Is Graffiti Illegal or Not? — 101 Course of Graffiti and Street Art

graffiti artist

If you have asked yourself whether graffiti is illegal or not, you’re not the only one. We relieve you of all doubts. It is pretty simple. If the authorities haven’t given you approval, it is illegal. In case you have received approval, then it is legal. As a matter of fact, the majority of places function this way.

Due to the equivocal meaning of the word “graffiti,” people are confused with its precise meaning.

Individuals who are not exactly the experts think that graffiti is one of the following things:

  1. Anything that is drawn or words that have been written without approval
  2. Anything that has been drawn or inscribed with spray
  3. Any street art that people can see outside on the streets

It is important to differentiate these categories if you plan on comprehending the art of graffiti. The first from the above is illegal overall. When it comes to two other categories, it is not a crime per se. It depends on whether the artist got the approval of the property owner or not.

So the deciding factor is the owner’s permission. Paint, brushes, and spray paint are not illegal, but it is considered vandalism if you put graffiti somewhere where it is not allowed.

For instance, if you drew a picture of a cat on private property, it would be illegal in most places. Also, there is a situation where artists do portraits, and they are not illegal, but it is illegal if you put it on someone else’s property.

How to Determine Legality of Graffiti

Well, you have only two things to consider while thinking about legality:

  1. Look for the regulations of the city/ country
  2. At what degree these rules are being applied

When you get the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to deduce how much time a person needed to develop that illegal piece of art. We can call that the “ illegal window.” If they needed less time than the illegal window, it was not authorized. But in case that development took more time than the said window, it is probably legal.

Let’s take a look at the rules in New York City. If it happens that you are caught drawing something, you’ll be booked right away. What’s more, there are patrols going around, vandal squads detectives, and task forces. In this city, the illegal window is circa three minutes. Thus, if you have seen an individual who finished everything in 3 minutes, that is, without doubt, illegal.

Giving Approval

For example, in NYC, authorization is pretty simple. Namely, the property owners are the only ones whose opinions and approvals are crucial. They are the only people who are concerned with the looks of their buildings, which can also include the looks of graffiti and murals. The government is not involved in this whatsoever. In case some people do not like how it looks and the position of it, that’s also irrelevant — their opinions are not momentous when it comes to the approval.

In other cities, things can be a bit different. Here are the three most common possibilities:

  1. Total discouragement -— some governments banned using spray paint on any kind of walls regardless of the owner’s permission. For instance, local authorities in London don’t allow their citizens to use spray paint on anywhere, even though they might have the approval of the property owner. Bear in mind that painting graffiti with permission is not considered a crime. However, it is against civil ordinance act.
  2. Encouragement of authorized works — certain governments like the government of Philadelphia encourage artists to paint in urban parts of the city. In Philadelphia, there is a mural program that supports the artists to decorate abandoned places with their art. But it is banned to do something without permission.
  3. No participation — governments like the one in New York are neutral when it comes to authorized paintings, but they pay attention to vandalism. If an individual has permission, no action will be taken against him. Otherwise, it is an act of vandalism, and it means that an action will be taken.

Types of Artists

There are so many artists out there, but we managed to classify them by their art into two categories:

  1. Graffiti artists — also known as “bombers” and “taggers.” They developed the initial form of graffiti. Artist usually writes their name using stylish letters. This form of art can have both illegal and legal status, depending on the authorization. Of course, there are graffiti painters who don’t only tag themselves, but also paint portraits.
  2. Street artists — this is a kind of artist who makes any urban art. Their works can be in the form of stencils, murals, and sculptures. Unlike a graffiti artist, a street artist hasn’t had as much experience. They tend to improvise on the spot. Some of these artists majored in arts.

History of Street Art and Graffiti


Graffiti first appeared in New York in the ’70s. Young people, who weren’t in rich communities, started putting their names on walls, and that is the so-called “tagging.” Makers of graffiti designed their alter egos, and they experimented with different styles. And that marked the era of tagging the NYC subways.

More Acknowledgment

As we mentioned in this text, in New York, street art was considered to be vandalism, but at the same time in Europe, these artists were well-known and appreciated. Europeans even called them to organize an exhibition of their art. Graffiti became popular in the middle of the 1980s. What’s interesting is that these artists were perceived as criminals in America, and in Europe as celebrities. By the end of the 1980s, they started to be more acknowledged. You might have seen in the movies some murals or graffiti that were done by artists purposely for the shooting.

Ascendens of Street Art

Almost at the end of the ’80s, in Europe, graffiti started attracting attention, and gradually Europeans began experimenting with new types of styles. Eventually, those styles were called “post-graffiti” or “street art.” An artist from France, Blek Le Rat, was the first one to use a stencil, which became popular in the years to follow. Another artist whom we must point out is also a French artist, so-called Space Invader. They lawlessly put together with ceramic tiles that depicted a popular character from a video game.

Conventional Acceptance

During the 2000s, street art spread worldwide, and many artists were recognized for their work. For instance, an artist from the U.K., Banksy, became popular for his “eye-poking” pictures which could be found in unexpected places. As people began surfing the internet and became members of social networks, “graffiti lovers” could follow their favorite artists. That gave them the opportunity to do collaborations despite language differences, geographical distances, or cultures.

Interesting Fact

At the end of 2012, Banksy’s piece disappeared from the wall in London and appeared on the auction of pricey art pieces in Miami. Londoners protested against this because they felt like it belonged to them. Regardless of all of this, the piece was sold for a staggering 1.1 million dollars.

Types and Styles of Urban Art


Tags are signs, words, and numbers written with spray paint on any surface, including traffic signs, doors, or abandoned places, and so on. Words in this type of art usually refer to the artist’s name or a group. Their work is mostly in one color, and size varies from a few inches to a few feet.

An initial idea of tagging is to focus attention onto oneself to show the courage to paint the walls in some places.


In general, murals are of big proportions and depict a scene or some pictures. In a mural, one can see what the artists have been through while making it. Majority of them convey a political or social critique, message, and even satire. Today it is popular to pay an artist to paint a mural on the front side of some companies’ walls.


It is common for artists to prepare their work prior to public display. They install the poster using wheat paste. These posters can incorporate multiple layers, stickers, and collages. The disadvantage of this type of art is that it lasts less because of its vulnerability to weather conditions.


If you have followed us up to now, you must have figured out the answer to the question, “Is graffiti illegal?” It depends on the fact if the work is authorized or not.

We wrote down a brief history and described some types so you can have a clearer picture of this art. And we hope we helped you comprehend this phenomenon.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *