Graffiti: Art or Vandalism?

On the island where I live, a number of young people have performed the decorations you will see represented in a collection of photos that will hang in Mindport’s gallery commencing the third week of January, 2015. The original work illuminates a long sea wall of grey concrete slabs that protects a shoreline road from the wave action of Northern Puget Sound. One of these creative doodlers referred to their graphic exhibition on a local computer forum as “art.” Since graphic work on walls has always interested me, I photographed a number of these marks, which, in a cranky mood, I would view simply as vandalism. With the help of a photo processing program on my computer I selectively enhanced them by choice of framing and great amplification of color and contrast.

I don’t believe the resulting photographs are much different in character than certain others of mine that were recorded with the camera pointed at randomly peeling paint, diverse materials etched by the elements, or weathered geological formations. Whatever the “canvas,” all the original marks and patterns are created and/or further enhanced by natural forces acting on surfaces; sun, wind, freezing, rain and sometimes wave action. In the case of the graphic work we’re currently discussing, the original paints were laid down by the semi-random forces of young minds and hands, apparently being spontaneous, with little discernable plan. The images I make of such subject matter, including these, are commonly  not about the actual objects pictured, but are about abstract patterns to which my imagination or emotions respond. Often I manipulate such images to make these patterns more obvious, as I’ve done in the case of this graphic work.

If the creators of this work call it art, is it? If I frame and enhance it in various ways, whose “art” is that? A collaboration? If we uncharitably consider the raw efforts to be simply vandalism, do the modifications I perform on it turn it into art? These are intriguing questions focusing on what art is, what it isn’t, and what might be good art, bad art or non-art.

Much work of innovative historical artists, including graffiti art, was initially unappreciated by the public. Work that sells for millions today barely kept the artists who created it eating during their own era. What happened? How is it that the public judgment about such creative endeavor can change so radically, sometimes in a relatively short time? To me one of the most alluring mysteries that make creativity such a fascinating field of study and contemplation is the way it interacts with taste and what is considered valuable or worthless or of little interest at all in a given era. I have no definitive answers and mostly negotiable opinions about this myself, and hence leave it for you to ponder as you view these photographs.

Kevin Jones