Graffiti blurs line between art and vandalism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 February, 2009, 12:00am

Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate graffiti is on the rise in our city. People are generally in two minds about it. Certainly, young people should be encouraged to express themselves. Graffiti, by being spontaneous and a little subversive, is all the more interesting and appealing to young people. But is it art or vandalism?

Even if a piece of graffiti has artistic merit, it can still be a crime to paint it on someone's property. The ugly spray-painting of 'tags' which are currently defacing parts of our city should be deterred. But some graffiti can, undoubtedly, achieve high artistic value. Britain's Banksy is generally recognised as a genuine artist; many of his graffiti prints sell for tens of thousands of dollars. A few of the iconic scribblings of the late self-styled 'King of Kowloon', Tsang Tsou-choi, have been preserved on walls across our city and are protected as cultural heritage. Be that as it may, many people still reasonably regard graffiti as nuisance and as criminal defacement warranting prosecution. Fortunately, when it comes to graffiti, Hong Kong does not have the same problems as many overseas cities. Here, they are usually painted by well-meaning artists and youngsters who hope to liven up neighbourhoods or make a statement.

It has been proposed that the government set up graffiti zones. Some youth groups have done so with varying success. The proposal is similar to the government's designations of specific parks for skateboarders who are generally banned from most public spaces. These special park zones tend to be underused, but at least they offer a safe and legal outlet for skateboarders, so the same may work for graffiti artists.

Perhaps, ultimately, the acceptance of graffiti can only be decided by appealing to community standards. At present, our society does not seem to have much tolerance for them. But as free spirits and subversive artists, graffiti painters should not expect quarter to be given. Being prosecuted is a chance they have to take. Struggle can, after all, be key to artistic success. A few may well develop into genuine artists; and their work to hold such appeal as to gain community acceptance or even admiration.