Outlaw Art.

Why is graffiti illegal?

Well, I can think of a lot of reasons, and even some really good reasons why it should be, but I also think there should be exceptions, allowances, variations, accommodations, accessions, codicils, deviations, aberrations, and maybe even some digressions allowed.

Most of my thinking about graffiti as art is shaped by the fact that quite a bit of it is art, even if only in the sense that images and/or words painted on a flat surface is a form of art, but I’m also influenced by a short documentary I saw as a kid about graffiti artists in New York. And these truly were artists. There have been a few graffiti artists who’ve become internationally famous—Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat are, I think, the two most prominent examples—but the artists featured in the documentary were still, mostly, working on the streets. And yet the exposure they were getting and their dedication was enough that they were given studio spaces and materials where they could work legally. They were in a catch-22, though: they had to be known on the streets, they had to break the law and risk being arrested, to become well-known enough to be treated as bona fide artists.

And to make it even more complicated there’s another layer: I think some artists want to break the law, they want to be troublemakers and not do what’s expected.

I have trouble fitting those artists into my larger framework because even though I think they deserve to be included in the exceptions at the same time if an exception is made for them then that undermines their outlaw status, doesn’t it?

There are no easy answers here so I’ll just say that it’s really interesting to me that this particular artist has been putting up these metal images of Steve Martin for years now–the bandana is a new variation.


And it’s even more interesting that this particular piece is placed just a block away from the historic Exit/In where Steve Martin used to perform before he became famous. He even mentions the place in his autobiography Born Standing Up:

One night at the Exit/In I took the crowd down the street to a McDonald’s and ordered three hundred hamburgers to go, then quickly changed it to one bag of fries.

Is there a law against that?

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  1. Gilly Maddison

    Golly – imagine being able to say you sang with Steve Martin. I love his humour so much. The mystery surrounding graffiti artists is all part of ithe scene. We have Banksy here, he is really famous but no one knows who he is. I think we all long to know but then again not really.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      The artist who does these Steve Martin faces has been compared to Banksy, which is very interesting. Yes, the mystery makes it so much better.
      And I can’t imagine what it would be like to sing with Steve Martin. Back in the days when he would lead whole audiences out in the streets though was before he was famous.

  2. Frank Versnick

    You haven’t mentioned the rail car graffiti that whizzes by while
    waiting at a rail crossing. I find them interesting and sometimes
    informative. Some could be gainfully employed and paid for their

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I love the rail car graffiti, some of which is very elaborate and colorful, but it’s hard to get a picture of it. One of these days I’ll get some pictures of rail car graffiti and do a really long write-up about it.

  3. Ann Koplow

    I love outlaws, in-laws, and Steve Martin. As always, Chris, I’m grateful for the artistry of your blog.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      And I’m grateful for the artistry of your comments, and also I somehow knew you also liked Steve Martin.


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