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Graffiti Culture: Is it a Form of Artistic Expression or Criminal Activity? Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 4th, 2019


Various studies have over the years attempted to delineate the reasons and motivating factors behind the exposition of a wide range of popular cultures, and a good number of them have directed their efforts towards studying the graffiti culture.

Though consensus is yet to be achieved on the major driving factors of this form of subculture, a number of seminal studies demonstrate that graffiti has been used by sociologists, anthropologists and other researchers to understand a wide range of issues, including adolescent personality, group behavior, sexual orientation and attitudes, gang territoriality, female suppression, social processes, racial undertones, and communication cues (Alonso 2).

In the recent past, however, many states across the United States have criminalized this type of written expression, with some legislating punitive measures intended to curb the perceived decline of urban civility and destruction of private and public property. This ethnographic study will attempt to evaluate if graffiti culture is a form of artistic and cultural expression or if it is perpetrated with criminal or gangland intent.

An analysis of graffiti culture is important as the findings of this study will expand the existing pool of knowledge especially in understanding the real motivating factors behind graffiti writers.

Additionally, the findings of this study will serve as a barometer in understanding the behavior, attitudes, value propositions, and social-cultural processes of this segment of society. More importantly, the findings will inform policy initiatives and directions aimed at legislating for or against the use of graffiti as a form of expression.


In contextual terms “…the word graffiti means little scratchings (sic) and it comes from the Italian graffiare, which means to scratch” (Alonso 2). Graffiti writers have been largely studied by researchers with the intention of demonstrating how this segment of society expresses attachment to particular beliefs, attitudes, social processes, and value propositions through conformance with or rebellion against existing mores and rule of law (Sliwa & Cairns 73).

Some studies form the opinion that graffiti provide a unique insight into society, in large part due to the fact that the scribbled messages are made without fear of social restrictions that might otherwise inhibit free expression of political, social, cultural or controversial thoughts (Alonso 2).

Scholars postulates that “…the graffiti culture, like any other culture, present itself in different forms, dependent on the social and cultural component of the local community, the distribution of cultural knowledge, the age of the culture and particularly, the presence or lack of an established hierarchy possessing experienced writers” (Serkan & Gulsen 1).

In equal measure, graffiti serves diverse types of functions. The Los Angeles gang graffiti, for instance, serves as a significant medium to understanding this segment of society as the graffiti not only delineates space, but also put a focus on the existing territory (Alonso 2).

Other forms of graffiti, according to this particular author, serves as a tool of communication as they are perceived to constantly challenge the hegemonic discourses of the dominant group in addition to assisting in comprehending the social and cultural meaning of these ‘disadvantaged’ groups.

A study undertaken to evaluate the commitment of graffiti writers argues that graffers are freely able to express themselves through their artwork as “…it is conceivable to live exhibiting neither explicit compliance with, nor opposition to, norms of behavior accepted by society, or any grouping within it” (Sliwa & Cairns 75). These researchers are of the opinion that many empirical analysis done by normative social scientists fail to recognize the commitment of graffers and instead depict them in simplistic terms as individuals who lack commitment to generally accepted mores of society.

Contrary to this popularly held view, most graffers are motivated by the urge to share their own perceptions of the world rather than rely on meta-narratives that only seek to present a singular, unchallenged and exclusive version of reality (Sliwa & Cairns 75). In other quarters, graffiti is perceived as one of the few successful attempts made by the voiceless masses to enforce their presence on urban culture (Kriegel 432).

According to the author, “…graffiti proves that behind the rage of urban poverty there remains an endurance of aspiration” (Kriegel 435). Consequently, it can be argued that the importance of graffiti lies in the voice it provides to the expression of suppressed anger and contempt of the existing social or political order.

However, one author is quick to point that graffiti not only implies the destruction of city life, but it also “…denies the possibility of an urban community by insisting that individual style is a more natural right than the communitarian demands of city life” (Kriegel 433). More importantly, this particular author notes any form of graffiti – political or otherwise – intrudes on the privacy of the wider public by voicing a specific protest that may not be in tandem with the views and expectations held by the general public.

Graffiti is seen and defined in some quarters as a criminal activity which is lumped with other undesirable behaviors such as drug dependence and mindless violence and together labeled as ‘bad symptoms’ of civilization (Sliwa & Cairns 75). The authors further argue that the very fact that graffiti is carried out anonymously and away from public scrutiny underlines its criminal nature.

What’s more, spray-painting public property with undue disregard of the views, attitudes and values of the wider public, or without express permission from the authorities, is by itself criminal (Sliwa & Cairns 74). These observations led one analyst to conclude that if graffiti truly constitutes an art form, then it is ultimately an art that is inspired by an urge to destroy the root concept of what apparently created it (Kriegel, 436).

It is therefore imperative to know if graffiti is truly a form of artistic expression or purely a criminal activity. As already mentioned, such knowledge can be used to inform policy initiatives and directions aimed at legislating rules for or against the use of graffiti as a form of expression. Based on the above review of related literature, this ethnographic study will be guided by the following research questions:

  1. What are the main motivators of graffiti culture?
  2. What are the social and economic benefits and costs associated with graffiti?
  3. Do you believe that the exposition of graffiti is a clear sign of social decline and anti-social behavior?
  4. What constitutes the reasons as to why graffiti should or should not be criminalized?


This ethnographic study relied on participant observation and interviews to collect primary data needed to answer the key research questions. In most ethnographic studies “…people’s actions and accounts are studied in everyday contexts, rather than under conditions created by the researcher” (Hammersley & Atkinson 3).

As such, the researcher utilized participant observation to gather data by participating in the daily life experiences of graffiti writers. This approach entailed everyday interactions and conversations aimed at discovering in-depth insights into the graffiti writers’ interpretations of the experiences and situations they are involved in. participant observation should be aimed at generating an in-depth description of social interactions and experiences within natural settings (Smith para. 5).

Through participating as a member of the graffiti group while observing it, the researcher noted that most graffiti writers were motivated by the current social and political order, and they engaged in graffiti to express their own opinions of the current occurrences. A particular graffiti that caught the attention of the researcher depicted the recent shooting of Osama bin Laden with the inscription that “KILL OSAMA-REMAIN THE ONLY SUPERPOWER.”

The researcher also observed that graffiti writers were not only motivated by their aesthetic appeal, but also by a perceived social aspect of sharing an event, experience or activity with ‘friends.’ It was also observed that continued involvement in graffiti writing was associated with pride, pleasure, enjoyment of spray-painting, and recognition achieved from writing.

The researcher noted that these particular motivators were not associated with any quantifiable benefits apart from the intrinsic outcomes described above. In addition, the researcher noted that boredom and rebellion to the existing order (especially state and local authority laws and bylaws) formed a central component in motivating graffiti writers to spray-paint public and private property. Lastly, the researcher observed that some graffiti writers engaged in the practice for competition.

The informants for this ethnographic study consisted of three graffiti writers and two local government officials. The informants were subjected to a brief interview process that sought to achieve an in-depth knowledge and understanding about some of the perspectives that were not apparent from the initial participant observations. The interviews were largely unstructured.

From the responses of the graffiti writers, the researcher noted that graffiti was to a large extent driven by emotional, social or political expression as opposed to other variables mentioned in previous studies, such as drugs, immorality and social decadence. It was also noted from the graffiti writers interviewed that they were to some extent driven by the pursuit of ‘illegal fame’ and recognition.

The writers, however, denied that graffiti was connected to drugs and criminal activities though they acknowledged that some graffiti was associated with gangland behaviors and territoriality interests. Lastly, graffiti writers contended that graffiti should not be criminalized as doing so amounted to contravening the freedom of expression.

The researcher interviewed the local authority officials to gain a deeper understanding of the social and economic benefits and costs of graffiti, and criminalization of graffiti. The two officials were in agreement that the graffiti culture had led to unsightly, damaging and costly ramifications for private property owners as well as for public buildings. The officials were in agreement that graffiti does not have economic and social benefits to society in general and the writers in particular.

However, graffiti vandalism, as they preferred to call it, occasioned unwarranted costs to businesses, individuals, and organs of state or local government in removing the graffiti; increased insurance premiums for public and private property; increased government taxes; and impacted negatively on the value of private property. These reasons, according to the local government officials, are more than enough to warrant the criminalization of graffiti culture. Socially, the officials felt that graffiti culture continually undermines community perceptions of safety, not mentioning that it exhibits discernible symptoms of social decline and anti-social behavior.

Lastly, the officials were in agreement that graffiti culture warrants criminal reprimand as it is often associated with other undesirable behaviors such as drug-taking, theft, loitering, gangland activities, and private and public property destruction.

Analysis and Conclusions

The data collected during participant observation and interviews satisfactorily answers the key study questions. The main motivators of graffiti culture, according to the gathered data include: need to artistically express the current social and political order from the graffiti writer’s own opinion; aesthetic appeal; need to share an event or experience with friends; pride; pleasure; enjoyment; recognition; competition; boredom and; rebellion.

This information expands on the existing knowledge as to what actually propels the graffiti culture (Sliwa & Cairns 75).

From the graffiti writers’ perspective, it has been revealed that graffiti provides intrinsic emotional and social rewards in terms of freely expressing one’s thoughts, recognition, and pleasure. One previous study had perceived graffiti culture as one of the few successful attempts made by the voiceless masses to enforce their presence on urban culture (Kriegel 432).

It is however interesting to note that graffiti culture carries no perceived benefits outside the scope of the writers as can be demonstrated by the interview responses from the local authority officials. As such, it can be safely concluded that graffiti culture impinges on the rights and privacy of others who may be not necessarily share the views or opinions of the graffiti writers. This view has been well espoused in the review of literature (Kriegel 433).

Again, the findings demonstrate that graffiti is not a sign of social and moral decadence from the mouth of the players, but other interested parties think otherwise. Indeed, the culture has been accused of causing wanton destruction of property, not mentioning that it has been positively correlated to other disruptive behaviors, such as drug use and abuse, theft, loitering, and gangland activities. This finding has been collaborated in previous studies (Kriegel 435).

The findings have overwhelmingly depicted graffiti culture as a form of artistic expression mainly intended to avail a forum where current political, cultural, and social issues can be discussed from the graffiti writer’s lens rather than relying on dominant discourses of information. This finding has been well corroborated in previous studies (Sliwa & Cairns 75; Serkan & Gulsen 1).

However, there is overbearing evidence from the findings that graffiti culture needs to be checked and legislated so as not to impinge on the rights and freedoms of other people. Going by the findings, graffiti culture should not be criminalized; rather, it should be legislated upon through the use of a legal framework that ensures that excesses of the artwork are checked and punitive measures applied for those who fail to obey the rules, just as it is done in other areas of law.

Blanket criminalization of graffiti culture is unnecessary. The government should also consider coming up with designated areas where writers can legitimately express themselves without causing damage to public or private property.

Works Cited

Alonso, A. Urban Graffiti on the City Landscape. 1998. Web.

Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P. Ethnography: Principles in Practice. Taylor & Francis e-Library. 2007.

Kriegel, L. Graffiti: Tunnel Notes of a New Yorker. American Scholar 62.3 (1993): 431-436. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier Database.

Serkan, G., & Gulsen, Y. . 2006. Web.

Smith, M.K. . 1997. Web.

Sliwa, M., & Cairns, G. Exploring Narratives and Antenarratives of Graffiti Artists: Beyond Dichotomies of Commitment and Detachment. Culture & Organization 13.1 (2007): 73-82. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database.

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