Technology has made the world more convenient. We wait less, we find the things we want with little searching. We barely sit without knowing the answer to a question. In Noah Baumbach’s movie, “While We’re Young,” Jamie (Adam Driver), a young filmmaker urges his Gen-X friend (Ben Stiller) to leave his question unanswered. “Let’s just not know what it is,” he says with wonder.
It is with this wonder that I find myself studying tags and designs on the sides of buildings. I examined the colors and the patterns and wonder who wrote it and why. I do not know its exact meaning. Graffiti writing remains mysterious. The writers could be anyone. They want us to see what they paint. They do not want all of us to understand it. Like Jamie, I find myself interested but accepting of what I don’t know.
Graffiti Writing: Why do it?
My last post about graffiti described the ways state-led measures against graffiti were lessons in urban warfare for the military. In this one, I shift focus to the graffiti writers and not the responders. Why do they do it? Why is it worth the risks of fines and imprisonment? What does it teach them?
While these answers are as varied as each writer, there are some patterns to responses. To understand them, we first have to know that graffiti writing is a subculture. Knowing about subculture matters. First, it tells us that a person is rejecting part of the dominant culture. Second, subculture demands that every member act. A person can be part of mainstream culture and remain anonymous. A graffiti writer cannot be part of the subculture without producing graffiti. If you want to be in the group, you have to act.
Graffiti Writing: The Game
The graffiti made is often in the form of tags or an “aka.” The game of graffiti writing is getting the “aka” up as much as possible. Writers build fame by painting alot. Additionally, writers love spots like subway cars. Subway cars are hard to paint and avoid capture. We can see how it becomes a game.
Graffiti writing is illegal in most communities. It is rejected by mainstream culture. As a result, staying anonymous is required, and it is difficult to find someone who would speak about it openly. However, generally speaking, tagging is about asserting identity and existence. Writers experience a sense of joy, pride, and euphoria in creating the tags and in the recognition they receive from others within their graffiti community. The illegality provides a rush of adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment when they don’t get caught.
A Demand for Freedom or Just Rebellion
And some writers speak very specifically of freedom. They have a desire to paint and they act on it. For many of them, the illegality of the act is the point. The tag serves as a disagreement with social norms, practices, or government policy. When Greece enacted severe economic measures, graffiti writers responded aggressively. In some cases, authorities do not erase the messages. They recognize them as forms of free speech and may leave them for a time.
The concerns are real for businesses or homeowners who want clean walls. Communities are socialized to recognize clean walls as a sign of order and stability. Our association with graffiti is often “criminal.” This means tags communicate a sense of threat. A small business relies on people wanting to come into their space and being safe is key.
However, as a form of speech or an act of defiance against oppression or government restrictions, graffiti is ultimately peaceful. Nothing is broken in a way that cannot be reversed. Paint can be washed off or covered over. These marks disrupt a space. They create a moment of dissonance. Dissonance is a chance for learning and for opening up new perspectives.
Learning Graffiti Writing
Graffiti writers learn to write mostly by imitation. Copying tags is shunned and sometimes punished in graffiti communities, but general imitation is how new graffiti writers learn. There are some instances where an older writer will work with a younger writer, but again due to its illegal nature, graffiti is most often learned independently. However, graffiti “krews” are linked groups of writers who know and support one another through coded messages and actions.
For children and teens who experience isolation or neglect, a graffiti krew is a place of belonging. However, these krews are not limited to teenagers. One study interviewed 13 graffiti writers whose ages included individuals in their 40s. Like most forms of artistic expression, the work is most satisfying when it is shared and appreciated.
Graffiti: An Ongoing Puzzle
The graffiti world remains a mysterious place to outsiders. There is a strong temptation to dismiss the activity as vandalism or reframe it as pure artistic expression. The truth, as usual, is nuanced and lies somewhere in the murky middle. As with many interesting things, the questions are more numerous than answers. I’ll just take Jamie’s view of not knowing exactly “what it is,” and letting it remain another indicator of complex human experience.
Information for this post was supported by the research findings contained in: Liñero, A.M., & Pérez-Izaguirre, E. (2020). ‘I want to learn to do that’: Subcultural heritage, identity, and learning graffiti in Pamplona. International Journal of Heritage Studies. Doi: 10.1080/13527258.2020.1843521
Betsy Scotto-Lavino is the Director of Education and Research for The Artistic Fuel Foundation. She is also a Ph.D. student, wife, mother of three, and a nature lover. If you can't find me, I'm probably in the woods.