Is street art legal?

Is street art legal?

If the artist gets permission from the property owner or the city, the public painting is considered to be legal. If not, it is considered vandalism and liable to be painted over. That is a general rule of thumb that has validity in most localities throughout the world.

 The complex form and rich textures of street art differentiates it from graffiti, which is usually spray painted in mere minutes, and generally means that the artist has received permission to create their work.
The complex form and rich textures of street art differentiates it from graffiti, which is usually spray painted in mere minutes, and generally means that the artist has received permission to create their work.

What street art isn’t, however, is graffiti, the latter carrying with it the spectre of arrest and a criminal record. Because graffiti is a crime and considered by law enforcement officials in most municipalities to be vandalism, it is a punishable act that may include a fine, jail sentence, or potentially both.

But as many are learning, that may be a bit too easy of an answer for the reality that currently exists within many cities.

To ensure that street art is legal within a given community, you have to ask several pertinent questions.

How to determine if street art is legal

First, and probably most important, you need to ask: What are the laws, ordinances or rules of the municipality in question?

It may be that you simply need to obtain the permission of the property owner before crafting street art. In which case, there should never be any legal issues associated with the piece to be created. You still must, however, do due diligence to ensure the local governing body does not have laws prohibiting street art.

It is vital to take the time and do this research because, unfortunately, there are those who still equate street art to graffiti, which is nearly in almost every instance illegal in most places. If there are rules governing graffiti, then an artist should inquire about the distinction in the eyes of local officials between the two art forms to avoid potentially finding themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Additionally, locating the property or wall owner can just be one out of many steps you have to take.

If the wall access is via another lot, then you need to find the owner of that as well. Sometimes you need permission from multiple entities, such as the wall owner, business owner, land owner, neighboring lot owner for access, and even the person that rents the parking stalls that front the wall.

Securing walls is definitely not easy and will take time. However, the addition of new art that beautifies a neighborhood is a deeply rewarding experience that can also be very rewarding for those who get to see it.    

The second question is how adamant are law enforcement officials enforcing the rules that govern their turf?

In New York City, for example, officials there enforce graffiti laws very strictly but do not penalize authorized urban art.

If you are caught applying graffiti without the property owner’s permission, you will be arrested immediately and face harsh punishment in the court system because graffiti is considered to be vandalism. In the Big Apple, patrols, task forces, and even vandal squad detectives combat graffiti throughout its five boroughs, costing NYC an estimated $7 million annually in the War of Graffiti.

In London, local councils ban spray paint on any property regardless of whether the owner wants it there. However, spray painting with permission there is not a crime, just a violation of a council ordinance, which typically leads to a fine for the offender.

Back in the United States, the City of Brotherly Love has a famous mural program where artists are recruited to paint on vacant properties.

Philadelphia government officials encourage authorized art, and actively solicit people to paint on municipal-controlled properties around the city. However, graffiti art is considered to be vandalism because it’s done without the consent of the property owner.

The cost of graffiti

While it is pretty evident that street art adds value to a community, graffiti has the opposite impact.

The cost to eradicate the crime that is graffiti comes with a huge price tag. Chicago spends $6 million annually while graffiti in Las Vegas costs the city an estimated $3 million each year. It is easy to see why cities are ardent in eradicating graffiti.

 The cost to eradicate graffiti stems into the millions of dollars in many cities around the world.
The cost to eradicate graffiti stems into the millions of dollars in many cities around the world.

Realizing the huge costs associated with this problem, many cities have started offering different types of street art programs, encouraging graffitists to embrace the legal side of street art.  

In the nation’s capital, Washington is facilitating joint partnerships between graffitists and landowners to beautify the city. Aerosol artists and property owners work together to create 10 officially sanctioned wall projects a year.

An annual festival called Paint Louis covers two miles of floodwall in St. Louis with spray-painted productions by artists.

Paint Louis is an annual global community event happening over the Labor Day holiday weekend in St. Louis to bring together people practicing all four elements of hip-hop music, graffiti, breakdancing, and disc jockey music during what’s billed as three days of creation and performance.

Smaller cities are starting to get into the validation of street art, too.

Billings, Mont., and Rapid City, S.D., both have “art alleys” where paintings are protected and tourists are encouraged to drop by to view and appreciate them. The art alley in Billings is a joint project of the downtown business association, the Sherwin-Williams paint company and a group of graffiti activists.

While these efforts have their aesthetic value, they are also being conducted for other reasons as well. There’s the hope that managed street art in designated places will cut down on the indiscriminate tagging of private and public property that marks gang territory and amounts to nothing more than vandalism.

As you can see in the above examples, collaboration is key. Collaboration among interested parties means that the art that’s painted on these walls is legit.

 Legitimate street art takes on many forms, including performance art., extending the form beyond mere walls.
Legitimate street art takes on many forms, including performance art., extending the form beyond mere walls.

Additionally, the fact that street art takes on many forms beyond just painted walls also adds credence to its legality.

The many types of legal street art

Street art includes such forms as art installations, performance arts, sculptures, video productions, and 3D street art, the latter definitely being some of the coolest artwork and among this writer’s favorite street art styles.

The reason many of these forms are legal is that they have been commissioned by local officials or perhaps by an art association. Additionally, many of these occur under the banner of street art festivals, which have been gaining in numbers and popularity in recent years in the United States and around the globe.

The credibility of copyrighted art

Another component lending to the credibility of street art is the issue of copyrights pertaining to the art that is created.

Street artists receive copyright protection for their art as an artistic work. Copyright offers protection where the work is:

  • a result of skill and effort;

  • original; and

  • in a material form that is recorded, i.e. a mural, painting, stencils or sketches.

Under copyright laws, street artists have the right to prevent others from reproducing, publishing or communicating their work without their consent. Copyright typically exists in the street art for the lifespan of the artist plus an additional 70 years. The property owner is not the owner of the copyright of the art unless there is an agreement in place that states otherwise.

Although there was a famous case of graffiti art in New York City that was given copyright protection under the Visual Arts Rights Act, most graffitists aren’t going to file a lawsuit when their graffiti is illegal.

The graffiti that was covered was part of 5Pointz (aka The Institute of Higher Burnin’ or 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center, Inc.,), which was part of an artist’s studio launched in the 1900s. When the artist’s studio opened, the artists began placing murals and graffiti on the outside walls, and the art remained there in various forms until 2013, when a developer decided overnight and without any warning to whitewash the walls since the building was slated to be razed and a condominium complex put in its place.

This led to a massive financial settlement for the plaintiffs. However, that was an exceptional case and not the norm since most graffiti artists work under the cover of anonymity.

 Legitimate street art usually contains the signature of the artist or his or her initials.
Legitimate street art usually contains the signature of the artist or his or her initials.

When street art is performed legitimately, the artist is provided plenty of time to make a valid work of art, and many times mark their work with their name or signature.

Since graffitists have little time to complete their work, many times in less than 3 minutes, their pieces are hastily put together. The anonymity and speed of their work (which rarely produces a distinct, original piece) generally result in a forfeiture of copyright protection and tends to dilute the legitimacy of street art.