Graffiti Critique: Staining Europe’s Beautiful Landscape

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“Good” graffiti on the Berlin Wall

There is “good” graffiti and “bad” graffiti. But most of it is bad, and the problem is rampant in Europe these days! I thought the U.S. had a graffitti problem… until I returned to Europe after a long hiatus – and found it virtually unrecognizable. In the U.S., you see graffitti mostly on abandoned and condemned buildings on the outskirts, in decaying neighborhoods, and around subway and bus terminals in some, not all, cities. Across Europe, it seems, these hoodlums are happy to leave their mark anywhere and everywhere – including around historic sights, tourist neighborhoods, and the formerly pristine countryside.

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“Bad” graffiti across the river from the tourist-mobbed Berlin Wall

As an Art History major in college, most graffiti really offends my sense of aesthetic sensibility. I can’t believe there’s actually a raging debate about whether it’s o.k. because “it’s freedom of expression!” and “it’s art!” If you buy a building and spray paint it until your heart’s content, or you paint where it is allowed, that qualifies as self-expression and may even qualify you as an artist. But when you deface property that is not your own and without permission, you are a criminal, not an artist. And, frankly, even if it were art, that still wouldn’t give you the right to alter another’s property without permission! Yet there are a number of articles on the internet suggesting this is actually a debatable topic.

Another “argument” given by some is that the practice of grafitti is ancient, and that there is ancient grafitti which is considered art to us today. As a student of Art History, I agree that due to its historic value and cultural insight, ancient “graffiti” certainly is art. But we do not live in Ancient Rome today, and we were not there, as much as we may have studied and know about Ancient history. Their culture was different – and their laws. Just because something was acceptable then does not automatically make it acceptable now. That goes for grafitti, slavery, a lower status for women, and butchering animals in the arena. I’m fascinated by Ancient Rome, but Roman society has its place in Ancient history. Would these same people who argue grafitti is ok now because it was ok then say the same of these other activities? Their argument is deeply flawed.

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“Bad” graffiti steps away from Kronborg Castle deep in Copenhagen’s tourist district

I wonder why the graffitti isn’t removed and I ponder whether, perhaps, the problem is so rampant that building and other property owners have just given up. I wonder how many times they removed the offending marks just to have them turn up again?

I believe there IS a place for graffitti, and I believe it can be art. There are locations where the spray painting has been allowed – in confined areas where it is not imposing on another’s personal property, or on a person’s appropriate use of property (such as when grafitti “artists” paint over train windows obstructing the view of customers who paid 4.50 Euros for reserved window seats…!) The Berlin Wall is an ideal (and rare) example of the positive impact graffiti can have on a structure.

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Graffiti as art on the Berlin Wall

In the U.S., unless a building is abandoned, in many cases an owner will expeditiously remove unwelcome graffiti. It sends a message that this behavior is not tolerated. In Europe, I fear that by not responding, the opposite message is being sent, potentially making the problem even more rampant. Europe is already buried under the weight of the blanket of graffiti everywhere you look.

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Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial’s gray blocks – covered in anti-graffiti coating

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin shows that on some large-scale projects, efforts are being taken to deter the graffiti scourge. The memorial is covered in anti-graffiti coating, and the gray color resists shadowing. I hope other civil engineering projects in Europe will follow suit with this defense against the graffiti that threatens the integrity of our treasured monuments.

I understand that property owners may be concerned the graffiti will just come back, and are hesitant to spend the money for removal for that reason. That is why the government needs to step in and make penalties far more severe for the defacement of private property. Perhaps then owners would be more inclined to respond, and “taggers” would be less inclined to repeat their bad behavior.

How do you feel about the graffiti covering the landscape of Europe? Comment below!

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