Delinquency and Diatribes: Graffiti Art in Turbulent Times

George Floyd Stencil next to an anti-police message on the corner of University and Hamline Avenue in the St. Paul Midway neighborhood. (Courtesy Lisa Waldner)

The clamorous clanks of a spray-paint canister at late hours in the night may sound like vandalism; but to artists and protesters, they sound like change.  

According to Lisa Waldner, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas, graffiti art is often used as a form of protest and resistance, often aimed toward the dominant culture. As a result, it has often been viewed as a crime rather than an act of political mobilization. Waldner, an award-winning sociologist and researcher, said she was enthralled by the sentiments hidden behind this art form.  

She said although graffiti in her neighborhood is a newly discovered outlet for the supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, the art has been an avenue for political dissent since it rose to prominence in the United States during the Chicano movement in the 1960s.

For many years, graffiti has been the scandalous and politically aggressive product of mysterious artists veiled by the looming shadows of multihued murals. Sociologists have tended to focus on more socially acceptable political expression; protests haven’t been as tolerable and have been viewed as acting outside of the accepted public discourse. Graffiti as an extension of the protest message has been equated with crime and gang violence, which has negative connotations that undermine the art’s political implication.  

“People can choose to channel their anger into destructive riots, which can be pretty legitimate, but artists use their sentiments to educate — that’s what makes graffiti so special,” said Waldner.  

Graffiti accentuates turmoil; it’s often a cry for attention, and the creators will intrepidly claim public property with their creations just to receive it, she said. 

In popular movements, there is a lack of order in which opinions are voiced––that is the whole point. Graffiti is the art of the people and often reflects the movement’s lack of linear progression. Graffiti can either be seen as a last-ditch effort, or it can be the highlight of the protesters’ agitation.  

“In the whole aftermath of George Floyd’s lamentable passing, graffiti murals are being preserved in their original locations to commemorate artists’ contributions to the movement. Art in itself may not bring about tangible change, but it is a monumental component of every movement and should be regarded with the respect that is owed to it,” Waldner said. “Nothing in itself can bring about change except the collective need and subsequent mobilization for it.”  

However, preservation of street art is often associated with mounting it on museum walls, which Waldner said is inherently incorrect. Removing graffiti from the streets and buildings to preserve it in museums negates the art’s meaning. Graffiti in museums is available only for privileged people; street art that was originally accessible to the masses is now being capitalized rather than politicized. This simple action is detrimental to the graffiti artist community as a whole.  

“I agree with artists who are angered by exploitation of their work by museums,” said Waldner. “The Berlin Wall is one of the immensely acknowledged murals made by angered East Germans who weren’t allowed access to the rest of the country, from whom the art has been purloined and shipped globally, causing it to lose meaning. Taking art out of context can be damaging, especially when the art is profiting the robber rather than the artist.”