Website Defacers – the Graffiti Artists of the Internet?

When does a Website become art? Many of us have asked ourselves this question at some point, but to no avail: there is no definitive answer. A more effective way to approach this question might be to look at it from another angle. We could ask “What constitutes “art”?” and then apply our description to particular aspects of the Internet.

For me, “art” is any form of media that sets out to — and achieves — an emotional reaction or response. A good definition is found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“The use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.”

Now, let’s think about this in the offline environment. We have galleries and museums filled with “art”. But in my opinion, street graffiti often meets the requirements of this definition more fully than most other “art” forms I can think of.

Graffiti in itself it is a controversial choice. But think about it: this is not only an extremely provocative medium – many people feel graffiti artists are criminals and not “artists” at all – but also that it draws very strong parallels with one area of online art that many of you may not have considered art before – Website defacing.

In fact, the link between graffiti and Website defacing represents one of the strongest parallels between ‘real world’ art and its online counterpart.

So How are Hackers "Artists"?

Think about what a graffiti artist creates: they use their chosen medium to convey a point that is often political, usually prominent, and can embody varying degrees of complexity. The graffiti artist hijacks walls next to railway lines, paints traffic bridges, tags government buildings — and all for one purpose: to get their point across.

What I’m suggesting is that the motive, and even the result of a hacker’s work is exactly the same. Let’s look at that definition of art again, but instead of thinking about the local art gallery, let’s think about Website defacers:

The use of skill –- the individual concerned had to hack a server, which obviously takes skill

and imagination –- the creation of the message they intend to convey

in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences –- check

that can be shared with others –- around the globe!

See what I mean? The important point to bear in mind is that art doesn’t have to be visually stunning. It just has to make you think.

Examining the Parallels

The messages conveyed through the work of graffiti artists are often highly political and deliberately aggressive. So what does this have to do with hackers who deface Websites? Well let me draw your attention to an example by a hacker who goes by the name of Break Ice (WARNING: strong language).

If the hacker responsible for this had simply set up a Website to display that text, no one would have noticed. By hacking hundreds of Web servers and leaving the same message on each (some of them quite high profile) he or she has launched their message onto the reluctant masses in a way that can’t be ignored. This hacker might not see what they’re doing as art, but if you think about it, perhaps it is. It’s certainly virtual graffiti — so if you consider one to be art, then surely you must also see the other in the same light.

Like hackers, graffiti artists find themselves in a continuing struggle to get their work seen and avoid the law. When I lived in Hull (East Yorkshire, UK), an architect friend of mine started work on a project to provide facilities for legal graffiti. He wanted to create a place where genuine graffiti artists could ply their trade without upsetting anyone or getting into trouble. It would also become a gallery for these individuals to have their work seen by a wider audience.

However, when we started talking to Hull’s artists, we began to realise that this really wasn’t the point of what they were doing. Graffiti is a very subversive art. These guys aren’t spray-painting walls for the sake of it — they have a message they want to get across to their audience, as do many pieces of modern art. Part of their particular skill lies in throwing politics and irony in people’s faces where it really affects them the most, and when they can’t ignore it. That way the artist’s work carries more impact.

This approach doesn’t only characterise street graffiti artists – it also describes the aims of Website defacers.

There’s More…

Now, in the world of graffiti there are taggers, bombers and piecers. The difference? A tagger simply throws a word or some initials on to a wall. A bomber is an “elaborate tagger”. A bomber’s tags are more complex, multicoloured and detailed, yet they rarely carry a message. Finally, there are piecers. Piecers actually work through the night creating elaborate and well-thought-out murals.

Interestingly enough, Website defacers can also be broken down in to the three categories of taggers, bombers and piecers. Here’s one example of what I would term a tagger’s work. Here’s the work of a bomber. And I’d say that the first example we looked at probably represents a piecer.

I would, however, concede that my definition of a piecer has to shift slightly when we consider the Internet. When it comes to Website defacement, it’s more about the message than the visuals, but then graffiti piecers usually have a strong message in their art too.

Sadly, in both the online and offline environments, the majority of taggers and bombers tend to give piecers a bad name. That’s not to say taggers aren’t necessarily artists. For example, there’s a tag photographed by Matthew Smith on www.graffiti.org that simply reads “Heil Bush”. It’s nothing more than a tag, but it makes you think.

That said, tagging is seen as a nuisance. For example, if I woke up in the morning and walked outside to find the side wall of the house I rent converted into a mural depicting some urban struggle I’d secretly be quite pleased. Granted, I’d ring my landlord, and he may well have a few choice words to say on the matter. However, if I stepped out my front door and saw someone had sprayed his or her initials on the garden gate, I’d be pretty annoyed.

Similarly, if someone hacked my Web server just to leave some random letters and characters on it, I’d think “stupid kids!” But if someone hacked my Website and left a political statement on the front page, whether I agreed with it or not I’d be secretly intrigued. I’d remove it of course, but I’d think “good effort!”

And the Differences?

Well the first difference follows on directly from that last parallel. Taggers on the Web are perhaps much more valuable than taggers in the real world.

You see, Web taggers are actually providing a service in a funny kind of a way. They continually highlight situations where server security is inadequate, and find new holes in operating systems. Taggers in ‘real life’ graffiti have no such claim. All they prove is that they know how to use a spray can! I wouldn’t disagree that Web taggers are a nuisance, nor that the work of genuine hacking organisations (if that’s not too much of a contradiction) in doing the same task are any more valid. Having said that, they’re certainly a hell of a wake up call for the lazy Webmaster or IT Manager!

To set up the second major difference between graffiti artists and Website defacers, let me introduce you to comments by Bristol-based graffiti photographer, Matthew Smith. He argues:

“I was struck by the intelligence and artistry of its street graffiti. I was also struck by its content. At first I tried to shoot pictures of what I saw including its context, but over the course of time it became evident that this was not the way forward. It was what the graffiti said that was so striking, both literally and figuratively, not where it was situated. It was the emotional truth reflected in it, that was so attractive; and just as in life, it was necessary to ignore some of the jumble in order to concentrate, heighten and define its essence.” From http://www.graffiti.org/bristol/index.html/

I think some of what he says is valid, but I feel that if you take graffiti out of its context, the power of the message is lost. For example, who listens to the man in the local market square screaming about civil rights through a megaphone? I don’t – I think “nutter” and walk on! Yet I vividly remember seeing a piece of graffiti that depicted a police helicopter hovering over people’s houses and someone shooting it down with a rocket launcher. It’s basically the same sentiment as your man with the megaphone. But, lift that piece of graffiti out of the context of a dreary, windswept street where the residents nightly hear that helicopter hanging over their houses, and put it on the wall in a gallery in Leeds, and it has no meaning. It’s little more than a single frame from a Manga comic.

Another and perhaps stronger example is by a famous British artist who goes by the name of Banksy. He did a piece of work in which he changed lettering that read “Bankside” under a bridge in southeast London to read Banksy. Again, out of context his inflammatory joke at the authorities’ expense means nothing.

In contrast, a hacking piecer’s work is context-less. The only context is the world: it’s a global canvas. As a proactive piece of media that’s targeted at the right people and executed in such a way that it can’t help but be noticed, the hacker’s work becomes possibly even more powerful than that of the graffiti artist’s. That’s an interesting thought isn’t it? For me it’s that which makes the difference between someone just hacking, and someone actually providing us with a controversial, yet valid, form of art.

Put Down your Spray Cans and Listen!

To go back to the original idea, I don’t know where the line would be drawn on what makes “art”. In fact, I don’t much care. That’s not for me to say – it’s purely subjective. I’m merely making the point that art can be found in the most unexpected places. And art certainly isn’t defined by its medium. That fact has been proved over and over for centuries. Nobody would have considered a video as a work of art fifty years ago, however “video installations” in art galleries are now quite common.

Next time you see something online that grabs your attention, whether it’s a study or a project, whether it amuses or depresses, whatever it is –- post it in this thread on the SitePoint forums, show your chosen piece and tell us why you’ve chosen it.

Although I’ve focused on graffiti for this article, I believe it’s only a matter of time before interactive art takes its place along the spectrum of the modern art world. My example is intended to merely fuel debate. I’d be fascinated to see what’s out there and with your help we could perhaps get quite a collection. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner online art really hits the mainstream, the better.

Interesting Links to Other Internet Art

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