The writing’s on the wall: How graffiti has gone from vandalism to interior design

From a New York crime wave to acts of social commentary and a tool of gentrification, street art has enjoyed a tumultuous role in modern history

Rise Above Rebel by American artist Shepard Fairey is displayed on a building in Paris. EPA
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Whichever way you diced it, Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, felt like he had things all sewn up.

With a reputation as a ruthless political operator, his no-nonsense style in the US attorney’s office had previously helped him bring heat to the Mafia’s exploits in America. Then, installed at last as mayor of his beloved New York City in the 1990s, he had hatched a plan to fix its soaring crime rates and lack of cash.

The big idea? A controversial “civic clean-up” programme that had NYC’s graffiti artists firmly in its sights.

“A cleaner city is a safer city,” said Giuliani in a 1994 press conference. Proposing, in the sloganed style politicians are known for, that “eliminating graffiti would make the city a more attractive place to do business, and, in the long run, help it financially.”

It was neither the first nor the last time he would be proved wrong in office.

Thirty years later, street art projects have contributed significantly to the evolution of cities worldwide. Areas that feature art on their walls are seen as creative hubs, while the work of street artists such as Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Kaws now regularly sell for millions. Perhaps you even have some graffiti-inspired art in your home?

The question is, how did something that began as a “crime wave” come to represent regeneration and perceived good taste?

First, some history.

Writing on walls is nothing new. In the Roman Empire, it was considered a form of communication rather than vandalism; millennia later French soldiers would carve their names into monuments during the Napoleonic wars. In the Middle East in the eighth century, poets such as Sayyid Al-Himyari would write political pieces on the region’s walls.

Contemporary graffiti found life in 1960s US, however. In Philadelphia, it was little more than a way for gangs to mark territory until Darryl McCray – aka Cornbread – declared his love for Cynthia Custuss. To win her attention, McCray wrote “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” all over North Philadelphia. A life of art and activism followed, and he’s now widely regarded as the world’s original graffiti artist.

“Bird Lives” was the first real slogan that appeared on New York City walls in the 1960s, but it took some time before graffiti really started to appear consistently across the city.

Eventually, as the 1970s rolled in, the art of “bombing” (tagging somewhere quickly to be seen publicly) made names such as Dondi, Taki 183, Tracy 168 and many more notorious. This was most probably due to the works that eventually covered New York’s subway trains, the transport system rapidly becoming a blur of bubble writing, criss-crossing the city day and night.

And so, enter Giuliani and his “Broken Windows” push. The term was introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q Wilson and George L Kelling with the theory that minor crimes gone unpunished led to bigger crimes and, eventually, impoverished neighbourhoods. In the mid-1990s, the mayor breathed new life into the phrase, with zero tolerance for those found holding a spray can with intent.

But even when condemned as an act of vandalism, graffiti was starting to turn heads in artistic circles.

Alex Pope, content and education manager at Straat Museum, Amsterdam, explains that the first “real” graffiti exhibition was actually organised by a collective known as the United Graffiti Artists in 1973 at New York’s Razor Gallery. It even got a warm critical response.

“There have always been artists that operated in the public space but also wanted to get a foot in the door with what you might call ‘highbrow art’,” Pope tells The National. “Groups like the UGA and also people such as Yaki Kornblit, an Amsterdam gallerist who showcased New York graffiti artists in his prestigious art gallery in the early 1980s. Then there are the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. They’re also part of this timeline.”

On those last two names, Victoria Gramm – specialist, director, postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s – agrees, citing them as graffiti’s first real cultural crossover kings.

“The earliest auction successes were for artists working on the New York scene in the 1980s,” she explains. “Basquiat is, of course, the most famous of that group, and though his most valuable works were made in the studio, the ethos of the street – the found materials, the rapid, almost rushed writing – remained important for him. His contemporary at that time, Keith Haring, has also been collectable for many years. That generation is extremely important to today’s artists.”

While tagging and bombing led to larger mural pieces, the worlds of graffiti and street art coexist despite their differences. “To me, graffiti is more of a coded subculture done by writers for other writers to notice their stuff,” says Pope.

“Street art, generally speaking, is aimed at a broader audience. But I think it’s important to mention that without that rich graffiti history, we probably never would have arrived at modern-day street art.”

Today, it’s undeniable that street art is a key driver in urban regeneration for cities around the world. But because of graffiti’s history with social commentary, it’s a somewhat awkward relationship, with a spray can in both camps of the argument for and against its role in gentrification.

In his 2015 Proto City article Graffiti: Urban Art as a Gentrifier, Calum Gill-Quirke cites that graffiti can range from “illegible messy scrawls” to “aesthetically juxtaposed sets of visual images”. While one indicates a neighbourhood with high-crime levels and unemployment, the other is attractive for cultural development and tourism.

While Quirke’s comments could be perceived as rigid – the 5 Pointz building mural space in Long Island, New York, featured equal part murals and tags and was credited as hugely boosting its property price – it’s true that areas such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Shoreditch in London have all benefited from street art’s effect.

In a 2016 study by Warwick Business School, Flickr uploads were used to analyse the relationship between photos of street art and London property values. The result was that areas with a higher proportion of “art” photographs experienced greater relative gains in property prices.

In the Middle East, while cities such as Dubai might not experience the codes of gentrification in the same way as global cities with more miles on the clock do, places such as City Walk – with its Dubai Walls initiative featuring work from the likes of Nick Walker and Blek le Rat – has adopted what you might call a USP of culture and creativity because of it.

But while no hipster enclave worth its specialist coffee boutique would be without its street art murals, Pope still believes that graffiti has a role to play in social commentary. “I think it’s not so much name writing or ego-orientated graffiti, but you can still see social commentary graffiti all over the world,” he says.

“I’m pretty sure you can find pro and con Covid-19 messages in loads of countries, and I’m certain there will be lots of messages written on the short-term future of the situation between Israel and Palestine.”

British graffiti artist Banksy has been painting in Palestine since the mid-2000s, with several murals visible in parts of Gaza and the West Bank. In 2017, he opened The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem.

Social messaging aside, it was inevitable that as street art became a signifier of cool, it would start to migrate from public spaces to living rooms. An overspill, perhaps, of the influence brought by such high prices the art form now fetches at auctions.

“Making art to be seen on the street makes for a huge potential audience,” says Gramm, “It is art which is democratic in its appeal – relatable and easily accessible, without the need of museums and galleries to mediate the viewing experience. No gallery labels, no explanations – anyone can walk past a mural by a street artist and enjoy it.

“When it came to publicising their work, these artists have frequently worked outside the traditional gallery system to reach their audience. Instead, going through word of mouth and then social media, merchandise, documentaries, even their own exhibitions, like Banksy’s Cut and Run show in Glasgow. When works by these artists are brought to auction, we see that wide appeal translates into competitive bidding.”

When it comes to adding street artworks to your home collection, the likes of Banksy, Fairey and Basquiat might be out of reach to all but those with the deepest pockets. But that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible task to bring some urban creativity to your interior design. While that familiar group of big-name artists will always fetch a high price, there are certainly alternatives to consider.

“Like all art, it’s difficult to recommend a pure investment,” says Gramm. “I always encourage you to buy art to hang on the wall because it appeals to you, challenges you, catches your eye and keeps your interest. That said, there are so many street artists who worked alongside Basquiat and Haring whose work is underappreciated – historic works by LA II, who frequently collaborated with Haring; Dondi, A-One and their contemporaries. My personal favourite is Rammellzee, who was an incredible performance artist and musician alongside making visual art.”

For many purists, of course, the commercialisation of graffiti may never quite sit right, with the seemingly omnipresent Haring prints being enough to send even the most liberal of street artists for a lie down in a darkened room. For Pope, however, it’s simply a matter of perspective.

“Generally speaking, this culture has become so big, diverse and globally present. For every person involved that has a certain take on things, I’m convinced there is another who thinks the complete opposite,” he says.

“The way I see it, it depends on your personal ambitions. Some people strictly want to paint trains illegally. Some people just want to tag their city. Some people want to make graffiti art and have a successful gallery career off of that. Some people, however, want to do it all.”

Updated: November 10, 2023, 3:08 AM