Graffiti art vs. public art

Cities are questioning where the line can be drawn between vandalism and artist expression

The line between graffiti art and public art can sometimes be a blurry one.
The line between graffiti art and public art can sometimes be a blurry one.

The line between graffiti and public art can be blurry, but its status in Kingston’s art world has become a question not of value, but of regulation. 

In Kingston, the distinction between graffiti and art is based on the city’s by-laws, which bans graffiti — quite reasonably — from public property if done without a permit. 

In August 2014, an event titled “On the Wall Street Art Festival” united street art and public art, and providing an example of confusion between the two types of art.

The event, hosted in Douglas Fluhrer Park, invited 21 artists to paint and draw large-scale artwork on the retaining wall that borders the park. Members of the public were invited to watch the artists as they worked.  

David Dossett, local Kingston artist and owner of Martello Alley on Wellington St., said both street artists and traditional artists were invited to the event. Although he isn’t a street artist, Dossett participated in the event, painting a mural onto a section of the wall. 

The artwork on the retaining walls successfully added life, colour and beauty to the park. However, Dossett said, his mural, and two others, were defaced with tagging — a street artist’s personalized signature. 

Although Dossett sought permission to repair his painting, the incident demonstrates the blurry line separating street art and public art. Why is one form of art on public property allowed, while the other isn’t?

Dossett suggests that it is a matter of limiting self-expression on public and private property. 

“There are a lot of ways to express yourself, but where does it stop? Is it okay for [someone] to graffiti on your car? On your bike? On your fence? On the wall of your house?” Dossett said in an interview.

Here, it comes down to the law and the way Kingston regulates art in public spaces. The “On the Wall” event needed to seek permission from the city through an application process. 

The event obtained the legal permission necessary, while art in public spaces without the City’s permission, such as graffiti and tagging, are prohibited by Kingston’s by-laws. 

Initially, based on the general perception of graffiti as vandalism, I thought the status of graffiti in the art world would be an easy judgement to make. 

However, considering the diversity of artists and arts communities, including large groups of people who appreciate urban art, graffiti isn’t so black and white.

For many, one of the main goals of creating artwork is self-expression. 

Like all forms of art, deciding what types of self-expression are valuable is subjective. It’s quite possible for different people to value certain art over others.

It doesn’t seem fair, then, to base the decision about graffiti on which art form holds a higher status in arts communities. 

Kingston approaches the situation with that same logic.Because the answers to these questions are so subjective, city by-laws prohibit street art not based on the quality of the art, but by whether it’s done on public property. 

The City’s by-laws prohibit graffiti on the exterior of any building. 

By doing so, Kingston has made it clear that artwork or self-expression isn’t the problem. 

The presence of unsanctioned art on public property is the larger issue at hand. Opponents of graffiti traditionally point to problems with gangs, aesthetic disruption and offensive vandalism. 

The risks associated with graffiti are enough for the City to prohibit it entirely. 

By no means do I believe that street art isn’t valuable. But as Dossett said: where is the line? Where is street art acceptable? Will it bother you once it’s on your property? It’s unfair to limit self-expression or say which art is more valuable than the other. 

However, if public space is involved, it seems acceptable to regulate the placement of artwork, as graffiti covering public property can change the perception of an area for both inhabitants and visitors.


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