I returned to Paris in the fall of 2001 after a twenty year absence. I was most shocked by the graffiti which had taken over walls and fences seen from the train windows coming from Charles de Gaulle.
More recently, I was surprised when walking through Athens with a student, when she diverted us to an alley so she could photograph and document its "beauty."
Two years later, it had encroached from back alleys to city front-and-center. It was difficult to find any building that hadn't been spray painted or etched.
Most graffiti exudes a kind of anger and rebellion. It forces us to confront the apparent misery and discontent in society. Especially the 10 foot high letters screaming F--- the police.
A Greek politician trying to understand in order to embrace a losing cause, took out his own can of spray paint to find an empty wall. His graffiti echoed his feelings and became a famous piece known to fellow citizens. He wrote: Why does it feel so good when I write this s---.
Since fighting graffiti in some inner European cities is useless, it has been renamed: street art. Euphemisms are created to help us endure natural affronts to social sensibility. Euphemisms make the worms more palatable, more accepting, and a change of words can appease and change perceptions.
I am always relieved to return home and not have graffiti be part of the urban and suburban landscape. However, it does pop up; I was discouraged to see it on Bridal Veil Trail. I thought of the artist, who at some risk, made her mark. The graffiti had to have required a ladder on a rocky hill, or a daring stretch from a highway wall. I'll never forget when a young visitor to my house explained the tattoo on her leg. It was her brother's name--a young man with a penchant for graffiti on a California 405 freeway underpass. The fall, the hit, was so brutal, his body was never recovered. His dreams, his talent, were sacrificed for a space on a concrete necessity, a marginalized canvas.
But then...on two separate days, I rode my bike to a Law Review symposium. I was going to be way out of my league--surrounded by lawyers, noted humanitarians, professors; but I was determined to participate. At the beginning of my journey, I biked down a trail with a small section hidden from the road. A painted graffiti message awaited: I believe in magic. Seconds later, my tires rolled over another passage, Good luck today!
My optimism was infused with the messages. I held my head high. I didn't think of my inadequacies--instead I basked in the learning potential that awaited. The next day, I was excited for my reminder and of and my wish for good luck.
I have thus made my own conclusions about street art vs graffiti. Graffiti is degrading; in its ugliness it reminds us of what is ugly. Street art inspires and lifts; in its beauty it reminds us of what is beautiful.