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Art or graffiti? Carlos R. Davalos | Sat, Feb 26 2011 12:00 PM

Prior to watching "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which has been nominated for an Academy Award this year, I knew the difference between graffiti and art. They are, after all, like pornography - I know it when I see it. But after viewing the film about and directed by world renowned street artist Banksy, my ability to comfortably dismiss spray paint and drawings on a wall as the worthless work of maladjusted hooligans has been hampered.

Thanks, Hollywood.

It's not that I've developed a sudden appreciation for the scribblings that deface public and private property.

I still think graffiti is garbage and I wouldn't flinch too much if taggers were forced to lick clean the surfaces they sully. But the Banksy documentary does prompt one to consider what really is the difference between art, graffiti, social and political commentary? It's the sort of question that can give anyone who is averse to critical thinking a cluster headache.

In all likelihood, the neighborhood tagger or gangbanger isn't expressing his inner artiste when he's spray-painting his initials or the name of his clique on a wall, sidewalk or trash can.

But take those same people and change their message to "Free Tibet!" "Immigration Reform Now" or "Republicans are Right" and does the equation change?

The county, in its definition of graffiti, says no: "Graffiti is any unauthorized inscription, word, figure, picture or design that is sprayed, affixed, drawn or painted on any surface of public or private property. County ordinance requires that property owners keep all walls, buildings, fences, signs and other structures and surfaces visible from the public right-of-way free of graffiti."

So does that mean if one has a property owner's permission to scrawl a message on a building, be it initials or a political slogan, then suddenly it's not graffiti or vandalism anymore? In all likelihood no. Not if you're to recall the recent incident at a La Jolla High School were students were reprimanded for painting "Freedom for Iran" on school benches that are specifically set aside for students to post messages.

So, what's graffiti again? That's the sort of question we can ponder the next time we're walking down any Chula Vista street. With the city's graffiti abatement team down to one staffer, there's more of the eyesore/art to view than there has been in recent memory.

Maybe the only real difference between graffiti and street art is a good publicist.


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