I think I can come out as being entirely opposed to vandalism in any form. Last night we had vandals focus the activity which makes them vandals on our street corner. When I woke up this morning there was trash in our yard (not all that uncommon, but this time it included a plunger.) Our neighbor across the street lost a For Sale sign on her truck and part of her fence was torn down. The duplex next door is up for sale. The realtor's sign was missing and the fliers were strewn all over the street and wet grass. It also looked like they messed about in the Ag Mart parking lot across the street. So, I picked up the fliers and put them back in their holder. I threw away the plunger. We called the police and the realtor and talked with our neighbors.
I have a friend in San Francisco who I used to visit several times a year. My friend was very much into the concept of "culture jamming" and the nature of that city is such that there are ample examples. You can take a walk and see fine examples of the differences in what is known as culture jamming (often changing the messages of the ubiquitous advertisements. Here's an example of one made of from the new Pepsi logo), graffiti art (which is graffiti but artistic, lovely, or with a specific message aside from just an obvious signature. Some examples are graffiti artist Swoon, Banksy, or Shepard Fairey who incidentally also did this), and just plain graffiti (which my friend referred to as "territorial peeing." This is the type which is usually just an illegible signature or number in black spray-paint. This is also the type we tend to get in my neighborhood.)
One could make a very strong argument for the former two having their place. Indeed, the presence of, say, a Banksy in one's neighborhood adds a level of hipness in certain circles. In fact I would even go so far as to say that, taken out of the context of location, the examples of the former two I've linked to above are beautiful and clever. On a personal note, I've posted many of the former two in my photo dumps on my other blog , delighting in some of the more clever examples. Upon reflection, while I still have no problem and often delight in making statements with recognizable logos and advertisements on a computer or perhaps on fliers, I think my basic philosophy must needs make me categorically against vandalism in any form. I've heard all of the arguments that culture jamming and graffiti art are taking back the public visual arena and firing back at the ruthless capitalistic structure which won't allow us one moment of unadvertised public sightseeing.
However, needless to say, these generally do not have the permission of the property owners (otherwise we would call them murals, the artist would be paid, and the artist would work in broad daylight). This is not taking back the public arena because the spaces vandalized are all private property. Billboards are not owned by Pepsi. They are owned by some dude, probably locally, who rents the space to advertisers to support their families and employees. Also needless to say, the presence of graffiti encourages lesser elements to commit further vandalism. The ruining of the owner's desired aesthetic of their property encourages a general apathy, indigence, and debauchery.
My step-son tells me that there is an ethic of sorts amongst street artists which states that one ought not tag on private property (as in tagging people's homes and, as I understand it, churches.) He remarked on this with a level of shock when graffiti of the territorial peeing sort appeared on several houses around us recently. The question that came to my mind was "where would one in that mindset draw the line and, more importantly, why would they ever feel compelled to draw a line?" You're already presuming to damage, or at the very least alter, something which does not belong to you. It belongs to someone else and that's one of those visceral forms of ethics, the morality that one can usually argue across the board save with sociopaths. The idea that "if I have something which is mine and you take it from me, that is wrong." Things cost. People devote time and energy to earning goods or credits. When you take that from them in any form you are stealing their life.
I thought about how monstrous it would be if even the greater graffiti artists turned their cans on St. Paul's in London, or The Hagia Sophia, or St. Peter's Basilica. Why is it less so with another building? Or, put another way, you don't see these people with their so-called high ideals, taking back the public space, commenting on the evils of capitalism and a culture of avarice, you don't see them targeting mortgage lenders and HMOs. You see them targeting poor neighborhoods where they will get away with tagging, signing their name, or at least forcing works on a space which will be identified with them them them. There is a glaring hypocrisy inherent in it. Instead of an advertisement in public for Pepsi, you have an advertisement for Banksy (who does have products for sale, by the way. I've held his expensive art books in my hands, flipped through the pictures and the anti-establishment quotations to the $30 price tag on the dust jacket.) And then I thought about the dudes who are just eking out a living putting up billboards, driving trucks, running a bakery, on their feet eight hours a day to keep food on the table and a roof overhead. They come out and find their property tagged, who eats the money? Who suffers from the degradation and depreciation of the collective "value" of their neighborhood? The poor. That's who. It doesn't send a message to the advertisers, it sends the signal to indigents that no one cares if they shoot up in those doorways. And suddenly all of this street art looks like elitist exploitation. Suddenly I see that it boils down to an irreverence for human life. I find myself hating "graffiti art" in any manifestation.
Having said all of that, what we experienced last night was petty mayhem from probably some young people who can't hold their liquor. The irreverence for life thing does still apply though. While I type this, the realtor (who is a guy with a family who was having a yard sale when I called him this morning) is next door putting up a new sign. Those signs aren't cheap.
One of the key points of my theology (or perhaps philosophy might be more apt in this case although I know Schweitzer would have called it a theological point) is Reverence For Life. By that I'm not talking about the political topic of abortion. I'm talking about Albert Schweitzer's concept of applying reverence for life to every aspect of your life. He wrote, "Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.” It leads me to evaluate myself. We have so many choices from day to day to revere or destroy. To fill our own bellies, to feed our own pride or to seek to help others. Compassion or selfishness. Sometimes you have to garden, or take a walk, or chat with a neighbor, or ride a bike, or have a barbecue, or mow the lawn (or clean up any vandalism as soon as humanly possible to prevent copycats and gloating rights for the vandals) to stave off the seemingly endless hoards of evil forever seeking to destroy everything in their path.