Graffiti: Vandalism or Art?

By Megan Oshiro

Graffiti is defined as the name for images or lettering scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in any manner on property, according to Wikipedia. It can be found on buildings, overpasses, sidewalks and even on bathroom stalls. It has existed since ancient times, dating back to the glory days of the Greek and Roman Empires. Is it vandalism or is it art? And where is the line drawn between the two?

A tag in the staircase of Frear Hall, an on-campus residential facility at UH Manoa.

When the door opened leading to the west-wing staircase on the Dole side of Frear Hall, a faint odor that smelled of nail polish remover saturated the air. But it was not nail polish remover that filled the poorly ventilated stairwell — it was the scent of aerosol spray and the traces of fresh paint. From the fifth floor down to the first, red scrawlings adorned the white walls of the stairwell.

Someone had tagged the walls during overnight.

The graffiti stayed on the walls for over a week. The maintenance staff framed the tags with blue painter’s tape and covered the drawings with a layer of paint over the unwanted artwork. The red scrawlings were still visible, and it took several more coats to fully cover the tags.

The Residence Hall Policies define vandalism as “willful or malicious destruction of property.” The rules go on to say, “Damage assessments are based on the cost (materials and labor) to restore to the original state through repair/replacement of the damaged item or area.”

However, if the vandal cannot be identified, a group fee will be assessed. “When possible, residents will be notified of damage costs and possible group assessments through public notices,” states the residential policies.

“I feel like they [Student Housing] don’t inform students on when there is graffiti,” said Maci Smith, a third-year resident of Frear Hall. “I only know because I’ve seen it, and I feel like if they were trying to actively investigate it, they would have been informing students and asking us for cooperation.”

Graffiti is not just limited to the walls of the residence halls; it is displayed all over the UH Mānoa campus, and efforts have been made to clean up the damage and restore the buildings.

Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw initiated a project called the Mānoa Makeover  in 2008. According to the Chancellor’s Office, the Mānoa Makeover “encourages and facilitates volunteer projects aimed at beautifying the historic UH Mānoa campus.” In March 2011, the Society of Human Resources Management Club, the Associated Students of the University of Hawai‘i and other registered student organization teamed with the Pride in Mōiliʻili to help clear rubbish and paint out graffiti in areas surrounding the UHM campus.

Though graffiti is visible all over campus, most incidents go undocumented.

In the 2011 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, the campus crime statistics listed no reports of vandalism as hate crimes. The annual statistics did not list any other reports of vandalism.

Ka Leo, the UHM campus newspaper, promoted graffiti artwork on campus in celebration of the Ka Leo Arts Festival, which was held on Oct. 5, 2011. Ka Leo painted its traditional green newsstands white, attached colorful markers to the stands, and encouraged students to draw on them. Students loved the idea, and within days, the stands were covered with an array of colorful illustrations.

“The problem was, inadvertently, we were encouraging graffiti of other sorts, which is not at all what we had intended,” said Shinichi Toyama, a student at the Academy for Creative Media and a Ka Leo designer. Students went around tagging the boxes that we wanted people to tag, but they went on to tag trashcans and benches and all this other stuff.”

Building and Grounds Maintenance staff mistook the drawing-covered stands for vandalism and kept removing the stands from their locations. They did not want to leave the stands out for fear that it might encourage more graffiti throughout the campus.

“I think it’s vandalism when people just spray paint, and if it’s an illegal place, then it’s vandalism. But at the same time, art is subjective,” said Maria Kanai, Associate Features Editor of Ka Leo. “It’s hard because it’s a freedom of expression, and I can see how it’s unfair that there’s laws about it.”

Many consider graffiti a form of art, a medium of expression, a movement in pop culture. In Hawaii, blogs showcase graffiti around the island.

Toyama also said he believes there is a fine line between graffiti as art and graffiti as vandalism. Here’s what he has to say: Toyama’s thoughts on graffiti.

But whether or not graffiti is considered as an art form, it is illegal to use public walls as a canvas.

According to Hawaii legislation, graffiti is defined as “any unauthorized drawing, inscription, figure, or mark of any type intentionally created by paint, ink, chalk, dye, or similar substances.”

The crime can carry up to a $1,000 fine or may be equivalent to actual cost of the damage. But money isn’t the only due. The law also states that a person found guilty of committing an act of graffiti must remove the graffiti from the damaged property as well as perform up to 80 hours of community service removing any other graffiti within 100 yards of the site of the offense.

Graffiti raises concerns not only because it is a form of vandalism, but also because of the criminal activity that is often linked to it. Gangs will tag areas as a proclamation of their territory, and if anyone is caught trespassing, they risk suffering the consequences.

Since the 1980s, California has placed restrictions on spray paint in order to combat graffiti that was overrunning the streets of Los Angeles. Many businesses lock up their spray paint, and in order to purchase it, the person must be at least 18 years old.

Los Angeles City Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa attempted to deter graffiti artists, or “taggers,” by turning a graffiti crime from a misdemeanor into a felony. Although the proposed law did not pass, the city came up with a new, innovative plan.

According to Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar’s blog, the city launched a program in March 2011 that would allow the Los Angeles Police Department to track graffiti. Photos of graffiti could be taken and uploaded to a database, which would then be used to gather evidence for prosecution. These measures, as well as the $10 million a year price tag, are being taken in hopes to restore areas most heavily tagged, but also to decrease the crime that’s linked to it.

Words and photos by Megan Oshiro