I must say I was little confused when I first spotted the red spray paint scrawled across a column of the gazebo in the number “413.” It looked like the sort of haphazard marking systems used by construction companies to remind you to call before you dig. It was not nearly the caliber of expression that I expected at a liberal arts college (I had hoped for something a little more along the lines of the infamous Banksy- if that’s not asking too much). I do not think that these spray-painted markings deserve to be called graffiti – a term that calls up a certain finesse in skill and development in message. Rather, I believe that these are instances of destructive vandalism, doing more harm on campus than good.
It is interesting to note that while freedom of expression has been viewed as an ideal by civilizations (particularly after the Enlightenment), its claim to legal authority is greatly outdated by the normative prohibition of vandalism. As a term, vandalism was coined in historical reference to the destructive sacking of Rome in 455 C.E. by a Germanic tribe known as the Vandals. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, vandalism is defined as the “willful or malicious destruction or defacement of public or private property. Therefore, with vandalism being illegal in every state, the principle of freedom of expression is limited at its intersection with the endangerment of personal or public property.
However, it is important to acknowledge that within this broad category of criminal offense that there is a distinction between what can be considered street art (graffiti) and what is purely defacement. By its very designation as art, the term “street art” implies that the artist or “perpetrator” is cognizant of the basic elements and principles of designs. He or she can manipulate the medium of choice in such a way as to effectively create a graphic and convey a message. In street art, just like any other visual art, there is value in the form and content, yet certainly all vandalism is inherently linked to misbehavior, and the markings are akin to a five-year old’s decision to disobey his guardians and redecorate the walls with Sharpie. Graffiti is more analogous to the adolescent’s addition of facial hair, accessories, and thought bubbles to the figures in their textbooks; it is the process of taking an object and turning it into something else. Overall, graffiti and street art indicate a certain level of thought, planning, and skill on the behalf of the artist, where the ultimate success is the recognition and allowance of the work that began illegally to remain in the public view.
With this in mind, I believe that the red spray paint that defaced several buildings on lower campus was strictly vandalism of the damaging nature.
Already, much of it has been power-washed from the sides of Clark and Meadows Residence Halls, its message deemed ineffective and disrespectful to the property of the greater Wheaton community. Additionally, even with its brief existence, prospective students and their families touring campus undoubtedly saw this vandalism, potentially increasing the long-term costs of this eyesore exponentially.
Regardless of whether this person was a student at Wheaton or someone from outside the school, it is crucial that the campus makes a stand against vandalism of any sort, but especially the destructive kind. There is a time and place for expression, and the creator of this juvenile work may want to revisit a visual arts class to learn about successful pictorial communication.