Graffiti : ART or Crime?

All this morning we’ve been talking about graffiti in Milwaukee.
This all stems from a meeting last night, when Alderman Tony Zielinski wanted a graffiti ordinance passed so badly that he left Thursday’s meeting in a storm.

Check out this link. You really gotta watch this video!

I received well over a dozen calls about this today. So I am continuing this dialog here on line.
A great number of calls and emails from you, and I thank you all for that! This is a tricky issue. Let’s face it, none of us want to see poorly written tags and gang symbols covering the walls and signs of our city, but this issue is not about that; it’s about the process to legally paint murals (graffiti style or otherwise) on private property.

I agree that an application process would help to ensure that these murals are not an eye sore to the communities in which they are place, but almost every single mural I’ve ever seen in this city is better than some quick “throw up” tag by some night time graffiti criminal.

The other citizen you will see in the video link above, are from the TRUE SKOOL ORGANIZATION.
True Skool-
“Our goal is to create and find public art space to heal and beautify communities through the power of ART! We also identify walls that are commonly tagged and work with the property owner to paint over the illegal graffiti with themed positive artwork. ”

Here is a great example of how True Skool is using graffiti art as a positive impact on our community…

North Avenue & East Richards Street Mural 8.16.08
The property owner saw TRUE Skool on the news and contacted us to paint over her garage that frequently gets tagged.


The crime element of this story is a major problem in our city, but what are the solutions to this problem? As a youth I was both into graffiti and skateboarding. I knew what laws were in place for these kinds of activities, so I found places where it was LEGAL to engage in these activities. Like skateboarding; if the vandalism of property is the main issue here, why can’t we have some legal safe havens for those who want to practice this art form? As a home owner, I don’t want my property tagged, and as a business owner my wife and I wouldn’t want to see her work vandalised. However, as a member of this community I would like to see the dull walls of our city brightened by a few splashes of color.

What about these murals?

I drive past many of these murals in everyday, and I’d have to guess that these murals are not subject to any debate with our community…

So can we also embrace these?

Give me your thoughts and feedback.
Comment here or email me at

Thank you Milwaukee!

16 Responses

  1. I think it depends on where the graffiti is and what it looks like. The worst is when random words are scrawled on buildings. I was appalled at how much graffiti I saw defacing the historic architecture of Venice and Florence. I have seen a lot of really beautiful graffiti, but I do not think it is appropriate on a public structure.

  2. Permission/comission walls are a great way to showcase the art. I know there are many people who believe part of the essence of the art is lost with a permission space, though. Before they discontinued the event, Paint Louis was one of the most awesome (in skill and size) permission walls I’ve ever seen or heard about. As an art form, there are jaw-dropping effects someone can create with a couple of spray cans. I think there needs to be more of a distinction in the discourse between random tags as graffiti and graffiti-style pieces and murals.

  3. Definitely art. But I think it’s just as much a ‘performance art’ as it is a visual art. The illegality and spontaneity is just as important to graffiti as the visual images themselves. To make graffiti artists fill out a permit and pay a fee completely takes away from the spirit of graffiti art.

    By the way, Alderman Zilinski, throwing a tantrum like a 5-year old and storming out of hearing? Really? I’m sure that’s going to help your cause.

  4. […] Art or Crime By Mary Louise Schumacher of the Journal Sentinel Jan. 9, 2009 12:05 p.m. A great dialogue is brewing over at about grafitti and whether it’s an illegal disregard for […]

  5. […] Journal / Sentinal arts blogger Mary Louise Schumacher shared a discussion about this irrate small-time politician initially not getting his way because of “free speech […]

  6. I started writing a comment about this, but it turned into a very long piece. You can read it at the URL above, but in a nutshell I tried once again to look at this from the perspective of the artist while trying to maintain an “objective” view of the history surrounding graffiti.
    The only thing I still wonder, is why is it illegal? I mean those whole trains in Milan and Hamburg are just so beautiful – real artworks. Entire industries are built off of this “illegal” activity, and I think it is all so funny. Twelve cameras aren’t going to stop graffiti artists any more than state regulators are going to keep fund-managers from dipping into their customers’ money or failed corporations from becoming innovative. Of course, the regulation is very important, otherwise there would be no sport in it at all…
    So fix those windows (but not because of the sprayers, but because of the coming gas crisis!)
    Read my entire response here:

  7. the pictures you’ve posted on this site and with this article – that’s art. and as long as it’s been OK’d by the city or whomever owns the property, there’s nothing wrong with it.

    i’m a Wisconsin native but live in Los Angeles. i’m an actor, playwright, blogger and amateur photog. i’m all for the “arts”. but the graffiti on private party (with no permission) and the graffiti of gang symbols and random words that i see in LA (perhaps you have this issue in Milwaukee) is a nuisance – and illegal.

    i say if you catch the criminals dead-to-rights, cut off a hand. it works for theft in Asia and the Middle East. too radical??? i know – the hardcore liberals read this and yell, “barbaric!”. fine, then you’ll always have graffiti problems. and the home owners and shop owners and your city can continue to pay for its clean up.

    either do something about it that’s effective or don’t whine about it.

  8. What you people should be talking about is how “you” are going to deal with it because its never ever ever going to stop. You can threaten to cut off my hand, put me in jail or fine me a lot, me and others like me won’t stop. Look at New York or Los Angeles, they have not gotten writers to stop. So i suggest you GET USE TO IT!!!

  9. I dont understand why their trying to charge you to do a mural on your own property thats just goin to fuel the fire writters to do it without consent. Most of the kids who do graffiti arent trust fund kids with money to blow on a mural. Give writters a place to do it legally and maybe there wont be as many illegal peices. I dont i just feel like theres no alternative for writters its either do it illegally and express your self or dont express your self at all and just dont do it

  10. @jeff
    man, you just don’t understand. the city government is the one who is trying to have a say over images in public space – like art was advertising and not only thereby something to control, but also something to make money from. that is what this is about.

    and cutting off people’s jihands? you know what that does? that brings a community together and makes it stronger. piss on a tree and watch it grow. piss on a sprayer and you better be able to run real fast.

  11. This proposed Mural Ordinance is not only against our First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech but is completely unnecessary! In a city like Milwaukee, with all the negative statistics and stereotypes, do we really need another ordinance that has no real purpose other than to regulate images?? We already have ordinances in place to deal with nuisance buildings, blight, and signage permits. This is, as Milwaukee Public School Board Member Jennifer Morals stated, “A tax on art”!

    Alderman Zilenski, Common Council and Mayor Barrett…let’s address the real issues in Milwaukee…pick your battles wisely. This is ridiculous and just another attempt to submit hard working Milwaukeeans to another ridiculous fee/tax. In these tough economic times, we need to create job opportunities and heal and baeutify our communities, not punish certain careers (artists/muralists).

    You may not like the “art” you see in public spaces, but deal with it. It is 100% LEGAL and this ordinance will not pass. We will make sure of that.

  12. On one hand this proposed application process will create jobs and stimulate the economy, but in terms of free expression, regulating which murals have the right to existence on private property obviously goes against the idea of free expression!

    There is NO WAY you can settle the argument of whether graffiti is art or not. Also, there is no need (outside of political or personal gains) to call graffiti art. For a clear explanation read my full response on my blog:

    I don’t understand. What is the difference between the murals above and below? I understand that the images on the bottom contain “writing” that resembles the most popular form of graffiti.

  13. […] was really interested in the post that Jordan did on the graffiti issue that is going on in Milwaukee.  With schools around the country cutting music and arts programs […]

  14. DOTS 1R from CA……WONT STOP US!!!!!!!!!!!…WE RULE THE STREETS

  15. grafitti art is beautiful,

    when it’s in the right place.
    sometimes, people have been misinterpreted when they say that graffiti is not art. well it depends on where you place it. sometimes it doesn’t deserve being “art” if it damages or affects something. i.e. a historical place, or anything.

  16. It is most definitely both. It has varying degrees of artistic merit and sensibility, with the total criminal methodology. I feel though, it is often a necessary crime and the people who are “tagging”, “piecing” rather it stay that way. It can be a way for people who are often voiceless in the political realm to get a message across. Not the biggest fan of all the “tags” that are thrown around throughout town, but I get it.

    In regards to Mr. Zielinski, I feel this is a hotbed issue and will always be, that he uses to rile up his older constituency. It is an easy way to guarantee votes, as he portrays it as him trying to keep Bay View “beautiful.” He has no concept in the diversity of his people and has no true desire to help them. Look at the design of the trash cans in bay view, they resemble graffiti art/stencil art. If all the old people in Bay View where down with tagging, he would be too. If a vote was to dictate all public policy, you would have no job. Listen to your constituency and then make an informed decision.

    Huge Clear channel billboards are a crime, but they are a commodity and that’s the bottom line!

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