Graffiti Leaves Its Mark


Scrawling your name on an ancient monument is usually condemned—except when it isn’t. (The Guardian)

Are graffitists “guerilla geographers”? You decide, but don’t try this at home.

Photograph by Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic
Photograph by Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • Our second-favorite guerrilla geographer, fellow Nat Geo blogger Samantha, took this up-close-and-personal image of graffiti on the Great Wall in December. Do you think this detracts from the “greatness” of the Great Wall?
    • How do you think it changed the experience of the graffitists?
    • How do you think it changed the experience of other tourists?
    • How do you think it changed the experience of guards, tour guides, or other people who live and work near the wall?
    • This graffiti was created on part of the wall that has been extensively remodeled—would your opinions change if it was on an older, more original section of the wall? Why or why not?
    • Would you contribute to graffiti on the Great Wall now that it’s legal? What would you write?
  • Watch the video of our favorite “guerrilla geographer,” Daniel Raven-Ellison, above. Starting about 4:10, he defines “guerrilla geography” as thinking creatively about space and the way we define the world around us. At about 4:33, he even mentions “street artists” as a type of explorer or “placemaker,” trying to answer basic questions like “what’s our identity and where are we from”? (5:24) Do you think people who draw graffiti are artists? Vandals? Both?
    • This article from the New York Post makes a great distinction between how street artists and graffitists are perceived: “‘Street art’ is associated with whimsy and even gentrification—things the mainstream considers socially good, or at the least, nondestructive. Conversely, ‘graffiti’ is a sign of poverty, criminality and a lack of order in a space.”
    • Graffiti art and graffiti-inspired art (such as this gorgeous portrait by Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most famous and familiar “graffiti artists” of the 1980s) is a popular, lucrative genre in the art market, and has been for a long time.
    • Regardless, most graffiti is entirely illegal. Graffitists do not own the walls or other surfaces they paint. Moreover, graffiti can lower property values, and cost business owners or taxpayers (in the case of public spaces such as street signs or the Great Wall) millions of dollars to repair.
  • Do you think graffitists are “placemakers” who contribute to creating a place’s identity? How?
    • For better or worse, graffiti absolutely contributes to a place’s identity.
      • Antique graffiti on the ruins of Pompeii and even on American landmarks such as Independence Rock, Wyoming, have become a part of the monuments themselves.
      • As stated above, graffiti can have an adverse impact on the economic identity of a place. It can lower property values, and cost business owners or taxpayers millions of dollars to repair. Tellingly, most wealthy collectors of graffiti art do not have unsolicited graffiti on their own homes or businesses.
      • Graffiti and street art are some of the most trenchant political statements today. They force viewers to confront uncomfortable issues at the intersection of physical, human, and political geography.
      • Confession, speaking for myself and not Nat Geo: In addition to being one of the most important and popular artists working today, the British street artist Banksy is also one of my favorites. I think his work is exemplary, thought-provoking “guerrilla geography,” and—forward to about 9:00 in the video—I think Daniel Raven-Ellison would have a hard time not loving this.

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