Is graffiti art or vandalism? No one – even the artists themselves – can agree

By Jordan Kunkel

Walk down any street in Rogers Park or Edgewater, and chances are you’ll pass by street art. Or maybe it’s graffiti? It really all depends on who you ask.

City officials have sanctioned much of this outdoor art, created mainly with spray-paint or mosaic tiles. But they also cover up other creations, leaving discolored blotches and brown paint in their places.

Other spray-paint creations don’t have official approval, but remain untouched.

One reason some graffiti stays, and other artwork disappears, is that city officials, artists, lawmakers and the general public don’t seem to agree on one common definition for the word “graffiti.”

For example,  there is no Mayor-Rahm-Emanuel-approved criteria separating outdoor art from illegal graffiti. The City of Chicago’s  graffiti removal webpage contains only one highly subjective description of graffiti: “Graffiti is vandalism. It scars the community, hurts property values and diminishes our quality of life.”

According to interviews, surveys and expert opinions, local residents are just as confused. Where one person sees art, another picks up the phone to dial 311 to report vandalism.

The City’s Wobbly Stance

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “Graffiti, also called spray can art, appeared in Chicago in the 1980s. It began, as in New York, with “tags” featuring the writer’s name, initials, or nickname; then it evolved into the “wildstyle,” with names outlined and filled in with color, and finally into “pieces” (masterpieces)—large-scale, multicolored, complex compositions.”

Graffiti is illegal in Chicago, as it is in most American locales except for Venice, California and the borough of Queens in New York.

In 1993, Chicago’s City Council established the Graffiti Blasters Program, which allocated money towards graffiti removal on public and private property and banned the sale of spray paint within the city boundaries. Many questioned – and continue to question – the program’s effectiveness.

In 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first budget reduced annual spending on graffiti removal from $5.7 million and 60 employees to $4.1 million and 43 employees.

Many Aldermen protested the cutbacks. Emanuel listened.

The 2018 budget allocates over $4.7 million to graffiti removal, and over $19.5 million to “Community Enhancements.” Community Enhancements provides services for cleaning neighborhoods, which includes graffiti removal.

Punishment for tagging property depends upon the value of the damage done and whether the offender has a criminal record. In Chicago, fines range from $300 and no jail time to $25,000 and five years in prison.

Those penalties, of course, can only be enforced if the graffiti artist is caught in the act or can be identified through footage from one of the city’s 15 surveillance cameras in neighborhoods with high rates of graffiti.

Over the years, the city has created  opportunities for sanctioned artists to create public artworks across Chicago.

Any citizen can dial 311, and request the removal of  graffiti on private or public property.

According to city officials, it usually takes five days for the city to remove the graffiti. The city does not charge property owners for the service.

But if no one makes an official complaint about a piece of graffiti,  it will remain intact.

A mural in an alley off of Jarvis Avenue in Rogers Park is unofficially called “DIY Mural.”

It appeared in one day this year without sanctioned approval from the city, according to Nathan Smith, the director of the Roman Susan Art Gallery in Rogers Park.

There’s no signature on the mural, although Watic, a Chicago graffiti artist who didn’t want us to publish his real name for fear of arrest, knows the person who created it.

This DIY Mural down an alley along Greenview between Chase and Sherwin. PHOTO: Courtesy of Roman Susan

Although this painting is just around the corner from Alderman Joe Moore’s office, no one has covered it up.  The alderman’s office says they know nothing about the mural.

Smith, however, says the alderman knows and leaves the mural up because of its artistic value.

What Residents Think

The RogersEdge Reporter surveyed 154 people living in Rogers Park and Edgewater.  While most feel graffiti is a legitimate form of art, they still feel it should be illegal.

The three images below, found using the search term “graffiti” in a photo database, were presented to survey-takers.

The majority felt that the first two clearly met the criteria for “art.” But nearly one third  felt the piece without clear imagery was “graffiti.”

Even though the majority felt all three works constituted “art,”  2/3 of survey respondents still want graffiti to remain illegal.

“I am an art lover and like graffiti,” says Dan Baker, a 44-year-old Chicago resident. “But that doesn’t mean I want it on my garage. I’d call the city if my property were ever tagged.”

Like many, Baker believes that graffiti sends a message that the property isn’t being watched carefully, making it a safe place to commit other crimes.

Over the years, some studies have proved that people do indeed break more laws in neighborhoods plagued by litter and graffiti.

Even some graffiti artists don’t want their art to be decriminalized.

If legalized, Watic believes that graffiti would lose its appeal, and that mural-style, legal art work seen in many parts of Rogers Park now would replace graffiti-era work.

“It wouldn’t be graffiti anymore,” Watic says. “If painting trains were suddenly legal, I’d be like ‘Ah, I don’t know if I want to be painting trains anymore. There’s probably going to be a government official monitoring what you’re painting.’ F**k that.”

“Graffiti roots came from fighting the system, so if anything,  we should be painting those brand new condos,” says Watic. “Those new sky rises that are coming up, when people tag those I get so hyped. Or go over their brand new $1200 windows, that cracks me up because they have money to replace that. It just annoys them.”

Take the survey below to share your views on street art, and see what your neighbors have to say:


  1. The ‘Creation of Adam’ mural off Jarvis Avenue has actually been there for almost four years. I do not know if the alderman knows about it or not – but it was someone from his office that originally brought it to my attention.

    Seemingly, it did appear to be created over a single evening, in 2014.

  2., what looks worse? Some letters on the wall in vibrant colors that are pleasing to the eye, or a patch of paint unprofessionally applied??? Get it together people. Graffiti is about self expression.. Some peoples only outlet…i know this, because graff at one point was the only thing that stood in the way from me saying f it and killing myself. In short i would rather see art on the wall than paint that did not match.

    -graff writer

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