Graffiti: street art or simply vandalism?

Graffiti: street art or simply vandalism?

Over the past year or so, I’ve fallen in love with street art. Unlike the white-washed, pristine feel of Nice, the twisting alleyways of Marseille, Lyon and Paris were covered with neon tags, stenciled social commentary and gorgeous murals. I remember wandering those cities with my camera, excited because I never knew what would lie around the next corner. The promise of stumbling across something beautiful or thought-provoking–something that I wouldn’t see unless I was looking– inspired me to truly explore the city–the safer touristy neighborhoods along with those that I deemed more “interesting.”

Graffiti in street art alleyway ACDC Lane, Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne’s reputation as a city that actively supported street art was one of the things that drew me to it. I haven’t been disappointed: the famous CBD graffiti alleyways are my favorite detours day or night, and there are more than enough spray-painted and stenciled bits sprinkled through the suburbs to keep my eyes peeled.

The most recent controversy in Melbourne is over a graffiti website being preserved for social and cultural value by the National Library. I think it’s an extraordinarily forward-thinking move by the National Library. However, many are quick to cite the $13.5 million that the city spends on local graffiti removal and prevention programs each year–and aren’t too happy with the inclusion of site, which, admittedly does teach how to tag a city train and recommends where to buy paint.

While I do think there is a significant difference between street art and graffiti tagging, the line between the two is very blurry. Street art is exactly that: a piece of art in a public space, an expression of talent or a bit of social commentary. Sometimes it’s condoned by the cities, sometimes it’s not. There are some very artistic forms of tagging, but simply scrawling a signature or a gang sign on a wall isn’t contributing to the beauty of the city. Is a gorgeous mural on a wall without the proper permits OK? Is a vivid and vibrant example of tagging over another mural not OK? It’s a controversial question that there are no hard and fast answers to, an issue that often divides generations and socioeconomic groups.

Graffiti in street art alleyway of ACDC Lane, Melbourne, Australia

Street art is easily my favorite thing to photograph, simply because it’s so alive. Unlike a stagnant painting in a museum, it’s something that is constantly changing: rarely will you be able to come back to a graffiti alleyway in Melbourne in a few weeks’ time and find it unchanged. An awesome piece of art may have been ruined by tagging, or it may have been replaced with another impressive piece.

Just as I don’t believe in getting rid of it, I don’t believe in preserving street art either. The city of Melbourne came under a lot of flak for painting over a Banksy piece–but to me, that’s a risk that every street artist runs.

What do you think of graffiti works in a city? Pieces of street art or simply vandalism? 

For a bit of inspiration, some of my favorite pieces (and posts) of street art:

Street graffiti art in Marseille, France

Escape to the maritime city of Marseille







Street art mural in St-Germain neighborhood, Paris, France

Postcard from the streets of Paris


Graffiti street art in Lyon, France

Postcard from the streets of Lyon

Be Free Street art on a wall in Collingwood, Melbourne, Australia
Postcard from the streets of Collingwood

Graffiti street art in Hosier Lane, Melbourne CBD, Australia

Postcard from Hosier Lane

  • Jaclyn Bastarache

    I LOVE street art! Greece is another place where it is everywhere! Some of the graffiti are huge murals that cover entire sides of buildings! It definitely makes you look at “graffiti” in a different way.

  • I love street art – I went to Lyon last November and loved the wall-sized murals. I recently watched a documentary about some of my favorite street artists called Exit Through the Gift Shop which was a really interesting glimpse into that world! 

  • Katherina

    Personally, I’m more for clean streets and buildings. But I think there’s also a main difference between graffiti per se and street art – afer all, the latter can’t include a simple spray with a name or a swear word. Those kind of graffitis, in my opinion, are meant to be to disturb the people living there – that can’t be called art. However, I do like the intelligent and incredibly crafty graffitis you show here (similar to some I’ve seen in some parts of London and NY). Those, for me, are art! 🙂

  • I absolutely love street art, and like you, photographing it.  That said graffiti can definitely be both, street art and vandalism.  There are beautiful pieces out there created by talented artists but spray painting how much you love your girlfriend in crappy handwriting on the side of a bridge doesn’t really qualify as art in my book 🙂

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  • Love your photos of the street art! I think there are beautiful pieces out there (we have taken quite a few shots of some in Antigua Guatemala), but I hate the street tags, that big bubble writing and incomprehensible sentences is vandalism.  

  • Anonymous

    So true. I come from a city where the graffiti is mainly tagging–it’s not very thoughtful or thought-provoking. And it’s certainly not in the city center–it’s confined to the poorer suburbs. Such a new thing for me, but I’m loving it–will definitely need to check it out in Greece at some point 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Love those murals in Lyon–have you seen the one in Cannes? They’re fabulous! Keep hearing recommendations for Exit Through The Gift Shop–really need to find a place to rent it!

  • Anonymous

    Definitely depends on the vibe of the city. You never saw it in Nice, but it was everywhere in Marseille. When it’s thoughtful and thought-provoking–I love it! The pure talent that some of these artists have is unreal–it’s crazy not to celebrate it.

  • Anonymous

    Very true–it certainly depends on the intention of the artist. When it’s good, though–I love it! Makes wandering through a city so much more interesting.

  • Anonymous

    Even when it’s vandalism, I’m sometimes struck at the artistic talent that goes into tagging: that “bubble writing” that has amazing colors or just really well done–I’m shocked that sort of talent and effort is being lost on the streets!

  • Great post Christine 🙂
    Street artists from all over the world come to Melbourne to participate in the street art scene. I didn’t know the national library had made that move – great to see a progressive move for street art after the years of bad rap!
    I believe Melbourne has a great model for street art that other cities should look into. They give the artists areas to express themselves where it isn’t considered vandalism, and if you look at the areas (Hosier Lane, Union Lane, side streets in Degraves etc.) the art is actually, for the most part, very tasteful. And this is coming from someone who knows nothing about it!

    I can’t wait to explore street art in other parts of the world – love the pics from France.

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s an issue that has no correct answer. For whatever reason, I’m not a fan of tagged trains and buses, even if it’s well done, but I find wall art really interesting. Tough tough debate, one that will always exist! 

  • Anonymous

    I do love that Melbourne has dedicated street art alleys and areas: they’re such a huge draw for tourists, I think it was a smart move by the city! I also think it forces people to look at street art a bit differently. My parents (and most in their generation) are so anti graffiiti, tagging, vandalism, etc.–but this shows them that it can be legitimate art! Definitely check out the “Space Invaders” exhibit at RMIT Gallery when you’re in Melbs–super interesting.

  • Anonymous

    It’s one of those issues (for me, at least) where it’s impossible to put a line down the middle and say this is vandalism and this is street art, this isn’t OK and this is OK. Difficult debate, but it’s one of those things where you know it when you see it!

  • Cat

    Funny that you mention graffiti in Lyon. My favorite place in Lyon when I lived there was this wall  under a bridge by my house with all different kinds of graffiti hearts.

    I think that there are 2 different kinds of graffiti: there are the gang tags that are scrawled in marker on the side of tunnels or in buses, and there are the murals or stencils that create some kind of art (like the images you’ve shown above).  I love street art (NOT gang tags). I think it gives a city more of a  personality and mystery. I love accidentally finding a really cool mural or looking down and seeing a heart stenciled to the pavement.

    Put it this way – if I owned a blank wall on something like an apartment building downtown in a busy city, and I came out to find graffiti on it, I’d be more inclined to accept it and not be upset by it if it was something artsy, as compared to ugly gang tags.

  • Anonymous

    It’s such a tough line to draw, but I think you know the difference between “good” street art and “bad” street art when you see it. Lyon had lots of good–but a fair bit of bad, which is unfortunate!

  • Rajasthan Tours Operator

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  • Definitely street art!

  • Art, Def. The work Be Free puts into the pieces is astounding.

  • Anonymous

    Glad you agree!

  • Anonymous

    Totally agree 🙂

  • Rajasthan Tours

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