A Basic Look at the Ethics and Rules for Photographing Graffiti

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Back in university, in an early morning class, a lecturer held up a large photograph and asked, “What could be wrong with this image?” We craned our necks to have a good look and a student said brightly “It’s underexposed!”

“Nope” the lecturer shook his head. Another student piped up, “It’s the perspective that’s wrong!” Nope, it wasn’t that either. Perplexed, a final student called from the front row, “It’s unfocused.”

“You probably need an eye test”, suggested the lecturer.

A Basic Look at the Ethics and Rules for Photographing Graffiti

The photograph depicted a brightly painted image of graffiti. The green and pink text looped around the image and off the page with movement and precision. The artwork, sourced in the street, covered the entirety of the photograph with no context but the artwork. It was to this that the lecturer drew our attention. “The problem here is intent”, he said. “The person who took this photo republished it for an exhibition as if it were their own work. But just because you take the photo, doesn’t mean the image is yours.”

As a fledgling photographer, this concept fascinated me. How can an image not be mine if I’m the one to take it? Let’s look at some of the ethical issues that surround street-art and photographing graffit.

Ethics

Graffiti is a popular subject for photographers. Its imagery is wild, free and eye-catching. Often refreshed by new artists staking out wall space, it’s a convenient way to source new material too. But before taking the snap, consider the difference between photographing an image of a piece of graffiti or presenting the street-art within context.

Think of it this way; a musician can sample other music to make a new composition. But downloading the actual song without compensating the musician is unethical and in most cases a breach of copyright – especially if the work is then redistributed. 

A Basic Look at the Ethics and Rules for Photographing Graffiti

A good rule of thumb

A good rule of thumb is that if the graffiti takes up more than half the photo, you are copying the graffiti, not creating a new composition. If you sell or display an image that is largely someone else’s work, in some circumstances, this may amount to copyright infringement.

Having said that though, the nature of an unsolicited graffiti artist’s work is illegal in itself, which makes it less likely for the artist to lodge a lawsuit. Frankly though, when it comes down to it, it shows a lack of respect from one artist to another and can lead to problems with your reputation as a photographer.

A Basic Look at the Ethics and Rules for Photographing Graffiti

Because this image was written for construction purposes and not art, it is free to photograph.

Ask permission

It is often difficult to pinpoint the artist of a specific graffiti piece. I’ve had some luck googling the text of the graffiti to track down the artist and ask permission. While some artists are sheepish about being tracked down, others are happy to give consent. Especially if I offer them a free print of their work to compensate. Just make sure to ask if they actually want to be identified as the artist of the artwork.

A Basic Look at the Ethics and Rules for Photographing Graffiti

It can be hard to pinpoint the artist of a piece of graffiti.

Graffiti and the law

A final issue to be considered when photographing graffiti is the application of the law. As noted above, you should think (and where necessary, seek advice) about whether photographing graffiti may infringe on someone else’s intellectual property rights – but that is not the only legal issue.

Very often, graffiti is placed in locations that are not accessible to the public. That is either because it is on someone’s private property or access to an area is limited by law to certain people only (for example train tunnels and government buildings). You should be careful to stay aware of your surrounding and remember that while your photography can be a ticket to new ideas and self-discovery, it is not a get out of jail free ticket.

Finally, while it is generally okay to take photos of things visible from public spaces, it is not always legal or advisable to take a photo of some things. Areas in this category will generally be obvious in your own country but it may be less clear in other countries. It is important to remember that laws vary from place to place and what is completely acceptable in one place may be illegal in another.

If you’re ever unsure, the old maxim “it’s better to be safe than sorry” is likely never truer than in some circumstances where you might be trespassing or inadvertently entering a restricted area.

A Basic Look at the Ethics and Rules for Photographing Graffiti

Conclusion

Photographing graffiti can be tricky. In addition to all the other things you need to think about when taking a photo, there are added considerations because another artist’s work is also involved. If you take the time though, graffiti photography provides unique opportunities to build on someone else’s work by making your own contribution.

A Basic Look at the Ethics and Rules for Photographing Graffiti

A Basic Look at the Ethics and Rules for Photographing Graffiti

A Basic Look at the Ethics and Rules for Photographing Graffiti

Editor’s note: In some cities of the world like Melbourne and Medellín (Colombia), graffiti is legal in certain areas and even encouraged by the city. You can see artists at work and even get an opportunity to talk to them about the messages and meaning in their art. 

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Megan Kennedy is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. A lifelong fascination with flight has inspired her photographic practice in documenting the intricate form of aircraft. Megan is also interested in travel photography and documenting human interaction with the modern landscape, through both intentional and incidental intervention. She is well versed in both digital and film practice. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications.

  • Robert Graves

    Hmmm…people vandalizing private property have private property rights to their vandalism? Who knew?

  • Tod Davis

    It is kind of random that I saw your article on here as I’m also part of the Canberra plane spotters Facebook group, but I digress.
    I guess I have never thought of graffiti as intellectual property before, I like a lot of other people see it as part of urban decay I guess. But definitely some good food for thought here

  • Arthur_P_Dent

    I think it’s very obvious that someone photographing graffiti is not saying they created the graffiti.

  • Megan Kennedy

    Hi Tod, small world! Glad you found the article interesting 🙂

  • laurie66bay

    What a bunch of rot.
    If I take a picture of a pile of garbage on the curb, do I need the permission of the homeowner who arranged it out there as well?

  • Western

    Where does it stop? Is only the exposed layer of graffiti the copyrighted work? Are the underlying layers copyrighted work that can hold judgement against the new layers?
    What about the object the graffitti is placed upon? Is that railroad car or building or sidewalk a piece of art also?
    Sometimes, I think attorneys wear their shorts too tight.

  • Graffiti on proper place is indeed a nice piece of art, but in most cases (especially tags and slogans) it is considered only vandalism. I think governments and railroad companies do not really appreciate such open minded art on their property. I know only one exceptional case so far: the letter Z and name Zorro was written on the wall of a police station. It was considered funny and kept for long until another artist ruined it with additional tags. Then they were removed together.
    It would be nice to know the professional opinion from this point of view too, when photographer records an illegal masterpiece. Do we advertise and encourage them?

  • nom de plume

    Yeah, I’m not sure I “buy” the writer’s argument. It’s obvious it’s a photograph OF the graffiti -the photographer isn’t saying they themselves DID the graffiti.

    Certainly it’s good to consider crediting an artist, if possible, but graffiti artists, as they themselves say, are engaged in an act of political art in defiance of the authorities – and, in defiance of copywrite. I suppose you could photograph a signature, if they leave one, and make some comment in the “signage,” but otherwise, I agree that people should credit or identify an artist, when possible. But otherwise, I don’t think I buy it, either.

    It’s not the same as a museum which may or may not allow you to photograph a piece. Or going to a theatre and they say no photos (though, that’s usually because they don’t want your flash bothering others). I’d say it’s more like street performers – musicians or dancers – people can go ahead a take pictures. It doesn’t mean you’re the one doing the dance or singing the song or playing the instrument.

    Plus, it’s free publicity for the artist.

    Context? It depends on what the photographer is doing with it. In the photos above, showing the room in the abandoned is effective in a certain way (and the photographer is probably trespassing just like the graffiti artist/s was/were), but so are the other photos, as well. I don’t know if I’d give those photos (without the larger context) the “gold star,” or “First Prize,” but I don’t see why they can’t take the picture that way, too. You might also want to “zero in” on one aspect of the work.

  • Tom Cooper

    Believe it or not, the additional questions you raise have been tested in court. Whether they wear their shorts too tight is pretty self evident by the way they try to split hairs over stuff like this.

    The problem is, photographers have been nailed by lawyers for photographing graffiti, so there is justification for some warning.

  • Tom Cooper

    “Yeah, I’m not sure I “buy” the writer’s argument. It’s obvious it’s a photograph OF the graffiti -the photographer isn’t saying they themselves DID the graffiti.”

    Whether you “buy” it or not doesn’t matter. Photographers have faced legal action for their photography of graffiti.

  • blue emtwo

    as an anarchist/adventurer, i am willing to take chances/bend rules/throw
    caution to the wind to get the shot…….your mileage may vary

  • Photography is my hobby. The copyright sounds a bit extreme when I dream that one day I could make money from one of my photos. I think I just learn something here.

    If I were living from my photography then It makes sense that I need to consider my subject. If my subject is owned by someone else then it is clear that I need his permission to make money using something that I don’t own.

    Gratify is on the street, a public place. It could be really beautiful but without permission from the property owner is vandalism. Still, makes sense I need permission from the creator, and the property owner if I want to use it.

    Thank you for this useful information.

  • Rajendra Kulkarni

    I have a question, my pictures with Power shot S5IS have never been of more than 3.5 MP size on average, in spite of the “SL” setting (S for Superfine image and L for the 8 MP size image), what else I have to do to get 8 MP size picture from this Camera ?

  • Brandon Bowman

    This story doesn’t hold water in the US. So long as you’re not making a copy of it and selling it as a reproduction or trying to associate the image with marketing or advertising, there is no legal prohibition against photographing another’s art to create an original work. Don’t believe me? Just ask Richard Prince.

  • Brandon Bowman

    I find this hard to believe. Do you mind sharing a link to the court cases, or to a news article about them? I’m skeptical, but open to changing my opinion.

  • Jennifer

    If I Post Anything Being Public With Free Rights ( no exclusion or limitations) then it’s free for all. If It’s Posted With A Copy Right Or Water Mark Then It’s A Different Thing All Together..

    While It Would Be ideal to get every person’s ok in writing, one could argue that every person on the street would / should have that same right though the are completely oblivious they are even in the shot..

    To even consider the art work as not free means they should not put it there..

    Claiming A Picture As Your Own Is Not The Same As Claiming You Drew it or painted it..

    Photography Is An art Form and any picture i take shows my perspective of how i feel about it based on my vision or sight..

    This is what I am presenting to my audiences.

  • Tracy

    Regardless of the legal argument, what resonated with me was being respectful of other artists’ work. I’m sure as a photographer, we can all relate to knowing someone who has had their work or having had someone use our own work that is published online without asking. It’s the same concept here. Thanks for bringing up a topic I hadn’t really thought of before.

  • Andy V

    Hi Megan thanks for the post, living in East London UK Im lucky to have access to the Shoreditch area where many Graffiti artists of all levels are active in a big way.

    I try to make a simple split between Graffiti and Street/Urban Art. Graffiti being low quality vandalism often in areas where it is not authorised or wanted and Street Art being planned quality pieces that take time to deliver in areas where it is either accepted or authorised. It is the latter where you can come unstuck as I know a couple of artists who have taken legal claims against advertising companies and TV producers for using their art without permission.

    To add to the confusion there are also pieces that are commissioned by the owners of the wall or shop shutter and they pay the artist to deliver the work, so in this case the artwork is often owned by the person who commisioned the work and not the artist.

    So if it is a pile of garbage or low quality “Tagging” etc probably no problem, but if it took 2-3 days to produce and the artist has taken the time to sign it, contact them via Twitter or Instagram and they will probably be pleased to talk about what you want to do. Believe it or not most of the Artists I meet are middle classed well educated 30 year olds, not young hoodie wearing agressive criminals as often people guess.

    Ive added one photo, as an example of work that took time and effort and would probably need authorisation to reproduce. For others catch me on twitter @Andyvee67 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4c125239f6dad469c692d3d8d30e96bb0c7181894325c6fce8c877230d3c97bb.jpg .

  • Andy V

    Interesting link here from the US, sort of supports the Artist rather than the photographer and gives a good explanation of “Public Domain”.

    https://alj.orangenius.com/6-copyrights-street-art/

  • Barry Baskin

    Look at page 188 of your manual. It looks like it’ shooting 8MB based on pixel count but compressing to 3.5MB

  • markflag

    Strikes me mostly as pure b s. Some countries in Central Europe are covered with it on almost all flat surfaces. Rarely to never does it rise above anything more than visual littering combined with vandalism.

  • Michael Barnes

    its only really intelectual property if its art (?).
    am i right? and therefore selling a photograph of someones art and saying its yours is just has bad as photocopying the mons lisa and selling prints. its simply not yours to sell.
    theres been a big crack down on people selling prints and canvases of Banksy’s work.

    the good thing is that art is debateable. either everything is art or nothing is.

    i’ll take my chances in court.

  • Jeff Besgrove

    I would think one no expectation of privacy in this area and would not the creator have to file a copy write legally? This whole politically correct stuff has gone to far. And would they not get in trouble since most communities out law graffiti? And treat it as a criminal offense.

  • Tom Cooper
  • PDL

    So the graffiti artists are registering their art with the Copyright office?
    Gee, I don’t think so. If they were all that traceable, the Police would have a field day in picking them up as it is illegal in most places.
    What about the graffiti clean up activities in many places, are they guilty of destruction of copyrighted material?

  • In many cities graffiti is legal and business owners hire artists to paint their buildings.

  • megapixels and MB (megabytes) are NOT the same thing. Megapixels is the actual pixel size of the image, the largest here being 3264 x 2448 (equals 7.99 million pixels, or 8 Megapixels). But 8 MB is megabytes which is how much disk space the image takes up. They are not the same.

  • Rajendra Kulkarni

    Yes, I got it, thank you for making the things clear.

  • NO worries! You’re also using an 11 year old camera. Might be time for an upgrade.

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