Marty Romero

The Debate Over Graffiti as Crime or Art is Pointless (part 2 of 2)

Hex TGO and Slick battle at the levits yard 1989. Los Angeles.

Part two

This post is part two of my argument for graffiti. My argument is not so much for graffiti to be made legal—though it might seem so. Instead, what I try to make a case for is that graffiti1 serves a positive function in any community when we consider how we use and experience our public spaces.

To understand my position, we first have to get on the same page about what I mean when I use the word “graffiti.” Most arguments for or against graffiti fail to do this, and by not defining the term, it is assumed that all graffiti is equal. Though I will admit, that to the average person graffiti is graffiti no matter who wrote it or why. But that isn’t the case. For example, gang graffiti is not the same as graffiti by a “tagger.” Gang graffiti is typically used to mark the gang’s territory, declare a death sentence on a rival gang member by crossing out his name, or as a roll call of the gang’s members themselves.

Graffiti by taggers does not make the claim to territory the way gang graffiti does. Also unlike gang graffiti, crossing out the name of another tagger is not seen as a death sentence, but a challenge to the other tagger to see who can paint/tag better and more. Painting over the work of one tagger by another without retaliation is common.


The definition of graffiti by The American Heritage Dictionary is:

“Drawings or inscriptions made on a wall or other surface, usually so as to be seen by the public. 2

You see, the official definition of graffiti makes no mention of its legality. Of course, I am not implying that we base our laws on a dictionary’s explanation of a particular term. But I do advocate that we consider graffiti from a broader perspective.

This is the State’s definition of graffiti:

“As used in this section, the term ‘graffiti or other inscribed material’ includes any unauthorized inscription, word, figure, mark, or design, that is written, marked, etched, scratched, drawn, or painted on real or personal property.3

The keyword in the State’s definition of graffiti does not focus on the act of, but the “unauthorized” act of graffiti which is illegal.

The real issue with graffiti

In this regards, the focus should not be on graffiti itself, but the means by which we attain authorization. By both definitions—the classic and the more sectarian definition in California’s penal code—anything that is public is potentially graffiti. For example; Nextel billboards, Nike ads on bus shelters or a movie bill on the side of a construction site. The reason why these corporations are authorized to install their ads on public space is the amount of money they are willing and able to spend. Graffiti, on the other hand, is labeled a crime because no one corporation is making money from it4.

It is easy to believe that “money isn’t everything.” But the truth is that when we accept as normal the fact that only those with money have a voice, then we are saying that money indeed is everything.

Before graffiti is labeled illegal, we need to examine the merit of the laws that makes it so. Not long ago, laws forced black folks to sit in the back of the bus, Mexicans to visit public swimming pools only on cleaning days. Thankfully, those laws have changed. The point that I am trying to make is that the merits of the law do not always reflect what is right and what is wrong, nor what does or does not contribute positively to any one community.

The current laws prohibit the right to public space—unless we can dish out a hefty dime for it. Graffiti challenges that. So do I!

  1. I am using a specific definition of graffiti. Vic does an excellent job of explaining here:

  2. The American Heritage Dictionary

  3. California Penal Code Section 594-625c

  4. This is changing. As companies are finding that they can use graffiti to target younger consumers, they have commissioning graffiti artists to paint “mini-murals” throughout inner cities advertising their products. Here is an interesting article of one corporation’s efforts to “fit in”