Art or Awful: The Conservation of Graffiti

By Special Contributor posted 05-30-2019 10:45


By Stephanie M. Hoagland

Cities such as Los Angeles are spending almost $7 million a year on graffiti removal. At the same time, graffiti artist Banksy’s piece, “Keeping it Spotless,” sold at Sotheby's for almost $1.9 million. In London walking tours showcase the city’s graffiti, and in New York City, Brooklyn neighborhoods with a large street art scene have the fastest rates of gentrification. As graffiti and street art become increasingly acceptable, and even sought after, forms of artistic expression, conservators will have to grapple with their preservation.

Graffiti relies on many different mediums, including spray paint, stencils, permanent marker, pencil, carving, stickers, and even acid etching. It can be thoughtful, crude, political, humorous, simple, artistic, territorial, offensive, creative, or any combination thereof. The legal definition of graffiti is “any etching, painting, covering, drawing, or otherwise placing of a mark upon public or private property which is unsanctioned and un-commissioned.” This sets graffiti apart from aerosol art murals done in a similar style but with the permission of the building owner and the support of the community.


Both of these pieces—one in Newark, New Jersey, and the other Tulsa, Oklahoma—are spray paint on masonry, but only the one on the left is illegal. | Credit: Stephanie M. Hoagland

Aside from permission, is there really a difference between Keith Haring’s mural “Once Upon a Time” in the men’s bathroom of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City and the penises that, for reasons unknown, boys and men love to draw on any vertical surface?


Similar content, but only one is considered worth preserving. | Credit: Left: Harriet Irgang Alden; Right: Stephanie M. Hoagland

Graffiti exists in our public spaces, our communities, and our streets—and most of us, especially those who live in larger cities, don’t even notice it when we walk by. Whether you like graffiti or not, it is undeniably part of many people’s cultural heritage. And certain types of graffiti, like political statements or doodles from prisoners of war, carry a powerful message.

But who decides whether graffiti is vandalism or artistic self-expression? It is easy to be fascinated by the graffiti that a rear admiral of the British Navy left on Egypt’s Temple of Dendur in 1817, but less so by the tag spray-painted on your garage.  Which works of graffiti require swift removal, and which are worth saving?


Stencil graffiti on historic building in Havana, Cuba. | Credit: Stephanie M. Hoagland

Whether to Preserve—And How

Information and products for graffiti removal and prevention are readily available from a variety of sources, including National Park Service publications such as “Preservation Brief #38 Removing Graffiti from Historic Masonry” and “Keeping It Clean.” Local preservation societies also issue guidelines, and many historic towns have their own “Keep [town name here] Beautiful” campaigns, which often target graffiti. But guidance and instructions on the preservation of graffiti remain scarce. A search for “preservation of graffiti” brings up a number of thought pieces about graffiti as cultural heritage, but very little about its preservation and conservation.

Making the wrong decision regarding graffiti removal versus preservation can have serious financial consequences. A piece by Banksy on the side of your building can double the value of even a derelict structure—as it did with a pub in Liverpool, England. After white-washing graffiti murals at 5 Pointz in Long Island City, New York, the building owner had to compensate the artists $6.7 million for destroying their art without permission.

Is it possible to create guidelines and standards for graffiti preservation and conservation? Or is the answer here, as with many other conservation questions, “it depends”? Although many factors go into the decision to remove or preserve graffiti, some of the most important are its age, artist, and context. Considering the “five Ws” of each piece—who, what, where, why, and when—may be a good starting point.

Who created the graffiti? Was it a world-renowned artist like Banksy or just a local kid? And what happens if that kid grows up to be the next Jean-Michel Basquait? Will we even know that we destroyed their early work? And do we really expect the local public works department to recognize the work of an important graffiti artist?


Graffiti spray-painted on an overpass in Newark, New Jersey. | Credit: Stephanie M. Hoagland

What is the graffiti? Do we treat a mural differently than a tag? What if that tag is particularly artistic? Do we treat a durable example of spray paint differently than more fragile paste up graffiti?


Paste up graffiti on a wall in New York City. | Credit: Stephanie M. Hoagland

Why was the graffiti created? Is it evidence of a territorial dispute between rival gangs, or is it artistic expression? Is it a message that really needs to be heard? And, if so, who decides?


Pasted paper figure, spray paint, and pen used to express a political message on newsstand in New York City. | Credit: Stephanie M. Hoagland

Where is the graffiti located? Is it desecrating the side of a church or enhancing the inside of an abandoned building? Of course, we’re going to treat juvenile graffiti in an alleyway differently than a section of the Berlin Wall, but what if the distinction isn’t quite as clear cut?

When was it created? Is it from the Civil War era, uncovered during a restoration? Or is it something that just showed up last week? (But even historical graffiti was once a week old.)


Clothing inventory from the 1940s written on an apartment door frame at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. | Credit: Stephanie M. Hoagland

And, all of these considerations aside, should we even be trying to conserve graffiti? According to many graffiti artists, their work is supposed to be ephemeral. It’s often created with the understanding that it will be removed or painted over. With the advent of social media platforms like Instagram, many artists now photograph their work and instantly upload it, thus both sharing and archiving it. Might conservation, then, actually disrespect an artist’s intent?


Even flying cats get painted over in New York City. | Credit: Stephanie M. Hoagland

And when we do decide to preserve, have we given sufficient thought to our methods? One of the most popular means of conserving Banksy graffiti around the world is covering it with plexiglass. What effect does it have on the work? A Banksy piece at West 79th Street in New York City is covered by plastic that traps soil against the wall. Abandoned anchor holes in the wall indicate that the plexiglass has already been replaced, but the new plastic has already cracked and been vandalized. 


Banksy graffiti at West 79th Street in New York City "protected" by plexiglass. | Credit: Stephanie M. Hoagland

The company I work for, Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc., painstakingly conserved a graffiti mural on an industrial garage door in Jersey City, New Jersey. That piece was “protected” by the building owner and is now behind highly reflective, tinted glass with a post down the center. The window is sealed, which creates a microclimate that can damage the paint. In the absence of lighting, at night the piece looks like a dark, gaping hole. Given that result, was the work worth it? Should the approach have been different?


Graffiti mural before, left, and after treatment. | Credit: Stephanie M. Hoagland

Other pieces of graffiti are being removed from their original locations and shown in galleries or sold to private collectors. Do they still have the same meaning once they are removed from their original context? And what are the ethical implications of an art dealer making hundreds of thousands of dollars while the artist doesn’t make a cent?

These and many other questions remain, but the time has come for the preservation community to establish guidelines regarding the preservation and conservation of graffiti. It will not be easy; as with many other aspects of preservation, the many subjective variables preclude simple answers. An important consideration will be including the artists within the graffiti community to ensure that their voices are being heard and their ideas incorporated.   

Stephanie Hoagland is a principal and architectural conservator with Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc. in New York City.