Graffiti is always a political act, whether overtly or accidentally. The very nature of vandalism requires some kind of confrontation between a disruptive actor and established structures of the status quo.
While throwing a brick through a window is also vandalism, it differs from graffiti in that it is a subtractive form of vandalism—that window is no longer there—while graffiti is inherently additive: structures become augmented with new political or social meaning.
For example, during the height of the Occupy movement, banks became targets for the protesters’ anti-capitalist graffiti. While carefully produced pamphlets distributed at a respectful distance from the bank’s entrance might have been a more comfortable method of protest, the graffiti actually changed the very function of the bank: rather than filling its previous role of financial institution, the bank was now an active participant in the dialogue of the Occupy movement, albeit very likely unwillingly.
A more local example of this idea occurred recently when an immigration mural was vandalized with racist graffiti. Although the mural originally intended to portray a hopeful message of inclusion, the vandalism cast momentary doubt on the artists’ idealism. However, the restoration of the mural wasn’t merely a return to the original—the vandalism created an opportunity for the community to continue coming together as citizens with a common cause.
A pithy piece of political graffiti by Banksy observes that, “society gets the vandalism it deserves.” In other words, graffiti is a sort of canary in the coal mine of social health. Ordinarily, our inclination might be to start looking for a bunch of dead canaries, but I prefer to remember a wonderful piece of aspirational graffiti from student protests in France during May of 1968. Translated, it read, “We are realists, we demand the impossible!” A rather hopeful song from a canary from the past, still worth singing today.