Graffiti Versus Murals: Who Owns the Public Art Space?

IMAGE Unsplash Dimitar Belchev/Annie Spratt

Last month, many were delighted to find a thought-provoking mural, which spoke against catcalling and harassment, along C.P. Garcia in Quezon City.

Featuring the line, "Itigil angkarahasan," alongside six women of different ages clad in contrasting clothing, from a woman in a hijab to a girl in sportswear, the wall art challenges passersby and commuters to think about how women are treated on the streets.

IMAGE: Alex Castro

The wall art is part of the Taking Back Spaces campaign or Youth Against Sexual Harassment (YASH), which aims to spark a conversation about making public spaces safer for women through art. The mural found at C.P. Garcia was put up on March 30 and was the first work of the campaign.

"The principal objectives of the said campaign are to “take back spaces” where women are harassed the most (such as public spaces) and to empower women and educate the public about women’s rights. With the said objectives in mind, we figured that one of the most effective ways we’ll be able to do that is through street art," YASH Founder and President Alex Castro told Esquire Philippines.


But just three days after the work was unveiled to the public, the wall art was “taken over” or painted over by graffiti.

In the street art community, the act is considered “tagging” or when graffiti artists paint over walls with existing graffiti or art. To the casual observer, graffiti and mural may be interchangeable, but in the art community, the two practices vary.

IMAGE: Alex Castro

Graffiti is most commonly based on words, as the artists paint artistic typefaces on walls. These can be political in nature, evoking messages of resistance or protest, but it has since evolved into different styles. The act is often considered illegal as artists usually paint on public property without permission or consent.

On the other hand, murals are paintings on walls usually done by artists who’ve had formal training. The works can vary in style like pieces found in an art gallery, for example. More important, mural artists paint on walls with consent or permission from the owner of the property.

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Castro said in a Facebook post that YASH acquired permission from the owner of the wall they painted on. The group was also aware that, sooner or later, the mural will be painted over. It just didn’t expect it to be so soon, just days after the work was put up.

IMAGE: Alex Castro

The mural was tagged by a group called SDFK. Interestingly, while the artists painted over the female figures on the murals, they retained the line: Itigil ang karahasan. Later on, another artist painted over SDFK's graffiti with the message, “Respect Women.” The events did not stop there, as another artist painted over this work, changing “women” to “oder,” so that the line reads, “Respect Each Oder.”

The series of events, which was documented by Castro on Facebook, has sparked a debate among artists and enthusiasts: Was the deed offensive? Was it disrespectful to the cause? Or was it expected as street art has always been ephemeral?


Several points were raised on the comment section of the post. One Facebook user said, “Street art is for the streets. Once it’s in a public space, your work is in the hands of the public.” Another one took offense of the act: “[I]t’s disrespectful,” especially when the graffiti that took over the original mural didn’t deliver any political message.

But for Castro, the whole ordeal has sparked the conversation her organization wanted to start in the first place.

"I guess the best thing that we can do is to take this experience as an indication that we still have a lot of work to do in order to forward women’s rights," Castro said in her Facebook post. "We’re extremely grateful for the incident, though. It sparked a huge and rich discussion online. In that regard, I guess we achieved our objective."

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Elyssa Christine Lopez
Elyssa Christine Lopez is a staff writer of Esquire. Follow her on Twitter @elyssalopz
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