, you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss” (2). Therefore, graffiti becomes a tool for the impoverished that, as a result of cyclical prejudice and oppression, becomes an outlet for the most marginalized in society. These vandalistic images become messages that transcend socioeconomic status. This is not only in those that create art, but also in those that view it. Regardless of ascension in artistic and cultural society, the onlooker is intrinsically forced to view graffiti that occupies public space, resulting in limited stratification of audiences based on status. Where a gallery is not necessary for visibility, the onlooker is forced to digest the content. In this, graffiti serves as a fairly accurate gauge of cultural attitude throughout history.


Communicative expression through graffiti is not unique to the contemporary concept of vandalism, but has existed as documentation of scholarly, religious, and public sentiment alongside the most historically revered societies of antiquity. Used as Graeco-Roman expressions of literacy, Pompeiian graffiti provides perspective on Roman society, economy, religion, and language. Even from the origin of human social experience, graffiti in the form of cave art was present to document civilization. Done in the late phase of the Paleolithic Period, the pigmentations upon limestone in the Franco-Cantabrian area of Europe present impressionistic interpretations of the natural world (4). Depicting violence and ritualistic scenes of initiatory practices with the clan, fraternity through crude communication is evident. The Lascaux Caves in Lascaux, France present narrative stories about life from 15,000 years ago regarding the cultural makeup of humans, as largely dependent on religious shamanism. Need closing sentence(s) that relate to the reflection of cultural identity and tie into subsequent paragraph).

Born out of cultural rumination and shift, war becomes an ample platform for art that reflects on the human experience in a context of violence and trauma. Thus, art has a long standing history of responding to war. Arising as an European avant-garde art movement in the early twentieth century, Dadaism embodies a skeptical attitude toward rationalism and structure that dominates intention and form in light of World War I (5). World War I (1914-1918) left 10 million dead and around 20 million wounded, a blunder to human existence that rooted itself on European soil. The disillusionment to projected governmental safety resulted in “a collapse of confidence in the rhetoric – if not the principles – of the culture of rationality that had prevailed in Europe since the Enlightenment” (6). Thus, Dadaism was born to question both form and the concept of art itself, working to adulterate and pervert the concepts that are fundamental to society.

Similarly, Surrealism was born to encourage escapism through exploration of the unconscious in rejection of the Fascism and Nazism in World War II. Acting as a response to logic, it functions to liberate thought, language, and experience from the oppressive boundaries of doctrine that dominated the post-World War II political and social landscape (7). Graffiti style exhibits both Surrealism and Dadaism, where, now, this rejection of institutionalized correctness has become visualized for the masses.

Graffiti in this manner, like war, has the capacity to raise and sustain oppositional consciousness. This overlap is identified in the parallels that exist between graffiti and military culture. In diction, graffiti is alternatively dubbed “guerilla poetry” (8). Using military terms highlights the stylistic similarities between guerrilla warfare and vandalism to bridge the gap between the two seemingly divergent concepts. Graffiti, under its guise of guerilla communication, is something that prowls around us, strikes us where we live, and invariably takes us by surprise (CITE). Comparatively, guerilla warfare is asymmetric warfare, a methodology utilized heavily during the Vietnam War. A tactical method that “has been a weapon of protest employed to rectify real or imagined wrongs levied on a people” (9). Both are used as tools in the people’s war. Moreover, guerilla warfare does not simply defeat a singular military enemy, but aims to win popular support and political influence at the expense of the enemy. Therefore, it is not just a physical method of victory, but also seeks ideological spread by forcible acknowledgement. Likewise, public graffiti is a method to reclaim public space while privatization and neoliberalism contribute to the commodification of public space (Boykiff and Sand). It is attempted opposition through politico-aesthetic methods to register dissatisfaction with social injustice and hypercommercialism.

Much like guerilla warfare was made popular due to the geographical landscape of dense vegetation and the topographical challenges of Vietnam, guerilla communication is intrinsic to the environment.

In this complementary function of political mobilization, graffiti and military overlap in their audiences and perpetrators. Military recruitment advertisements appeal to the vulnerable and rudderless, predominantly the youth. They essentially aim to hinge personal success on enlistment, appealing to the marginalized. Spreading ideals of brotherhood and personal fulfillment, they project sentiments of individualistic success while also making a difference on a national scale. The military offers an opportunity to protect and defend those who cannot defend themselves, a notion that is amplified by targeted military recruiting tactics. Graffiti, similarly, acts as a voice of the silent, largely young underground cultures, forced upon a public viewing audience. Projecting the sentiments of the oppressed, street art acts as a mouth-piece for those who would not otherwise be heard, while using individualistic style as the vehicle (sentence is gross and cliche, rewrite). Both present unique platforms for expression and societal propulsion.

This guerilla mindset breeds a unique culture in both settings, with their own set of vocabulary and aesthetics. Through manipulation of public landscapes, youth subcultures create a unique subculture. Graffiti culture entertains gang methodology of turf wars, where individualistic identity can be afforded, but expressed as a unit. Military units host platoon fraternity, where each soldier fills a personal niche in that organic entity.

The parallel that breeds to most humanity perhaps lies in the impermanence of the war experience and graffiti as a medium. In regards to the war experience, a soldier’s fate is “intrinsically bound up with death”, whether it be their own or someone else’s (1). Graffiti, in its largely illegal nature, is an intrinsically impermanent medium, as it finds residence in public places that it was never intended. Ephemerality is central to the concept of spray paint. From both the artist’s perspective and the soldier’s perspective, graffiti acts as a fleeting assertion of identity that offers “a defiant and public proclamation of a human being’s existence” (1). Moreover, graffiti works to comment on the disposable nature of culture and society, while the soldier works to defy the governmentally perceived disposability of human life.

Due to its potential to offer self-expression in rigid systems of order, graffiti and vandalism are prevalent means of communication throughout military history. The mechanized nature of the first global war rendered soldiers as faceless masses, rather than individual participants (10). Thus, wall carvings of names, hometowns, sports teams, and essentially any other slight remark on personal identity litter the French-German border as left by American soldiers in underground tunnels during World War I. Just the same as fraternity through communication was evident in Lascaux, fraternity through expressions of individualism – despite emphasis on uniformity in the military – are present in military barracks. In Vietnam, the bottoms of bunks on troopships became home for commentary about a controversial and unpopular war. Looking at a highly politicized war with ambiguous definitions of good and evil, rejection of governmental institutions was vocalized in vandalism.

As both of these experiences are decontextualized, they become spectacle that cheapens their reality. Graffiti, with its origins as an avenue to express individualism and the sentiments of the oppressed, has the potential to lose its value when appropriated for galleries and exposition. Once a Puerto Rican barrio in the heart of Miami, Wynwood was an immigrant artist community with cheap rent and free canvas: cement. Populated by vibrant graffiti, Wynwood began to attract the elite and the entrepreneurial. Thus, Wynwood was repurposed for a new audience under the guiding hand of gentrification. Not having to experience the adverse effects of gentrification, or the cyclical prejudice that catalyzed the outspoken cry of the artist, Wynwood is a playground for the elite and socially engaged.

This appropriation is also applicable to individual artists. Jean-Michel Basquiat is referred to colloquially as a “former street artist” as someone who has been elevated from an urban vandal to refinement. However, his art underwent virtually no stylistic change. With examples such as Kieth Haring, and Banksy en lieu, this recontextualization of artist from street to gallery has the potential to alter the message being conveyed. This is a particular risk in regards to graffiti, due to the seamless integration of form and function, where message is dependent on locale. Graffiti embodies a form of context art where the connection between the work and the influence of social and political climate is intrinsic; any change to one affects the other. Voyeuristic pleasure can be experienced in galleries, where the setting now provides a safe separation from reality; the viewer can appreciate, but not understand in this new setting. The onlooker becomes safe.

The increasing manufacture of war narratives for pleasurable public consideration betrays genuine, experiential exposure to conflict; warfare becomes spectacular as opposed to reality. In 2003, the term “militainment” was coined as a means to describe the intersection of war and the system of consumption in popular media (11). The landscape surrounding Desert Storm in the late 1990s/early 2000s marked the shift where war became an event in entertainment. Having the reductive potential to cheapen war to a fame, Operation Desert Storm was likened to a “Nintendo War” by the press (12). The media’s treatment of the Gulf War encourages the audience to nonchalantly regard war as a game, where destruction of the audience’s humanity must occur to derive entertainment in the viewing experience.

The physical barrier between violence and viewing contributes to the emotional distance necessary to sustain an industry of entertainment around war media, predominantly film. The United States, never having hosted a major war – other than the Civil War – on domestic soil, does not retain a cultural memory of the widespread destruction and suffering. This makes profitable bellicose narratives more palatable for enjoyment. As a western and politically dominant civilization, America is so far removed that the concept of war can be manipulated away from reality.

Essentially, to make war an aesthetic, the violent destruction of human life must, to some degree, be seen as beautiful. The viewer must be so far removed from empathy that human life becomes intangible; the is the effect of glorious visual media. Ultimately, this functions to eliminate the effects of violence and trauma on the soldier, as the complexities and reverberations of war are sterilized for popular consumption.


Making a spectacle is a “a certain kind of discourse that dazzles the citizen subject into a submissive, politically disconnected, complacent, and deactivated audience member” (11). This superficial rhetoric controls public opinion by disengaging the citizen from the realities of war, as they resonate with only what is visible to them. Thus, the cultural imagination of war reflects what is presented by established entertainment channels. Removed spectatorship alters moral alignment. This capability to diminish the impact of war as it resonates with the citizen calls every representation of conflict to “wrestle with the ethics of its own entertainment value” (11). When documented as an item of aesthetic appreciation, war becomes art. This medium removes the viewer, providing a seemingly safe barrier of emotional detachment.

Appropriated urban art and the media’s interpretation of the war experience inject aesthetics into political life. In their parallels, and the original context for which they are experienced, they coexist to express the emotive nature of experiential trauma and struggle. Moreover, their history has evolved simultaneously, where their intersection translates the realities of war that could not otherwise be understood.

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Graffiti: Art or Vandalism. (2022, May 13). Retrieved from

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