Is graffiti art? And what is the difference between murals and legal, illegal graffiti in St. Louis? | St. Louis Public Radio

Is graffiti art? And what is the difference between murals and legal, illegal graffiti in St. Louis?

Jan 26, 2016

When it comes to the graffiti art scene, St. Louis has quite a bit going on.

“I’ve traveled the world and St. Louis, by far, is similar to the Super Bowl,” said Brian Van Hoosier, a graffiti artist and committee member with Paint Louis, an event that covers two miles of flood wall in downtown St. Louis with sanctioned art from national and international graffiti artists each year.

In 2014, the flood wall was prepped to be filled with new graffiti art.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

Since the 1970s, graffiti as an art form has transitioned from illegal tagging to something even straight-laced art collectors are trying to getting their hands on. Last year, The New York Times held a healthy debate about when graffiti becomes art. Street art icon Banksy has risen to international prominence for his social justice-inspired work.

Local artists like Peat Wollaeger, Daniel Burnett and myriad others are growing to prominence using stenciling and graffiti styles in their work. Ilya Eydelman wrote a note to mention that a renowned Belgian street artist ROA visited Raintree School on Mason Rd. last spring to paint the walls of the school and discuss if graffiti is art with the children.

A picture of the painting by ROA, a Belgian street artist, who visited Raintree School last Spring.
Credit Ilya Eydelman, Raintree School

On Tuesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” Van Hoosier joined host Don Marsh to talk about graffiti as an art form as well as the difference between legal graffiti, illegal graffiti, murals and what the St. Louis scene is like in 2016.

Van Hoosier knows what it is like to operate in all corners of the graffiti world — growing up, he did graffiti illegally as a form of self-expression but has transitioned to commissioned or sanctioned work.

As Van Hoosier describes it, you can often tell the difference between illegal and legal graffiti in the amount of complexity and layers you see in a painting. Illegal graffiti is often a “tag” or marking by the author made with spray paint on the side of a building or train. Legal graffiti is produced after seeking approval from a city or municipality and often includes several layers of paint, stenciling, and is broader in scale.

Brian Van Hoosier.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

“I started [doing graffiti] 20 years ago this year in Davenport, Iowa,” Van Hoosier said. “The graffiti wave of the ‘90s finally came through my small town and some of the older guys started painting murals under bridges. I thought it was magical that you could walk by that bridge one day and it was just concrete and the next day it was an elaborate flow of colors and letters and designed. It took my interest and I could never let it go.”

Part of the draw of graffiti is that it gives a voice to the disenfranchised.

Carrie Zukowski wrote in an email on behalf of “Painting for Peace in Ferguson” by Carol Swartout Klein that what the group has seen is that “street art/murals allow people/artists to create change.” She is referring to the paintings that popped up in Ferguson and elsewhere across St. Louis in November 2014 in response to destruction following the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case.

“While real policy change sometimes moves slowly, artists are often able to be more nimble in their response,” Zukowski wrote. “By telling stories, creating beauty, commenting on society, even demanding social change, art has played a key role throughout history. And that was seen in Ferguson, and surrounding communities in November and December of 2014.”

Van Hoosier said Ferguson was a good example of how graffiti can be therapeutic. It also opens up difficult questions, such as the interplay between illegal graffiti and legal graffiti and who has a right to post their message where.

“If someone shows up and paints their name on the side of your business, that does nothing for your business and may deter from it,” Van Hoosier said. “The roots of graffiti come from those children and younger individuals who have no other voice than to pick some sort of medium and put their moniker on the walls. Yes, those people do need a voice. On the other side of that, it is illegal and there’s no permission to have it put there.”

Paint Louis is trying to walk that line by giving street artists a publicly-sanctioned space to share their voice, Van Hoosier said. You can keep up with the dates of the 2016 Paint Louis here.

What is your favorite graffiti, street art or mural in St. Louis? 

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.