On the eve of the Olympic Games, London is understandably concerned about its image as it enters the global spotlight for the next few weeks. Graffiti cleanup recently commenced, and outrage ensued. Some graffiti and street artists have even been banned from being within a mile of Olympic venues. Since Banksy, Britain’s most famous street artist, recently posted images of his new, Olympic-themed works on his website, it begs the question: will the Olympic committee erase a priceless Banksy? The line between vandalism and art is at risk of being spray painted over.
To be honest, I never thought that deeply about graffiti until I moved to Berlin. Here, most surfaces are a cacophony of spray painted lines, images, phrases and tags. Just like the city’s architecture, some graffiti is beautiful, some is ugly, some is political, and some is mundane. I met some graffiti painters who convinced me that their art is a personal form of protest against all the things visually forced upon us everyday. Billboards, buildings, barriers and other urban aesthetics—we don’t usually have a say in how these things look or where they are placed. Whether or not graffiti and street art are acts of vandalism, they are undeniably an attempt to reclaim the urban landscape.
Graffiti is often painted over or removed. Part of the art form’s power is in its transgression and therefore transience. However, I believe directed censorship is wrong. The local councils responsible for cleanup have targeted works in London critical of the Olympics. A painting by Mau Mau condemning the commercialism and environmental impact of the Games was recently whitewashed, even though it was on a legally sanctioned space. London may have been chosen to host the Games, but this doesn’t mean negative opinions should be quashed.
Furthermore, host cities are supposed to showcase their local flavor, and sterilizing potentially offensive areas only adds to the controversy brought on by the massive event. Thanks to Banksy, London street art is admired by many and is arguably a unique and inextricable feature of the city that claims it fosters creativity, subcultures and open, artistic dialogue.That shouldn't change just because London is hosing the Olympic Games.