Urban surfaces have always carried unauthorized messages and images—famously, graffiti has been found among the ruins of ancient Pompeii. These graffiti messages and images have taken all sorts of forms. Some are political, some are humorous and witty, some are expressions of individual or collective identity, some are claims of territorial ownership, and others are elaborate forms of artistic expression. The emergence of new graffiti styles and techniques in recent decades has provoked sustained debate among policymakers and scholars. After briefly outlining these changes in graffiti, this entry discusses different perspectives on the nature of the so-called graffiti problem in contemporary cities.
Graffiti is certainly not a new phenomenon, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, new forms of graffiti began appearing on the streets and public transportation systems of Philadelphia and New York City in the United States. Young people in these cities started writing their tag names with ink markers and aerosol paint. Gradually, as these graffiti writers sought to maximize the exposure of their tag identities, both the quantity and the quality of their productions increased. By the late 1970s, elaborate artistic productions (or “pieces”) by writers like Dondi, Futura 2000, and others covered whole subway cars in New York City.
These new graffiti styles gradually gained wider exposure through books like 1984's Subway Art by photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, and through early films such as the Public Broadcasting Service documentary Style Wars and the film Wild Style. This media circulation of graffiti subsequently helped facilitate its global diffusion and proliferation. Thriving graffiti scenes exist in hundreds of cities around the world, with every populated continent boasting its own hot spots and styles. These scenes and styles are by now exhaustively documented in glossy books published by major commercial publishing houses and in graffiti-related magazines and websites.
Graffiti might be viewed as an example par excellence of Michel de Certeau's tactics—an appropriation of space that insinuates into and against the dominant normative values inscribed in the urban environment. Graffiti writers see urban surfaces not as sanctified private property but as a medium for circulating their identities, artistic ambitions, and messages for each other and the wider public.
Not surprisingly, then, the global diffusion and proliferation of these new forms of graffiti have typically been viewed as a problem by urban authorities. Graffiti is frequently described as a kind of antisocial behavior that undermines urban quality of life. Indeed, critiques of graffiti played a formative role in the development of current approaches to law and order, which place emphasis on the need to curb antisocial behavior in the name of quality of life, such as the “broken windows” crime control thesis advanced by Wilson and Kelling, which claimed that signs of physical decay would lead to neighborhood decline. As a variety of scholars have emphasized, such a reading of graffiti was not uncontested and has been privileged over other possible readings in the service of quite particular political and economic interests. And, just like graffiti itself, this particular reading of graffiti as antisocial has spread from its epicenter in New York City to other cities where graffiti scenes have emerged.
With the spread of this discourse of graffiti as a quality of life offense, a variety of measures designed to prevent and eradicate graffiti have been developed and deployed in cities where the existence of graffiti is defined as a problem for urban policy. Antigraffiti measures include: new forms of urban fortification intended to deny graffiti writers access to strategic spaces; new forms of urban design and graffiti-proof materials designed to deny opportunities for graffiti; electronic surveillance to deter and catch writers; the formation of specialist graffiti squads by policing agencies; increased penalties for graffiti writing, including custodial sentence for repeat offenders in many jurisdictions; bans on the sale of aerosol paints to minors, and restrictions on the display of aerosol paints in shops; rapid removal of graffiti to deter writers seeking fame (now frequently contracted out to specialist graffiti removal companies by public and private urban authorities); and censorship of graffiti publications and websites. In many cities, vast resources are devoted to various combinations of these graffiti prevention measures.
When the effectiveness of these measures is assessed at the local scale, there may be some evidence of success in reducing or eliminating graffiti. However, if we measure efforts to prevent graffiti on a wider metropolitan or even global scale, they have certainly failed to stem the widespread growth of graffiti. Considered at this wider scale, it would appear that the waging of wars on graffiti has led to the mutation, rather than eradication, of graffiti writing practices. Writers have developed new styles and techniques designed to evade or outmaneuver the efforts of urban authorities. The rapid growth of sticker and stencil graffiti toward the end of the 1990s, for instance, was in part a response to antigraffiti measures—both stickers and stencils can be designed and executed in advance of their application to a surface, thus reducing the risks associated with graffiti by markedly reducing the time it takes to “get up.” Similarly, new forms of graffiti-proof glass resistant to ink and paint, which is used on trains and bus stops, are now frequently adorned with etched tags cut into the glass itself. Indeed, some graffiti observers and scholars have pointed out that one irony of the currently dominant approach to graffiti prevention is that it has tended to lower the quality of graffiti by pushing writers toward styles that can be quickly executed.
Efforts to curb graffiti are limited in their success by the capacity of graffiti writers to evade them. In addition, certain styles of graffiti have been embraced in both the marketplace and the art world. Established graffiti writers are often commissioned to do work to lend street credibility to advertising campaigns or to lend an urban edginess to film and television sets. Contemporary art galleries in many cities have sponsored exhibitions of work by graffiti writers. And, of course, paint manufacturers stand to gain from the ongoing proliferation of graffiti, and many have developed products specifically designed for graffiti writing.
Furthermore, there has been substantial (if uneven) support for the provision of legal graffiti spaces in many cities, and often, this support comes from state or state-funded agencies who work closely with young people. Here, however, there is an important distinction to be made between those who support the provision of legal graffiti spaces as a different means to address the graffiti problem (i.e., as a way to reduce graffiti), and those who argue that the way graffiti is framed as a problem is itself problematic (e.g., where legal graffiti spaces are provided as a means to improve the quality of graffiti).
Different positions in political debates over the construction and solution of the “graffiti problem” are informed by different understandings of graffiti writers and their motivations. Are writers simply antisocial vandals, as some would have it, or are their motivations more complicated? Sociologists and others tend to disagree. Richard Sennett, for instance, sees no more in graffiti than a “smear of the self”—a narcissistic concern with displays of individual identity that seek no genuine engagement with a wider public on issues of substance. Others like Nancy Macdonald and Kevin McDonald, who have undertaken ethnographic research with graffiti writers, see more complex negotiations of age, class, and gender in the graffiti scenes they have studied.
Yet others have sought to understand graffiti scenes as counterpublic spheres through which different ways of inhabiting and mobilizing urban space have been constructed. These latter perspectives present a picture of graffiti writing as a fundamentally social, rather than antisocial, practice. That is to say, they portray graffiti scenes as collectives engaged in their own discussions over the aesthetic and ethical values of different graffiti styles and practices. This is not necessarily to position the graffiti writer as some kind of folk hero but rather to assert that the writing of graffiti is not simply a form of mindless vandalism attributable to dysfunctional individuals.
Of course, graffiti writers themselves are not passive spectators in such debates. In particular, they continue to debate whether or not there can be any such thing as legal graffiti. These debates tend to hinge on whether the essence of graffiti lies in its legal status, or its style, or its placement. Some graffiti writers take sides in such debates, whereas others work across these different realms, putting on gallery shows and doing legal commissions (sometimes under the label of street art) in the public realm while maintaining an active profile on the streets through uncommissioned and illegal graffiti work.
More work remains to be done to bring the insights of graffiti writers into dialogue with scholarly discussions in sociology, criminology, and urban geography about the urban public realm. In particular, there is certainly more scope for research that asks what graffiti writers themselves tell us about the city. As they inhabit the city in different ways and mobilize urban space for different purposes in the face of significant normative and legal regulation, have graffiti writers developed new insights into the nature of the cities in which they write? Criminologist Jeff Ferrell's work on graffiti begins to address such questions. Ferrell has firsthand experience to draw on, having himself been an active graffiti writer and arrested for graffiti writing. He situates graffiti among a range of urban practices that point toward alternative and more anarchic ways of inhabiting the city and negotiating urban life.
Crime, Hip Hop, Urban Semiotics
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