I recently got back from a very spontaneous trip to Chile and Argentina before beginning the life of the working stiff. While I saw many amazing sights and was lucky enough to be in each country during their final World Cup games, one of my favorite parts of the trip was seeing the beautiful street art and graffiti of Valparaiso on the Chilean coast.
Certainly part of the appeal of the graffiti in Valpo, as locals know their city, is its general artistic quality. While one can certainly find teenage scribbles among the city’s streets, much more striking are the abstract paintings of some obviously talented artists, and the spontaneous blending of the work of many people to decorate public walkways.
While graffiti is technically illegal in Chile, and the country’s President Pinera is working to enforce stricter punishments against it nationwide, its public acceptance in Valparaiso demonstrates that law, as it emerges through social interaction, is often more powerful than official legislation. Russ Roberts and Don Boudreaux both discuss this issue in depth in their microeconomics classes, and a discussion between them is available on econtalk.
Graffiti policy raises many interesting questions in the development of legislation. On the one hand, property owners clearly have the right to prosecute anyone who defaces their property without consent, but on the other in cities like Valpo, street art in public spaces is artistic and political expression that clearly adds to the city’s character. Are strict laws against graffiti a hindrance toward an emergent form of expression?
Regardless of personal opinions on policy toward street art, it seems that the issue would be ideally determined at the local level rather than the national level as President Pinera is moving to do. Perhaps the Valpo community would be best-served by a lax policy toward graffiti in public spaces while other cities in Chile might benefit from tough enforcement of anti-graffiti laws.