Street art is a crime

Why is the metropolitan elite celebrating this vandalism?

Alex Cameron

Topics Culture Politics

Modernist architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933) wrote that ornamentation was a crime. The statement defined and codified the Modernist approach to the aesthetics of design. Today he would be spinning in his grave at the legitimisation of ‘street art’ by the metropolitan and creative elites.

I moved from London to Madrid earlier this year and was saddened by the ubiquity of so-called street art. It is endemic here, as in all major cities today. It is smeared over road and rail sidings, bridges, underpasses, shop fronts, bar shutters, buildings, street furniture, schools and homes. It is a scourge, a suffocating and imposing pox on the urban landscape. It is anti-social.

Street art is an individual act that speaks of a chronic lack of consideration for anyone else. Its creators think they know best. They decide what, when and where. The people who live there, and must live with it, don’t have a say. There is no ‘demand’ for street art from ordinary people, and there is no consensual or participatory impulse on the part of the artist. It is only one person’s view of what should be and what is good for ordinary people. It is the act of an entitled, middle-class narcissist.

If we approach it honestly and critically, this faux art, daubed all over our cities rarely gets more than a smile, snigger or a ‘meh’ from the passing public. It doesn’t deserve more, because it demands so little of us. These works are at best (and I use the term loosely) well-crafted, but in content they tend towards the banal and mundane. Even ‘visually literate’ creative types, mere urban tourists, are unlikely to look twice at their smartphone’s street-art-photo-exhibition album – unless, of course, it is part of a creative pitch to a ‘hip’ new corporate client.

While it is said that there are exceptions that prove the rule, in this instance they are rarely exceptional. Street art is kitsch, contrived and uninspiring. It is visual pastiche masquerading as art.

But as much as I despise this so-called ‘art’, what I find even more abhorrent is its celebration and legitimisation by the metropolitan and creative elites. It is a cast of thousands that includes the cultural commentariat in the Guardian, who determine that it is, ‘political, subversive, furtive and hugely creative’. In similar celebratory tones, GQ tells us of street art’s ‘genius’. And in Time Out Madrid, we read of ‘works of art you could find in a museum’.

But, perhaps worst of all, international contemporary art institutions like London’s Tate Modern and the Feria de Madrid have played a principal role in the veneration of street art. A more comprehensive list would also include musicians, the design and advertising industry, publishers, academia, government departments and even some ‘right-on’ politicians. We are told street art is relevant, political and even good for the local economy.

According to the hagiographic introduction to Banksy’s exhibition in Madrid earlier this year, ‘His works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls and bridges of cities throughout the world’. It is worth noting the interesting use of the word ‘featured’ to describe unsolicited and criminal acts of vandalism. The exhibition of over 70 pieces occupied part of the Feria de Madrid, in the north east of the city. It is a vast international fair, exhibition and conference space that welcomes huge corporations, international events and exhibitions, and has over four million visitors passing through its doors annually. This was no Madrileño hipster ‘pop-up’.

Now, I can forgive the Hollywood stars and rich, street-art voyeurs who are buying it — they don’t know any better. But the recent patronage of street art by cultural and political elites is a sign of their creative bankruptcy, combined with their desperate search for relevance. Street art denigrates art; it is anti-art.

The idea that it is a radical commentary on politics is the ultimate sick joke. It is neither political nor radical in form or substance. They are lone voices, that have little to say, and so say it badly. Street art has no common or identifiable target or critique of any note. It is no wonder the elites are so enamoured with it.

Attempts at giving street art historical and political lineage by linking it to anti-war sloganeering and fine-art movements of the early and mid-20th century is ahistorical and misses an important contemporaneous point. It is only today that the elites are gushing over and clamouring to co-opt street art as part of their cultural and political reinvention. Street art is not political, but it has been politicised.

A further nonsense is the idea that, far from making a rundown area look worse, it makes it look hip and cool. But these so-called street artists tend to be ‘late to the party’, rather than in the visual vanguard of regeneration. Banksy et al came to Shoreditch in London well after it became a mecca for young Londoners.

And here’s the rub. For metropolitan elites, their patronage of street art is all about credibility. It is the co-option of a perceived ‘outsider art’ in the vainglorious hope it will give their ideas a radical gloss and help them appear culturally relevant.

For all the protestations of the contemporary political relevance of street art, ‘political’ is hardly a description that gets to the heart of the matter. It is both socially and artistically banal. It is, in its visual content, mainstream; it treads carefully in order not to offend or challenge political sensibilities. It has long ploughed a furrow of visual cliché and comic-book insight. A more apt description would be apolitical.

As much as I despise this ‘artform’, I am not advocating the arrest and prosecution of these visual vandals and their enablers. Instead, to borrow from Billy Connolly, ‘it’s a good kick up the arse they need’.

Alex Cameron is a designer and critic.

Picture by: Getty Images

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William teetzel

17th March 2020 at 4:10 am

1st. Alex, you sound like my grand mother.
And I’m 63 years old.
2nd. The city of Albuquerque NM has eight full time administrators curating and faciliting street art development. It is part or their economic and cultural development initiative.
Street art, when managed, is big money. Money talks and BS walks.
The difference between graffiti and street art is defined by public acceptance and the precieved benefit or cost to the enviorment it effects.
The discussion around steet art and graffiti is nuanced evolving.
Art critics are jealous failed wannabe artists.
They suck and are listened to only by those completely lacking their own creativity.

Jon Tucker

9th February 2020 at 8:28 pm

This article was insufferable trash. Graffiti will always be art. Society is the crime. None of you are artistic in any way. The author of this article lacks perspective and knowledge. If the sight of beautiful colors against the decay of your city bothers you more than the decay itself, you are a fucking idiot. Your “education” is worthless, wasted on a weak mind and empty soul.

Louis Torres

17th October 2019 at 6:36 pm

Alex Cameron’s cogent “Street Art Is a Crime” brings to mind Heather Mac Donald’s “What Aerosols!” (City Journal, Summer 2002). The term “graffiti” never appears in Cameron’s article, while Mac Donald, preferring “graffiti,” never mentions “street art.” She writes, for example, of “a continuing stream of graffiti idiocy in the New York Times, exemplified by its recurring use of such terms as ‘graffiti art’ and ‘graffiti artists.’” Both authors, however, are writing about precisely the same thing, and none of it is “art” by any objective definition of the term (on which, see Ch. 6, “The Definition of Art,”in What Art Is).

Mac Donald is the recipient of a 2002 Aristos Award for “What Aerosols!”

Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts), and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (Open Court, 2000)

Steve Gray

9th October 2019 at 9:41 am

I would suggest the following two questions as a way into this subject :

(i) If you were the owner of a building that someone had painted something onto, without your permission, should you be allowed to paint over that ? Why ?

(ii) Do you thnk someone like Banksy should be allowed to do what he likes, where he likes? Why ?

Patty O’Shanessy

8th October 2019 at 6:41 am

Advertising is the most revolting visual pollution assaulting all our indoor and outdoor time and our senses. Begin your aesthetic wailing and minimalist design principle carry-on there. Good grief.

Caryatid Shrugged

7th October 2019 at 4:28 pm

Street art usually isn’t soliciting anything other than your gaze. Have you considered redirecting your vitriol to advertisers (many of them using the same illegal wheatpasting tactics as street artists) who are trying to convert your attention into $$$? They are the real blight on our urban landscapes.

Patty O’Shanessy

8th October 2019 at 6:38 am

Thank you, Caryatid. I agree.

Agustus Haggerty

7th October 2019 at 3:02 pm

Generally, liked the article. Problem is, some street “art” is quite good, but most practitioners are not very good at the “art” part—drawing, composition, color, form, etc. When they inflict their ineptitude on us, it really is a crime. I’m out of solutions. Perhaps some better thinkers can think of one, short of the first that occurs—hanging, drawing, and quartering.

Stephen J

2nd October 2019 at 7:31 am

We have a new shop in Croydon. I haven’t seen it yet, but it has been advertised in the local newspapers.

A middle-class narcissist, known to the world as something called Banksy, has rented a shop and filled it with stuff to sell to his admirers. The reason that he is doing it is to raise funds to fight a greetings card company that is challenging his right to his “tag”, more commonly known as a trademark, thus far he hasn’t traded under it.

The shop doesn’t open, but you are welcome to look in the window and buy what you see online. Which apparently proves to the world that he does have a USP. Well certainly a wealthy fellow that I know has three Banksys’ hanging in his stairwell. They still look like daubs, rather than art, and I suspect that they will turn out to be bad buy, once his star begins to dim and people notice that these are stencils.

I don’t agree with either street art, or graffiti to be honest. The people that bought and built on a particular site, either on their own behalf or as our agents, did not ask for these daubs, and some spend a lot of money having it removed.

However, the character I mention above, has at least grasped the idea that he is in reality no more radical than any other self indulgent wastrel.

The question is, will he and his kind get bored any time soon?

Eric Blair

3rd October 2019 at 2:34 pm

I’m sure the practioners are going to give up their spraycans now you don’t agree with it.

cliff resnick

1st October 2019 at 4:42 pm

As “Modern Art ” has become a crime against culture surely Graffiti is just a plebeian misdemeanor, in a just society the culprits would be forced to clean up their mess.

Northern 1312

1st October 2019 at 4:56 pm

Oh, and for all of you middle aged white folk who suddenly have a funny Sharia turn and start advocating ridiculously draconian punishments for this sort of thing;

Have a look into the last really high profile vandalism case they prosecuted in the UK. They announced the guilty verdict in the same city, on the same day, in the same justice system, as they did BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall’s conviction for paedophilia. Anybody care to guess who got the far harsher prison sentence?

Northern 1312

1st October 2019 at 4:57 pm

Not sure why that’s appeared as a reply to Cliff, was meant as a stand alone post.

Jonathan Cowper-Andrewes

1st October 2019 at 3:43 pm

I don’t understand the differences between what is being called street-art here, and architecture. Throughout the ages bodies have errected builsings, some in tastes that gel with my own, others that make me look away. The average person on the street has no more control over the way a building (which has been designed by an external party) looks, and yet they are far longer term (generally) than street art, and take up far more space, impact lines of sight from a person’s residence etc.

The author of this article just comes across as pompous and fuddy-duddy unfortunately. Hanging art in a window or gallery in no way gives it more weight than a piece sprayed onto a railway bridge. I for sure would rather look at (and often try to work out) a message from an artist on the side of a bridge than be forced to stare at yet another plain, dull, character-less building any day of the week.

Gabriel Zatz-Gilman

1st October 2019 at 3:25 pm

Its sad to read articles like this one, where people fail to grasp something and act like their tired opinion is shared by the majority.
This is just a very long fist shake at the “kids these days”.

Eric Blair

1st October 2019 at 3:17 pm

Rubbish. Graffiti is the true outsider art, inimicable to the market, anonymous, dangerous and creative in extremis. It bucks commercialisation, it bucks the myth that art students put about that they are rebels when all they really want is a good agent, it bucks commodification. And it is largely done by young working class kids who don’t give two hoots for your opinion, or your permission.

Linda Payne

1st October 2019 at 3:01 pm

Barcelona is full of graffiti, its vandalism

Eric Blair

1st October 2019 at 3:18 pm

Barcelona is full of billboards for corporations. That’s vandalism.

Jerry Owen

1st October 2019 at 7:22 pm

It’s paid for and legal.

Northern 1312

1st October 2019 at 2:39 pm

Would suggest the author, and half of the people in the comments, brush up on their terminology. Are you talking about graffiti, or street art? The two are VERY much different things. It might seem like a minor distinction to the casual observer but this lexical confusion has then spread to the rest of the article and thus makes discussion difficult.
Most of the article seems to have been composed taking aim at graffiti, but the authors confused things by assuming that the aforementioned terms are interchangeable, which they very much aren’t.

For the sake of clarity – graffiti is illegal, often illegible to the uninitiated and usually written by working class teenagers looking for a bit of escapism. Street art, by contrast, is almost always commissioned and usually produced by middle class blokes with art degrees who are well financially compensated for their effort. There’s a real enmity between the two, oil and water don’t mix. I can assure you the people writing illegal graffiti are neither popular with celebrities or politicians, and further more definitely don’t give a shit what you think about the morality of their past time – it’s not for you. By the same token, the people painting 60ft high murals on scissor lifts in East London aren’t doing so illegally.

I appreciate the author also tried to make a further point about gentrification and artists being feted by politicians and the media – if you watch for long enough you can realise it’s part of a larger deliberate strategy. There’s an ongoing discussion amongst lots of artists currently about how to resist this. Generally it follows the form of;
Allow an area to fall into disrepair via chronic local government under investment, crash housing prices as local residents leave in the face of a rising tide of crime, drugs and graffiti. Buy up available housing/land for as cheap as possible and commission local street artists to cover the area with large scale mural artworks while multi generational family run businesses are replaced with luxury flats which sit empty for 10 months of the year. Sell off the new property at exorbitant prices and give a shit about the people who have been priced out of their own area. It’s an EXTREMELY successful strategy that has been repeated across London and many Northern cities dozens of times in the last few decades.

Eric Blair

1st October 2019 at 3:21 pm

More accurate than the article above.

Jerry Owen

1st October 2019 at 11:43 am

Probably the only article I have read on this topic, and i agree totally with it.
It is in many instances vandalism of private property which is a criminal offence.
Some 25 years ago whilst working in italy I took a train ride to Rome, the graffiti / art was on just about every wall facing the tracks. The overriding memory I have to this day is how scruffy and downbeat it made places look.
We now have this over here ( we didn’t at the time ) I see it on the few odd train journeys I take into London.
It’s vandalism, and of poor artistic content.
If you want to display your ‘art’ buy a canvas paint and display it at a market square , exhibition or pop up fair. It may cost a few quid, but if you think your art is good then why worry ?

Louis Torres

17th October 2019 at 7:06 pm

Since you agree, as I do, with “Street Art Is a Crime” you may also enjoy an article written seventeen years ago that I cite in my comment just now. Both argue, in effect, that “street art” (or “graffiti,” as the second author refers to it) is not art.

Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts), and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (Open Court, 2000)

Jim Lawrie

1st October 2019 at 11:38 am

I laugh when I read about one of them being electrocuted on the railways.

They don’t care about the risks to people stuck for hours on hot trains with no water or toilets.

H McLean

1st October 2019 at 11:15 am

Street art that is political (especially) deserves to be defaced.

H McLean

1st October 2019 at 11:24 am

Although I did appreciate the short-lived Hillary Clinton mural in Melbourne in the run-up to the US 2016 election. Now, THAT was genuinely subversive and a great commentary on the state of mainstream politics. Also, it seriously pissed-off all the right-on PC Green politicians there, so that’s a plus.

Warren Alexander

1st October 2019 at 8:56 am

Some of the people that call themselves “Banksy” are quite good cartoonists.

John Millson

1st October 2019 at 8:49 am

Blank walls in dull inner-city side streets are ideal for good illustrator/graphic artists, some of whom may be genuinely creative, like graffitist ‘Banksy’. Why block a means of expression? Moronic graffitists despoil.

eli Bastenbury

1st October 2019 at 10:40 am

Nothing stops people from buying canvas, daubing it and displaying it in public.

Jim Lawrie

1st October 2019 at 11:35 am

Or asking the permission of the owner. But for these people that would defeat the purpose.

Janet Mozelewski

2nd October 2019 at 3:25 pm

There is nothing remotely creative about Banksy. It is really a quirky style which he developed and which has now pretty much stagnated. The subjects are dealt with at Sixth Form levels of sophistication. It is also highly contrived and lacks any spontaneity it may have once had. Banksy is, as this piece accurately points out, become part of the establishment.
I can get behind a spontaneous out-pouring by those who desperately want their message to be heard and finds finds all avenues elsewhere to be blocked. (In fact I feel increasingly like getting some spray paint and a tin of black gloss and doing so myself!) This isn’t it. Along with most of the liberal-left’s output this is simply virtue signalling and self-regarding blather. It is, in effect, the art gallery of The Guardian.

Michael Taylor

1st October 2019 at 8:31 am

Actually, it’s simple: graffiti is theft of shared social/public space, and its perpetrators should be prosecuted as thieves.

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