In particular, I am interested in the differences, perceived or otherwise, between street art and graffiti. I've brought this up in class discussion, and it's been talked about in some of my other classes as well. To me, urban art and graffiti have widely different connotations. Graffiti is seen as something negative-- an act of vandalism that necessitates the prosecution of the criminal "artist." Likewise, graffiti is often conflated with other ideas, particularly concerning racial and class-related stereotypes. The "undesirables" do graffiti, and they sully the cleanliness of the public arena. However, street art means something completely different, at least to me. The connotation of "street" or "urban" art implies that there's some form of allowance or acceptance by the broader society-- even the word "art" denotes its value. However, street art can sometimes start out as what one might consider vandalism-- an illegal contribution to a public space that happens to be deemed acceptable enough to stay. Artists such as Banksy have proven this-- technically, what Banksy does is graffiti, as it has been painted over and taken down in many places, but still it sometimes remains and has gained rapid popularity and recognition because of the social commentary it provides. In this sense, it is deemed "acceptable." Other times, street art is commissioned by the local government in order to "beautify" or improve an area. For example, the 46th St. mural in Seattle was created to "link the neighborhoods of Fremont and Wallingford" and boasts sprawling designs, saccharine colors, and widespread acceptance. Because street art and graffiti are essentially the same thing-- a drawing or visual representation of something in a public place, why are they viewed so differently?
I think, as Youkhana mentions, this stems from the difference in intention behind the art. In commissioned street art, there is no true "claiming space" or "asserting identity" since those who contribute to and are represented by the art are not marginalized, so these types of public art are more for beautification purposes, as with the 46th St. mural. There is no underlying narrative that could be controversial. With less acceptable forms of street art, like Banksy, there is some underlying narrative, but in general it is not controversial enough to be considered sullying to the public space it situates itself in. Perhaps it is because Bansky is a white man, presumably middle-class, and only speaks to larger societal issues that a large majority of the population (white, middle-class) agree with. In graffiti, this is not true. Those who graffiti or tag places are often not white, not middle-class, and largely marginalized by larger society. Therefore, this assertion of space is deemed as threatening to the status quo, which is why it is looked down upon. Likewise, the narrative offered in graffiti ("I am here, I deserve to be here, I deserve to occupy and claim this space") goes against most hegemonic notions and societal norms, and is therefore an "unacceptable" form of demonstrating one's belonging to place. It is for these reasons, however, that graffiti matters the most among other forms of public art in the quest to fight for marginalized groups. Graffiti is a way to assert identity and ownership, and listening to those voices is essential in bringing justice and equality.