Broadly speaking, graffiti denotes the array of words, figures, and symbols illicitly inscribed in public space. Over the past three decades this phenomenon has taken on special salience as the graffiti of youth sub-cultures has emerged as a pervasive form of public communication. Because of this, graffiti has become perhaps the most potent and visible symbol of delinquency and danger, with political authorities and the public regularly associating public graffiti with gang activity. In reality, the contemporary role of graffiti as a form of public communication, and as a communicative component within youthful sub-cultures, is far more complex than a simple equating of graffiti and gangs.
Throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and beyond, the most prominent and publicly visible form of contemporary graffiti is in fact not gang graffiti, but hip hop graffiti. Hip hop graffiti developed during the 1970s in the United States as a component of a larger hip hop youth scene that also incorporated rap music, break dancing, and other cultural innovations. As street-level alternatives to gang life and gang conflict, hip hop music, dance, and graffiti offered new media for contesting identity and acquiring status. Then as now, hip hop graffiti “writers” and their “crews” wrote their “tags” (nicknames) in places of public visibility, and painted elaborate public “pieces” (murals), as markers of artistic innovation and sub-cultural “fame.” In this way hip hop graffiti came to operate as a stylized form of ongoing public communication, with writers employing graffiti to offer aesthetic challenges to other writers, to inscribe artistic declarations and manifestos, and to comment on the merits of existing graffiti (Cooper & Chalfant 1984; Ferrell 1996).
As hip hop graffiti has spread to Europe, Australia, and elsewhere (Chalfant & Prigoff 1987), its initial communicative dynamics have also continued to develop. Along with spray paint cans and ink markers, writers now utilize etching tools, stickers, and computergenerated images. They “tag the heavens” atop roofs and freeway overpasses to gain public visibility and to demonstrate sub-cultural commitment. Once attempting to “go citywide” with their tags and pieces, writers now “go nationwide” by tagging and piecing outbound freight trains, and “go worldwide” through hip hop graffiti websites and magazines (Snyder 2006). Increasingly functioning as the folk artists of ethnic minority communities, they also paint signs for local businesses and design “rest in piece” memorials for the departed.
Gang graffiti functions as a different medium of public communication, as youth gangs utilize graffiti to define membership status, demarcate contested space, and issue symbolic threat. Latino/Latina gangs, for example, often inscribe barrio walls with placas – stylized insignia that define gang and barrio boundaries, symbolize the collective presence of the gang, and warn away potential intruders. While such gang graffiti certainly signifies some sense of trouble or threat, it also references historical traditions of public communication and mural painting, and so signifies a sense of community solidarity and ethnic pride.
For other Latino/Latina and African American gangs, graffiti functions as a more direct demarcation of gang influence and power, and as a street-level advertisement of a gang’s economic or territorial domination (Phillips 1999). Here the writing of a gang’s graffiti is complemented by the symbolic degradation of rival gangs through coded threats or the “crossing out” of rival gang graffiti. Such symbolic provocations can invite physical violence – yet they can also displace the need for physical confrontation by demarcating urban space and setting cultural and territorial boundaries. The graffiti of skinheads and neo-Nazi youth, in contrast, seems clearly designed to communicate terror and threat while accompanying campaigns of physical violence against gays and lesbians, immigrants, and others.
The pervasive public visibility of hip hop and gang graffiti over the past three decades has spawned a variety of equally high-profile “anti-graffiti campaigns” or “wars on graffiti.” Themselves exercises in carefully crafted public communication, anti-graffiti campaigns have been beset in particular by their persistent inability (and unwillingness) to distinguish hip hop graffiti from gang graffiti – or more specifically, their insistent definition of all graffiti as gang graffiti. Relatedly, these campaigns regularly propose that graffiti offers only a single public meaning: generalized threat and insecurity. This proposition not only misses the different meanings of hip hop graffiti and gang graffiti; it fails to note the multiple meanings that are negotiated within each of these graffiti types. Two further developments reflect the persistent visibility of graffiti and the campaigns against it. First, anti-graffiti campaigns have often amplified the very phenomenon they have sought to suppress. For many hip hop graffiti writers, anti-graffiti campaigns have enhanced the public notoriety and illicit excitement of graffiti writing, and have pushed them toward greater anti-authoritarian militancy. The use of highly visible campaigns to police a highly visible form of youthful communication has also served to make graffiti increasingly prominent, and so to recruit new graffiti practitioners and to spread graffiti farther still beyond its origins (Ferrell 1996). Second, global corporations and their advertising agencies also have noted this proliferation of public graffiti – and in response have increasingly appropriated graffiti into clothing lines, CD covers, and advertising schemes in an effort to cash in on its illicit credibility (Alvelos 2004).
- Alvelos, H. (2004). The desert of imagination in the city of signs: Cultural implications of sponsored transgression and branded graffiti. In J. Ferrell, K. Hayward, W. Morrison, & M. Presdee (eds.), Cultural criminology unleashed. London: Glasshouse, pp. 181–191.
- Chalfant, H., & Prigoff, J. (1987). Spraycan art. London: Thames and Hudson.
- Cooper, M., & Chalfant, H. (1984). Subway art. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Ferrell, J. (1996). Crimes of style: Urban graffiti and the politics of criminality. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
- Phillips, S. A. (1999). Wallbangin’: Graffiti and gangs in L.A. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Snyder, G. J. (2006). Graffiti media and the perpetuation of an illegal subculture. Crime, Media, Culture, 2(1), 93 –101.