The Best Art Isn’t Even Legal: Murals, Street Art, and Vandalism

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Wednesday July 8th, a popular mural in south Austin was discovered to be vandalized. The mural is simple, the phrase “I love you so much”, written on the side wall of Jo’s Coffee Shop. Being an Austinite myself, this story and this mural is very familiar to me. I myself have waited in a small crowd to take a picture next to the mural. Austin is full of these types of murals hidden throughout the city, they’re a big part of Austin culture, and the city is very proud of them. This mural is usually vandalized 2 or 3 times a year, and the owner of Jo’s Coffee continues to fix the mural so that Austinites can continue to enjoy its’ charm.

I wanted to write a little bit about murals, street art, and vandalism this week. Street art has become a growing medium with the fame of street artists such as Banksy and Shepard Ferry gaining large media coverage.

This brings us to our first question –

What is the difference between murals, street art, and vandalism?

All three are connected, but I’ll break down some of the differences:


Murals are a type of street art (well if they are outside, inside murals are different) defined simply as “a painting or other work of art executed directly on a wall” (as per the Oxford English Dictionary). Although it isn’t listed in the simple definition, most murals are distinguished from vandalism by the fact that they are commissioned. Artists have either asked permission, or were hired to paint that specific area.  Murals are meant to be permanent art pieces.

Street Art

Street art is a form of art in public spaces. It usually refers to some form of graffiti, sticker art, or stencil work. Video projection (in a public forum), street installations, and flash mobs also fall into this category. Some people, especially authority figures, consider street art a form of vandalism. Street art is not commissioned, and does not obtain permission so it is technically illegal. Street art is not meant to be a permanent art form. If a street artist is commissioned to do a piece of artwork, they classify it as a mural, and it is then not considered illegal.


Vandalism is defined as an “action involving deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property” (as per the Oxford English Dictionary).  Although many could argue that street art isn’t “destruction or damaging” it is illegal. Think of this: if you owned a building, and someone painted on the side of it (especially if it was something offensive) and you had to pay to clean it, wouldn’t you be mad and want them to be prosecuted? Probably. 

Shepard Fairey

Shepard-fairey-2011-westhollywoodShepard Fairey is one of the most famous street artists. His images are widely known and recognized, even being made into a popular clothing line.His appearances started in the 90’s with his OBEY stickers featuring an image of Andre the Giant. He is also famous for creating the HOPE poster for the Obama campaign in 2008. Although he has done many commissioned works, he has done a fair share of noncommissioned works that he has faced charges for. He has been arrested more than 17 times, most recently just this week in L.A. for a felony warrant for tagging 9 buildings while in Detroit. This obey1occurred when he was commissioned to an 18-story mural on the One Campus Martius building for Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services. He was also commissioned for 5 other temporary murals in Detroit at the time, but the 9 buildings he tagged without permission are what he got arrested for. He is currently being accused of two counts of malicious destruction of property which have a maximum of $10,000 fines and up to 5 years in jail. 2008-10-11-BarackisHope


Shepard Fairey's Comissioned Mural in Detroit
Shepard Fairey’s commissioned Mural in Detroit

My favorite Shepard Fairey piece is the inside book cover from Cary Ewles’ biography As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

456777442 ASYouWish


gf7Banksy is a British street artist who focuses on political statements in his work. One of the things that adds to the elusiveness of Banksy is the fact that he (or she or them) has not been identified. His career started in the 90’s similar to Shepard Fairey. In 2010 he produced a movie Exit Through The Gift Shop about street art. original

On February 22, 2007, the day after Sotheby’s London sold three Banksy works, all of which soared above their auction estimates and into the six figures, the elusive and anonymous British graffiti artist updated his website with an image of an auction house, the people in the room bidding on a picture with the written words “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit”.

[From Banksy: The $20 Million Graffiti Artist Who Doesn’t Want His Art To Be Worth Anything,]


Vandalism on Vandalism

banksynews_park_city_damaged-1Because of the vandalistic nature of many of Shepard Fairey’s and Banksy’s works many have been painted over by authorities or vandalized by other street artists. I think it is interesting when we talk about “vandalizing” Banksy and Shepard Fairey’s works, because in principle they are acts of vandalism themselves. In April 2014 David Noll was arrested for defacing one of Banksy’s works in Park City, Utah. He faced a fine of up to $10,000 and up to 15 years in prison. The owner of the buildings that the Bankys’ were painted on had fitted them with bullet proof glass and frames to try to preserve them. They had been painted when Banksy premiered his movie Exit Through the Gift Shop in 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival.

phpBKpgK1AM The bullet proof glass was shattered on one, with the painting defaced underneath, and the second preserved but the glass broken.NA-CC414_BANKSY_P_20140819165903

The owner of the building stated to the Wall Street Journal

“There is no way you could consider what Noll did as graffiti art…it could only be described as wanton destruction of a small piece of Park City’s heritage driven by jealous rage,” said Mr. Tozer.

[Man Accused of Vandalizing Banksy Images David William Noll Accused of Painting Over Murals, Wall Street Journal]

 Lastly HERE IS Me and some Austin murals




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