Tagging: Art or Crime?

Or both? (Can it be both?)

Read: Graffiti tagger who sprayed ‘Sesk’ 70 times around Bristol jailed for criminal damage


Click to read the article about the pickle SESK finds himself in

Not offering my opinion either way as it’s not important but it seems real unfortunate that he’s been caught and jailed (made an example of?) – especially for something that some wouldn’t consider to be a crime worth doing time for…

Writing on a surface is a crime worth being JAILED for?

Some people have been given a similar sentence for drink-driving, and that can actually kill people! I’m sure the owners of the buildings he scribbled on would disagree but going to jail seems a little extreme for something that’s really relatively harmless… ?


Graffiti! Chuck em in jail!

And so the argument rages on… what actually constitutes art?

Is graffiti as a whole, an art?

Is graffiti tagging an art?

Then is Posca-based tagging an art?

Yes? No? Why?

Is it only art when someone tags with colours and a pretty font, or is bigger and more stylistic?


Unlawful/ morally and ethically wrong? Or beautiful piece of art with amazing colours and created through enormous skill?

What makes colour and a pretty font more worthy of being art than a hand-scrawled tag?

Is it right to persecute someone for doing something that is so naturalistic that we’ve been doing it for centuries?

As in, the first known example of “modern style” graffiti was found in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, in what is now Turkey (it was apparently an advertisement for prostitution).

Graffiti was known throughout the Roman times too; 83 pieces of graffiti were found at CIL IV, 4706-85 and have taught modern-day researchers that actually, in some levels of society where they wouldn’t expect reading and writing abilities to be that strong, they were actually better than they expected (same would surprise people today if they took the time to look past the connotations of graff and tagging).


Ancient graffiti caricature in Pompeii, Italy (one of the oldest caricatures in the Western world!)

Graffiti can, and has, taught us so much about society throughout history. And this modern-day development of graffiti into a full-blown art form is just another page for the history books.

But still the idea that graffiti is ‘bad’ continues to maintain it’s hold on mainstream society.

What even makes graffiti, well, graffiti?


Art or crime?

The definition of graffiti is, “writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.”

…That word, illicitly. That means , “not legally permitted or authorized; unlicensed; unlawful”… or, “disapproved of or not permitted for moral or ethical reasons.”

Not legally permitted or unlawful – fair enough, graff/tagging is illegal at the present time. But ‘not permitted for ethical or moral reasons?” What is ethically and morally wrong about writing on a damn wall?

Bristol - graffiti - street art - cosmic traveller

What exactly are these reasons? It’s links to shady, illegal behaviours? It’s links to under-represented, under-privileged youth who at times have felt they have no power, no options, no opportunities, no chance to thrive in society as they knew it?

And in this case, if the definition of graffiti is writing or drawings created illicitly, what does that mean for legal walls? Is it still graffiti if the work is done on a legal wall? What about if it’s hardly seen by anyone? Does the amount of viewing it gets affect it’s ability to be a ‘really bad’ thing, or is it’s ‘badness’ watered down when hardly anyone’s there to view it?


Illegal graffiti and tagging isn’t a victimless crime; not only does it have huge financial consequences, especially if they’re repeatedly targeted, but it causes emotional stress and makes an area feel less safe”, says PC Stuart King, of the Bristol police.

Financial consequences can’t be debated; many of us would be against the amount of money spent on cleaning graffiti off of walls by local councils – money we put into the pot with our council tax.

Could this be helped by each town or city having a designated place for people to tag and paint?

I think people would take advantage of such a space but at the same time the thrill of doing illegal stuff is somewhat the appeal of things like tagging, as well as the ‘fame’ that comes with it, and no amount of making it acceptable to tag or paint somewhere is going to stop those that do it for these reasons.


Apparently the law states that even if you were to do street art or graffiti on your own private, personal property, it’s still liable to be removed if other people don’t like it (if it’s viewable by others from the outside).

So, even when it’s legally done, it’s still unlawful? And wait… because mainstream society (read: the middle class/upper middle class) says Banksy is acceptable it’s ok for him to paint on the side of a house, but a stencil artist friend of mine would be fined/arrested for it? Damn.


This was painted after Banksy’s child-like piece was unveiled in Bristol – and it didn’t get removed (though everything that ends up on this old Magistrates Court normally gets removed straight away… weird that).

So, when is graffiti deemed to be graffiti? Because the rules seem to change dependant on time, place, perspective, or even, in some cases, the lifestyle of those viewing it. Is graffiti only graffiti when someone views it as graffiti? And do we have to outlaw it just because the majority of people think it’s something bad and don’t see it as an art form?


The majority of mainstream society are not exactly deemed the most creative types or open-minded types (hence why trends, fashion and ‘the norm’ even exist); are we to let non-creative types decide how art is deemed or dealt with within our justice system?

Just because the majority of people don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not art. Most people wouldn’t like pole-dancing but that activity has recently exploded as an ‘art-form’, even with it’s sexual or illicit undertones (it’s an activity attributed to illegal brothels and ‘under the cover of darkness’ striptease and sexual activities).


To be fair, tagging has always been associated with gangs and gang activity, hip-hop (which was also linked to gangs and crime), and even to this day is still associated with such activity, but nowadays it’s not just solely linked to that type of lifestyle.

The sex industry has always been linked to women being coerced or forced into it, but nowadays we know that actually, some women choose to engage in the profession. What we have been taught in the past is not necessarily still applicable today.


The urban art scene in all its forms exploded amongst those who don’t think, act or live conventionally. They enjoy being different, creative; out-and-about in the streets is their comfort zone… their minds are open and less judgemental.

There’s a reason these kinds of art forms aren’t mainstream, and that’s because the majority of people are not interested in them – or do not view them as something interesting or skilled.

Personally, I find tagging to be an art form… just because the law says its not does not mean it isn’t. The law also used to say that black people were lesser citizens, and to any smart or rationally-minded person we all know that’s a load of crap.

Bristol - graffiti - street art - cosmic traveller

So just because the law says it’s illegal and ‘wrong’, that doesn’t mean it is. Laws can be changed, as can attitudes and mindsets.

It just means the majority of the mainstream society think it’s a ‘bad’ thing.

The majority of mainstream society also think that shopping on the high street for clothes made through child slave labour is also something that is somewhat ok… most of mainstream society contribute to the meat industry and actively ingest that which was created through torture and abuse… but as long as it’s not deemed illegal, apparently it’s ok?

Bristol - graffiti - street art - cosmic traveller

This is a particularly pretty one by Midas. Love the colours

Trust me, I know this long post can be invalidated by many arguments; I’m not trying to defend or formulate an argument for or against graffiti or tagging. I’m just letting my mind run free and wild, as it seems to whenever I write. But I think we need to ask some important questions about what the hell we are doing locking up someone who’s gone a bit crazy with a Posca or a spray can.


You know some psychologists think someone who feels the need to write their name down this much might have something deeper going on, some sort of issue about who they are as a person and whether they need attention or to feel like they’re special in some way. Like a sort of narcissm.

I don’t know the guy so this might not be the case, and it’s none of my business even if it is. But something like this that’s hardly hurting anyone else seems crazy to be jailed over, and perhaps more understanding is needed as to why someone feels the need to tag so prolifically… is it just for shits and giggles? Really? Or are there other reasons?

Regardless, it’s not going to stop people from tagging if they really feel driven to.

On The Graffiti Trail: Graffiti and street art adventures in Bristol // cosmictravellerblog.com

Saying that, maybe people could be a bit more respectful with where they tag… don’t tag listed buildings, private residences or places of worship… it’s just disrespectful, surely? And tagging places that will be irreversibly damaged too…

Well, that’s the end of my ‘discussion’ anyway. It’s not a particularly well-rounded argument, I gotta admit, but I had to get it out. In my opinion I think there’s a big difference between big, painted, stylistic tags and hand-scrawled ones but I can see the merits of both forms. They’re both types of expression.Bristol - graffiti - street art - cosmic traveller


And I’m not biased because I’m an urban art lover; I’ve met many street artists and even graffers who’ve said they hate scrawled tags which are just repeated over and over with no change in style or aesthetic. Anyway, comment underneath with your thoughts!

Ps. Just because there’s a mugshot doesn’t mean he’s a ‘bad egg’… nobody looks particularly morally upstanding in a mugshot. He could be a nice guy who just got carried away or went a bit too far. I’ve met guys who look like this (and indulge in this behaviour) a thousand times and most of them were nice people.


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