Graffiti in New York City

Graffiti in New York City






Graffiti in New York City


Art has been in existence since time immemorial, evolving in various aspects from the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic scripts and cuneiform on clay tablets and papyrus to modern day paintings, drawings and computer-generated art. Graffiti is a form of art considered illicit, represented as drawings, writings or paintings that are scribbled, sprayed or scratched on walls or other surfaces in public places. This form of art however, is mostly illegible and indecipherable to the eye of the society. Graffiti in New York City began in the late 1960’s as a response to Civil Rights Movements and the public protests of Black Power. Most films set in New York City especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s feature graffiti in public places including subways, trains and train stations, street walls and in public restrooms.

Artists who engage in this art consider it a form of expressing their thoughts and feelings, in protest of current events, some as a way of beautifying surroundings. The authorities however, consider graffiti a crime and an act of vandalism, as evidenced by the war against graffiti by city officials. The most notable one is the ‘clean trains’ program initiated by David Gunn, President of the New York City Transit Authority in 1984. Regardless of these efforts, graffiti in New York City persists in subways and train yards; however, there is a remarkable decrease in rates as compared to the last few decades. There is therefore the debate about whether graffiti is an art and form of expression, or a crime and act of vandalism. The purpose of this research paper is to describe graffiti as an art and a form of expression, the history of graffiti and to explore ways in which authorities and the society can embrace this form of art and facilitate its legal incorporation in the environment.

Thesis Statement

For a long time, graffiti artists have been underground because this form of art is considered a violation of laws that prohibit vandalism. This is partly because this form of art is represented unlawfully in public places and private property and is associated with crime and criminal activity. The association of graffiti with crime and vandalism masks the talent and gift of art in these artists, which as a result, goes to waste. Legalization and proper regulation of works by these artists is beneficial to the artists as a source of income, and to the public as a form of entertainment. Graffiti in itself may not be a crime or an act of vandalism if made legal and properly regulated.

The transformation of graffiti from the nuisance and scourge that the society and authorities believe it is, into acceptable and visually appealing art requires joint effort among the authorities, the graffiti artists and the society. There is need to gather required information and evidence that can support legislation to make graffiti art legal and laws to govern the operations of graffiti artists. In this process, it is important to recognize that graffiti artists, like any other artists have the talent to create unique and visually appealing pieces, which can be utilized for various purposes in both the public and private sectors.

For regulation purposes, there is need to define public places where his form of art can be displayed. There is need to regulate the types of messages in the art done by graffiti artists so that extremist and inappropriate messages are not displayed in this form of art. Proprietors of private businesses and owners of private property need to be informed about the legalization and regulation of graffiti so that they can hire the skills of graffiti artists to work on their property if they desire. Installation of a proper system to regulate operations of graffiti artists may lead to emergence of artists who have been underground for a long time. In addition to these, legalization and regulation of graffiti artists and art will eliminate vandalism and reduce crime rates associated with graffiti art and artists. Regulation and legislation will facilitate the change of view about graffiti art and artists among the society, and the acceptance of this kind of art.

Graffiti art is a form of expression. This form of art was first utilized to protest and as an adjunct to the Civil Rights Movement. This does not mean that graffiti art can only be used in these avenues and this notion is therefore amenable. Graffiti art can be used to support ideas and provide a pictorial presentation, drawing or painting, especially when exercising democratic rights, which every citizen possesses. However, there is need for graffiti artists to keep in check the kind of messages they display in their art lest they find themselves in the wrong side of the law.

Graffiti artists have the biggest role to play in the reform of graffiti and its legalization and regulation. It is upon these artists to embrace the legalization of this form of art and adhere to the laws that govern it. It is the responsibility of these artists to comply with the regulations set to govern graffiti as a form of art. For graffiti to become legal, these artists need to emerge from underground and do their art in the open. They need to comply with the requirements on the types of messages they are allowed to display in their art and display their art only in places where they are authorized. It is therefore the duty of graffiti artists to make graffiti art popular and acceptable to the society.

Not all graffiti artists are criminal or tied to gangs that perpetrate criminal activities. Some of these artists are against destruction of private property. Graffiti artists need to live in such a way to erase the notion that graffiti art is associated with crime and other criminal activities. It is important for these artists to distinguish themselves from actual criminals through their behavior and personality and in messages displayed through this form of art. They can change the perception that graffiti is an act of vandalism through compliance with regulations and making the society appreciate their art. In addition to these graffiti, artists can create pieces of art, using the same skill but not necessarily in public places or private property but as tangible and portable pieces. This art in portable pieces can be bought, displayed in art galleries and even museums and cannot therefore qualify as vandalism.

Legalization and regulation of graffiti has several benefits not only to the graffiti artist but also to the authorities and to the society. If this form of art were made legal, graffiti artists would disengage from crime and gangs that perpetrate crime, especially in acts of vandalism. This is because the work of graffiti artists would be considered a legitimate way of income generation and these artists would put their talent to use. The time spent by these artists creating these pieces of art would not go to waste as their works would be appreciated by the society and would be a source of livelihood to them. Crime rates would go down due to alternative sources of income and alternative ways of spending time.

The time and resources spent by authorities in curbing graffiti would be channeled into other avenues for other purposes. Legalization and regulation of graffiti through legislation and policies provides for change in societal perception of graffiti artists and graffiti as an art. Emergence of legitimate and talented graffiti artists in the society from the underground and display of this form of art in public places legally and in museums and public galleries will contribute to the acceptance of this form of art and its incorporation into the society and the environment.

Graffiti remains part of the history of New York City that can never be erased no matter what. Programs such as the ‘clean trains’ program and projects by the Metropolitan Transit Authority to eliminate graffiti on trains and subways remain permanent and history will never forget. Graffiti artists such as TAKI and JULIO for part of history that can never be erased. Information about graffiti is available in books and journals and in other records, describing the era when graffiti was common. Currently, no form of graffiti art is present in Museums for display to the public. This form of art has not been archived and in the coming decades and centuries may fade off.

Graffiti is art, a product of creativity and talent that should not be forgotten. It is time for these pieces to be displayed in Museums and art galleries for the society to appreciate. This art is a unique form of entertainment, which the community and visitors of New York need to appreciate. The coded and indecipherable nature of messages in graffiti art make it even more interesting and captivating. Public display of this form of art will facilitate its incorporation into the environment and the acceptance of this kind of art by the society. The idea that graffiti is an act of vandalism can be eliminated by its incorporation in the art celebrated by New York City and public display of this form of art.

Benefits of legalizing graffiti art will be evident in public places, privately owned property, art galleries and museums as part of history. Art is beautiful, often visually appealing and is therefore a source of beauty in the environment. With appropriate regulation, graffiti artists can adorn defined public places and spaces with this form of art, bringing life into the dark and scary subways, gloomy street walls and lighting up public rest rooms. Attempts by authorities to erase graffiti on street walls and other public places using patches of paint that look hurriedly applied leaves people wondering which of the two, between the graffiti and the patch of paint, is more visually appealing. It is time for graffiti art and artists to be appreciated even as their works beautify the environment. As stated above, this is achievable through proper legislation and regulation.

The aesthetic value of graffiti overrides the claims that it is a violation of universal statutes. He beautification earned from the works of graffiti artists are more appealing to the eye than destructive to property, especially if regulated. The form of employment that graffiti provides to artists is incomparable to underground criminal activities that these artists would otherwise resort to in order to earn a living. The pieces of art provide a source of entertainment and a record of happenings, eras and historical events in addition to beautification. Messages can be expressed and communicated to the public through these works; these may not necessarily be extremist messages.


In conclusion, it is evident that graffiti is a form of art considered an act of vandalism by authorities and the society. This is despite the fact that graffiti may not be entirely criminal and may not be associated with vandalism. It is important to create and implement laws to govern and regulate graffiti art and artists in order to preserve this form of art that may soon be extinct. Graffiti should not be eliminated since it is a form of expression and communication, it provides a source of income to artists and it beautifies surroundings. In addition to this, graffiti is a manifestation of the talent in graffiti artists and provides entertainment to the society and to the visitors of New York City. There is need for the authorities, graffiti artists and the society to work together in order to legalize graffiti and make it recognized as a legitimate form of art.


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Felisbret, E., Felisbret, L., & Prigoff, J. (2009). Graffiti New York. Abrams.

Kramer, R. (2009). A Social History of Graffiti Writing in New York City, 1990-2005. Yale University.

Verel, P. (2013). New York City Graffiti Murals: Signs of Hope, Marks of Distinction. Fordham University.