Graffiti currently covers most international cities’ public surfaces and urban scrawl can even be seen deep into the suburbs and country villages. Yet debates continue about what the writing means.

In the nineteen-thirties, the French photographer Brassaï proposed that graffiti, which he saw as akin to cave painting and part of the same primordial impulse, functioned as "the bad penmansip of the group unconscious." Brassaï’s comment, made over half a century before graffiti became an unavoidable and self-conscious subculture, nevertheless articulates graffiti’s significance as a potential medium for communal expression and a movement capable of altering communal space.

Now, questions of whether marking walls is vandalism or art remain a subject of contention between city governments, property owners, city dwellers, pedestrians and increasingly, substantial art collectors, galleries and art book publishers.

The writing on the walls of Oxford might not be as challenging or internationally lauded as the writing going on inside them, but, like all graffiti, it raises interesting issues about the nature of property, art and expression.

If there is a unique Oxford-style graffiti, it is not in the bubble-letters and extensive pieces running along the walls on Cowley. These pieces and tags mostly employ an international graffiti aesthetic developed in the eighties.

Authentically interesting Oxford graffiti are the endearingly nerdy text pieces found around the colleges. Oxford’s longest lasting, still extant piece graffiti, runs alongside Blackhall Road. Obviously some student’s cute contribution to the city, the piece, which is painted on Keble College’s brick rear wall, opposite the Mathematical Institute building, consists of two large dinosaurs. Drawn in white and blue, the sketches, which face the Museum of Natural history, are accompanied by captions reading "remember what happened to the dinosaur" and " I did, and look what happened to me." Similarly insular, the "OX1" written along another of Keble’s walls is rumored to express the writer’s annoyance that Keble’s design recalls Cambridge’s architectural aesthetic. Similarly, a motivational line reading "life is not a paragraph" can still be read, despite considerable community effort to erase the lettering, on South Park Road.

These local examples demonstrate aspects of graffiti’s relationship to the local community, property rights and the medium’s artistic potential. But graffiti’s social significance is much larger than a few random thoughts rendered public and semi-permanent.Globally, graffiti is currently in an unprecedented state of conflict. Since graffiti can be seen in anyone’s peripheral vision at almost any time, it has become common to the point of being considered banal by most city dwellers. Yet there are still those who are sufficiently offended by its presence that they remain determined to maintain its illegal status. In Berlin alone, the city spends approximately 50 milllion Euro annually to clean the city walls. Yet the city remains covered in spray paint images, many of which are admired and appreciated by the city’s aesthetically progressive inhabitants. In New York and London, the startling success of a few known graffiti artists and the auction prices for some graffiti inspired works superficially appear to reflect graffiti’s rising respectability, but in actuality they only signify the medium’s split status within the contemporary art world.

Part of graffiti’s appeal is that it is often seen as the dirtier Dionysian brother of the hip, savvy art world Apollo. Even though, as Brassaï’s quote implies, the impetus to write on walls is as old as civilization, graffiti as an organized subculture in the contemporary sense only dates back to the seventies when young boys – and a few girls – began developing their renegade art on the walls and subways of New York and Philadelphia. In the eighties, a pocketful of artists, such as Futura 2000, Zephyr, Ken Scharf, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lee and Lady Pink, who either began working on the street or whose work was inspired by the street graffiti, gained popularity within the art world.

These artists worked primarily on canvas because, as Zephyr explains, ‘once having decided "I do trains, but I am going to do other things", the parameters are that it has to be movable, be displayable and be archival. Canvas is the medium of gallery artists’, while some artists successfully shifted from the street to the gallery by painting on canvas, the ethos of graffiti proved difficult to translate to an inherently static, marketable medium. As Futura notes, ‘when an artist is used to working on the scale of a subway car, it is a very difficult transition to a three-by-three foot canvas’.

The gallery work is interesting to viewers because it carries its street cred. On the streets, graffiti has always caused controversy as it flaunts and blurs the lines between expression and vandalism. Its subversive status stays strong because it breaks social codes and creates a rupture between what is accepted as ‘public’ versus ‘private’ space. Even the sloppiest made mark forces an individual’s identity onto others’ property. Graffiti needs to transgress in order to function, and by the nature of its transgression it highlights social and political delineations.

Art in public space, art for the public and public art appear to be synonymous terms for work physically outside a gallery or museum. But these terms signify different ways in which art can contribute and relate to a discourse of spatial and social relationships. Whilst such art created through institutions, corporations or governments might visually enhance the environment, as an emissary of powerful tastes and ideas it functions as a reminder of exclusion rather than a symbol of dialogue.

On the other hand, it can have a specific relationship to the community in which it is located – whether made within an ethnic tradition or as a reminder of a unique history – its meaning dependent on a pre-existing link between the work and its surroundings. Sitting uncomfortably between these two socially endorsed models, however, is a form of public art more usually known as graffiti. While not all graffiti is art, that which aspires to art’s status serves a theoretical purpose, one that transcends even while it transgresses social norms.

The issue then becomes whether graffiti itself is considered offensive by authority figures, or whether they are offended by the reminder that irreverent and often alienated groups exist who seek to claim rights over communal space. The most interesting issues surrounding graffiti arise when it technically can qualify as ‘art’ and yet its illegal presence in the urban environment still frightens and offends people.

These concerns have inspired a number of contemporary gallery artists to create work for established art spaces exploring the nature of graffiti and its conceptual roots. One of the most interesting examples of a well-known and well-shown artist exploring the sociological significance is a project by Ellen Harvey. After graduating from Harvard University and earning a law degree from Yale Harvey, who was born in the UK but now lives in Brooklyn, NYC, practiced law briefly and then enrolled in the Whitney Museum’s celebrated Independent Study Program. Between 1999 and 2001, Harvey painted tiny, gorgeous, Hudson River School-style landscapes directly onto graffiti-covered walls and other seedy surfaces throughout New York City, in what she called the ‘New York Beautification Project’. By ‘bombing’ public spaces with her dainty tag, she did more than dispense little imaginative portals throughout New York. She threw into question whether it was the graffiti act, the graffiti aesthetic or the graffiti writers themselves that the city, and particularly Mayor Giuliani, found offensive.

Harvey’s project also added insight into another aspect of graffiti that gives it its power; graffiti’s ability to restore a sense of human touch to the urban landscape. As she explained "Creating work on the street is interesting, because people tend to know your work without knowing anything else about you. Paradoxically, while graffiti tags are often all about declaring "I was here," they’re also about remaining anonymous except to a select group of fellow practitioners." As with performance art, it is the act itself that predominates, advertising the artists’ existence at the moment of creation and extolling their unique personalities. As contemporary street and gallery artist McGee/TWIST declares, ‘Graffiti is performance. Every act is performative. Each mark is evidence of that act’.

The nature of these marks is radically changing now that an increasing number of artists are using methods intended to be replicated and appropriated by their fan base. Despite repetition and mass exposure, most graffiti images are unique, individual acts of personal expression, instead of replicas of a cloistered original. In the postmodern digital age the notion of the artist’s hand or the artist’s unique touch has lost some of its significance. Graffiti stands in contradistinction to this trend, since the appeal of most graffiti is that the artist’s touch is an inherently understood. But artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have introduced to the streets mediums such as stencils and stickers, as a method of disseminating their aesthetic.

Fairey expands the definition of street art by powerfully deconstructing and mocking the omnipresence and nonsensical potency of advertising. Since 1989, Fairey has used the arbitrarily chosen but arresting face of the late professional wrestler Andre the Giant, juxtaposed with what seem to be equally random slogans and the command ‘OBEY’. Fairey replicates the stark graphics of Russian Constructivism, mixing this with the style of Dada-esque slogans born in the streets and cafés of Europe more than eighty years ago. Fairey invites an interactive approach by widely distributing his stickers and stencils. Aside from his many gallery exhibitions, the success of Fairey’s campaign is astounding and his images are globally pervasive. The Obey/ Giant stickers can be seen on lamp posts and walls all over Cowley and the world beyond. In Manhattan or Brooklyn one can often see his images at least once on every block. Like Keith Haring, Fairey has incorporated his imagery into merchandising through his own design company, adding another medium through which he can represent Obey/Giant and the concept it signifies. Basically, Fairey’s Obey/Giant campaign attempts to stimulate curiosity, encouraging passerbys to question the purpose of the poster itself and its relationship. Fairey’s posters, stickers and stencils have no intrinsic meaning and carry ambiguous slogans but, because we are unused to seeing advertisements in which the product or motive is masked, encounters with them tend to be both thought-provoking and frustrating in equal measure.

More rarified but far more famous are the stenciled, spray-painted politically satirical works by Bansky, who is currently graffiti’s poster-boy on the international art scene and in the mass media. On one day this year Banksy, the pseudo-anonymous, yet wildly famous, Bristol-born and London-based graffiti writer, had three works auctioned off at Sotheby’s auction house in London. His Bombing Middle England, depicting pensioners bowling with bombs reached the highest ever price for a Banksy work at auction of over £102,000, well over its £50,000 estimate. The other two works that sold that day, Balloon Girl and Bomb Hugger, went for £37,200 and £31,200 respectively, which were well above their estimate prices. What makes these prices most remarkable is not only that their provenance is from London’s grittier and grimier areas. Most of the hottest selling and most significant art produced and publicized in England since the nineties and the YBA movement was made inside the types of building Bansky began his artistic career by tagging. As Banksy gets more and more famous, his detractors are constantly carping that his inclusion in the realm of "high art" undermines whatever potential graffiti still has to function as a subversive, activist act.
But regardless of its ubiquity or the ability of a few artists to rise to success in the mainstream, money-saturated art-world, the medium remains capable of functioning as an activist statement. ‘Graffiti art is about appropriation of private property’, says Hugo Martinez, head of Brooklyn’s Martinez gallery, which is America’s oldest and most established exhibition space reserved exclusively for graffiti writes. ‘A graffiti writer is engaged in a collaboration, though unwilling, with the architect and the urban world’.
Ana Finel Honigman, critic and Senior London Correspondent for the Saatchi magazine website