Is Graffiti Illegal? Explanation of Graffiti/Street Art

Man spray painting in deserted room


Is graffiti illegal?

Answer: If you do not have permission - YES it's illegal. If you have permission - NO it's not illegal.
This is the way that it works in most places around the world.

The reason that this is a confusing question is because the word 'Graffiti' has ambiguous meanings. Since there is a mysterious aura to it, the average person might refer to the following things as graffiti:
1) Any kind of drawing or words that were written without permission.
2) Anything drawn or written with spray paint.
3) Any kind of urban art that is displayed outdoors or in the street.

In order to properly understand this subject, you must recognize these different categories. The 1st category above is generally going to be illegal. With the other 2 categories - it is not inherently a crime or not. It is going to depend on whether the artist received authorization from the owner of the property where the art is located.
Whether permission was provided is the deciding factor. Because paint, spray paint, brushes, etc are not illegal - the crime often committed when deploying graffiti is vandalism. It is a form of theft.
There is nothing inherently illegal about drawing a picture of a cat. But if it is deployed on private property without the owner's permission - then it's illegal (in most places). Another example is a spray-painted portrait of a person. A picture of a face is not illegal in most places - in fact there are lots of faces displayed all over. What's illegal is spray painting on somebody else's property without their consent.


Mural artwork on wall

Artwork by Adnate and Li Hill


How to Tell if Legal or Not?

The question that arises from this is the following: how can you tell if a piece of urban art was made illegally or not?

A way to determine this is through a simple formula. Ask the following 2 questions:
A) What are the rules of the city/country, etc?
B) How much are these rules being enforced?
Based on the answers to these questions, you can estimate how much time somebody would have to deploy illegal urban art. We can call this the 'illegal window' of time. Then you would estimate how long any individual artwork took to deploy. If it seems like it was deployed in less time than the illegal window, then it was probably not authorized. If it seems like it took longer to deploy than the illegal window, then it probably was authorized.
Take New York City as an example. What are the rules? Very strict - if you are caught you will be arrested immediately. How much are the rules enforced? Very aggressively - there are patrols, task forces, vandal squad detectives etc. So figure that the illegal window of time is approx. 3 minutes. Therefore: if you see a piece of urban art in New York City that appears to have taken longer than 3 minutes - assume it was allowed. If it seems like it took less than 3 minutes - assume that it was illegal.


Hooded man spray painting on blank wall



The ways that authorization works can vary. In New York City, authorization is very simple: the owner of a property is the sole exclusive authority over how it looks - including any paint or murals. The government is not in charge of it and is not involved. The opinion of other people is also irrelevant - there is nothing social about it.
However it is different in other cities. Here are the 3 most common configurations.
1) Total discouragement - the government tries to prevent ANY spray paint on walls (even authorized by property owners). For example, in London there are local councils which ban spray paint on any property regardless of whether the owner wants it there. Note, however, that spray painting with permission there is not a crime - it's only a violation of a civil ordinance (for a crime you can be arrested, for a civil ordinance violation you can probably receive a fine at worst).
2) Encouragement of authorized art - the government actively encourages people to paint on municipal-controlled properties around the city. An example of this is Philadelphia. They have a famous mural program where artists are recruited to paint on vacant properties. However vandalism (art that's deployed without permission) is still banned and enforced.
3) No involvement - like in NYC. The government targets vandalism but is essentially neutral on authorized urban art. If it was deployed without permission - they will come after you for this vandalism. If it was authorized - the government will take no action.


Mural painting on wall

Artwork by Musa, Harry Bones and HOACS


Types of Artists

There is a variety among the artists who make graffiti and urban art. They can be divided into 2 main types:
1) Graffiti writer - an artist who deploys the original form of graffiti . They are writing their name, usually with stylized lettering. It is typically done with spray paint, but it could be with other materials too. The primary audience is other graffiti writers like themselves. It might be illegally done (usually lower quality) or authorized (typically higher quality). Many graffiti writers also make artworks that are not lettering (portraits, pictures etc), but their allegiance is to graffiti writing and they have spent substantial time honing their lettering skills. Graffiti writers are also known as 'taggers' or 'bombers.'
2) Street artist - an artist who is making any other type of urban art which is not comprised of lettering. It can be any material/presentation - paper, stencil, brush, sculpture, mural etc. The distinction between a street artist and a graffiti writer is that a street artist has not spent time honing their lettering skills. They create artistic works which are deployed out in the street, but they do not have a background of participating in the original form of graffiti writing. Many of them possess an advanced art education.

graffiti lettering on wall
colorful mural artwork

First artwork by Mr Nerds, second artwork by Dasic Fernandez


So, for the question of 'is graffiti illegal?' we have our answer: It depends on whether it was authorized or not. And now you also have a grasp of the different types of art that people refer to as 'graffiti,' so you can understand this phenomena better.



Man spray painting in deserted room



Copyright Jeffrey Stirewalt 2019. Under no circumstances is this material to be copied, sourced, referenced, reproduced etc. Any breach of this copyright will be pursued aggressively under the Digital Millennium Act and through all possible legal channels. But please share this and link to it!

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