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Chapter Two: Symbolism, Subjectivity and Sub-Culture

The Importance of the Urban

"The city…is the initiating and controlling centre of economic, political, and cultural life that has drawn the most remote communities of the world into its orbit and woven diverse areas, peoples, and activities into a cosmos" Louis Wirth (1964; 61).
'I want to be a non-conformist' poster
Figure 2.1: 'I want to be a non-conformist' poster (Source: www.banksy.co.uk)

Inherent to geography is the study of urbanism and sociospatial dialectics (Soja 1980; Dear and Wolch 1989; Sibley 1995) which looks at the interrelation of person and place; how we modify our environments and our environments modify us. Geographers have been asked to take into account the chaotic nature of society in which "beauty and ugliness are related to man, and the most dilapidated building may become superb, rich and endowed with soul" (Bailly 1993; 247). In this context, a place can only take on meaning in relation to how people interpret and represent it (Lynch 1960, Relph 1976, Hall 1997).

Central to this theme of symbolic representation was Cresswell's (1996) contribution which, based on the work of Douglas (1966), focused specifically on graffiti in 1970's New York as an example of what is symbolic of dirt and matter "out of place" (1996; 37). He argues that the reaction of the media and government creates a discourse in which graffiti is presented as a symptom of disorder and a threat to their image of New York society. Graffiti was controlled by (dis)placing it in Manhattan galleries and describing it as creative, primitive, and valuable, which is vital in understanding the power relations embedded in place. Castleman (1982) provides a comprehensive account of the origins and historical context in which graffiti emerged which serves as an essential context in which to pursue research. Today, authors continue to equate graffiti with the "New York" or "Hip Hop" style which is problematic in that contemporary UK graffiti does not aspire to either of these models. There is a need for a UK specific study which disassociates graffiti with US culture so we may begin to understand where, if anywhere, graffiti 'belongs' in the urban environment.

Understanding the Literary History of Graffiti

The 1970's was when graffiti attracted much literary attention. New York depreciated into fiscal crisis and contemporary UK graffiti is largely thought to come from this period of instability as manifested in, and constitutive of, disorder (Castleman 1982). The majority of the literature was communicated through media networks, to select several examples from the pervasive attention given to graffiti at the time are articles by Prial (1972), Johnson (1972), Perlmutter (1972) and Schumach (1973). In dedicating half a page to Taki 183's exploits, The New York times presented him as a "folk hero" (1971; 37), while simultaneously propagating the presiding Mayor of the times 'War on Graffiti' to rid the city of graffiti as indicative of madness and dirt (New York Times 1972). Mailer (1974) was one of the first to approach graffiti academically, claiming that there "is always art in a criminal act" (1974; 2) however goes on to say that graffiti is "the impulse of the jungle" (1974; 173) correlating it again with disorder. He suggests the 'putting in place' of those culpable for spreading such pollution.

Graffiti as Sub-culture

A useful context in which to study graffiti is found in the emergence of sub-cultural studies. Functional theorists from the 1950's have explored the non-acceptance of mainstream expectations as an issue of class in which sub-cultural delinquents pursued a deviant alternative in failing to find a place in broader society (Cohen 1955; Miller 1958; Cloward and Ohlin 1961). The 1970's presented a reaction to Functionalist theories as Marxist approaches saw sub-cultures as reactions against rather than alternatives to ruling classes' expectations. Although never specifically referencing graffiti, what authors such as Hall and Jefferson (1976), Becker (1976), Cohen (1980) and Hebdidge (1983) address in youth sub-cultural theory resounds with significance to the study of graffiti. Hall and Jefferson (1976) echo what Becker (1976) described as a power struggle of control mediated by symbolicic order, manufactured by the media and authoritive figures (Figure 2.1). These authors were concerned with youth sub-cultures such as Teddy boys, Beatniks, Mods, Rockers, Hippies, Rastas, Punks, and Skin heads in Britain. They found that any practice transcending what is deemed 'normal' is captivating, mysterious, secret and that public perceptions are shaped by how such groups are represented to them symbolically. For example, Cohen refers to these groups as folk devils in that they are "visible reminders of what we should not be" (1980; 10).

Through the lens of Marxism, Punks were deemed as a response to "increasing joblessness, changing moral standards, the rediscovery of poverty, the Depression" by "constructing a language which was… unmistakably relevant and down to earth" (Hebdidge 1983; 87). The possibility of graffiti being a reaction to New York's decline has received attention (Cresswell 1996, Mailer 1974, MacDonald 2001) however there is yet to be a study which suggests that graffiti is a product of UK power insecurities. This will be addressed in Chapter Five. Messerschmidt (1993), in reconceptualising ideas about delinquency, and MacDonald (2001) in her ethnographically based comparison of London and New York graffiti, both recognise that sub-cultural theories have been too class and gender specific. This has proved to be vital progress in dissolving the categories assumed by previous literature and further understanding the real form that sub-cultures such as graffiti assume.

Multiple-Identities Within

Feminist geographies in their prominent role in post-modern thinking made available the concept of identity as being bound and situated in place based on what people are not, for example, not male, not black, not Catholic (Massey 1994; Pratt and Hanson 1994). Places construct identity and, in the case of graffiti, identities are active in constructing place. Pratt and Hanson (1994) argue that when left over time, identities harden in place and boundaries and tensions are produced which are difficult to erode. In the production of places there exists conflicting opinions as to what 'belongs' and to where it belongs, as Cavan exemplifies in focusing on the "interrelated complex of rule makers, rule enforcers, and rule breakers" (1995; 1). Graffiti as a form of resistance in defying social rules is attributed to countless motivations including, intimidating youth culture (Ferrell 1995), fear inducing street harassment (Rosenware 2004) and the self establishment of fame (Lachmann 1988). It is likely to be an amalgamation of all these contributing factors rather than solely one explanatory device. The concept of identity situated in place therefore does not accommodate for the fact that, in graffiti, a multitude of identities are manifested into public place however are rejected as representing one homogenous graffiti identity; the antisocial.

The Problems of Previous Research

Graffiti as a topic of research is confronted with an interesting dilemma. Its presence in public places provokes divergent opinions ranging from those who arconsummatelyly opposed to graffiti, to those who are loyally devoted to it or, as with the majority of people, those who are totally indifferent. In reviewing the literature, it appears to be authors who have formed a personal opinion about graffiti that are likely to pursue graffiti as a focus of study. Texts are, therefore, largely biased as at either end of the extreme it is difficult to maintain a holistic perspective. Although MacDonald, for example, claims not to be "driven by an over-romanticised sensitivity to the plight of the underdog", she in the same breath goes on to talk of "the magic of graffiti" and a "commitment to grant writers the respect and status they deserve as cultural commentators" (MacDonald 2001; 31). MacDonald, as with others (Paul 107 2003; Ganz 2006), deems it a moral duty to protect graffiti writers from criticisms and communicate what graffiti 'truly' signifies. Graffiti exists in many forms and is created by increasingly diverse individuals. This paper argues that opinions must be informed and stigma channelled correctly rather than rejected entirely.

The concepts as to what graffiti is has roused a large amount of literature from a variety of disciplines, questioning if it is art (Hagopian in Cresswell 1996; Powers 1996; Varnedoe and Gopnick 1990), if it is communication (Deutsche 1992; Rosenware 2004), if it is a reaction against the privatisation of public places (Ferrell 1995; Smith 1996; Skelton and Valentine 1998) or if it is a legal problem to be remedied (Glazer 1979; Steward 1987; Coffield 1991). The definition of graffiti has become vague to the extent that any illegal public markings are deemed graffiti. When scholars approach the subject they often fail to first define then address which type of graffiti it is that they are studying thus leading to generally broad and diffuse conclusions.

In their initial definition, authors may generalise graffiti as "ranging from scratching one's name on a park bench to sophisticated murals" (Bandaranaike 2001; 3). Although it has not been established, graffiti culture has various levels of participation, each of which deserves separate attention. For example, in broadly correlating Pompeii wall writings with contemporary graffiti images, Barnes concludes that perhaps our walls will say something of our culture "in several hundred years time" (2005; 7) – which fails to take into account current public perception and policy. The impossibility of broadly defining graffiti combined with authors' restricted focus on the 1970's means that graffiti literature has become largely confused and outdated. The argument of what graffiti is and where it belongs has been addressed for thirty years and with no new evidence coming to the fore; it is a cyclical argument in which conclusions are weak or not relevant to current social policy within a social context. In my introductory chapter, I specify the nature of graffiti which will be addressed and so endeavour to approach the subject in a more clearly defined way than previous authors.

Changing Dynamics of Graffiti

Binaries (Sibley 1995; Soja 1996; Bhabha 1994) are seen as opressive. Dirt and out of placeness create binaries of where one feels safe and where one feels vulnerable thus creating boundaries. The negative and/or romanticised stereotypes of graffiti may create binaries of exclusion; in either excluding wider society to be involved with graffiti, or graffiti writers being excluded from this wider society. These boundaries, however, are described as "clearly, not immutable… the academic has a role in producing urban ethnographies which portray the multiplicity of world views often hidden in the city, as well as 'writing the city' together with novelists, travel writers and so on, to convey the fine grain or urban life (Pratt and Hanson 1994; 247). In this context, writing about graffiti as a means of understanding those who remain anonymous, goes a long way in helping dissolve bounding binaries. The stigma attached to graffiti may be researched, revised and presented again to the public so what is 'good' and 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong', is negotiable and has the capacity to be modified to include 'others'.

The concept of Graffiti as a culture stemmed from the same factors which made it feared and rejected; the oppression of poor black African Americans trying to make their voices heard and the globalisation of black popular culture (Basu and Lemelle 2006). Literature has addressed but is yet to thoroughly expand on the class and ethnicity changes present in graffiti culture, preferring instead to challenge the more apparent issue of gender inequalities, graffiti being a predominantly male dominated sphere (MacDonald 2001; Ganz 2006). It seems by speculation of the press alone that graffiti may be a new middle class culture which is increasingly influenced by external influencing factors, such as the internet (Addley 2006; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2006). There is a need to revise the nature of graffiti, towards new concepts of 'Neo-Graffiti', in a hope to better explore its increasingly diverse characteristics and inform public opinion accordingly. This study takes a step in understanding why graffiti retains the dichotomy of culture and crime. Conclusive reference is made to the direction which studies of graffiti should assume in increasingly globalised and technologically dependent societies where images may not be restricted by 'place'.

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