Kenneth W. Mentor
University of North Carolina Wilmington

Graffiti includes unauthorized writing, marks, or images on buildings, vehicles, or other private or public structures. Early examples of graffiti date to primeval times. Drawings of bison and deer found in caves are examples of graffiti left by prehistoric humans. This graffiti often depicted ceremonial or sacred locations. Other examples of early graffiti date to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. In addition to ceremonial significance, graffiti from this time included politics, humor, and other characteristics associated with contemporary graffiti.

The Kilroy image American soldiers drew on the walls of the cities they occupied during World War II was an example of the “I was here” form of graffiti. Similarly, tags or throw-ups, the most common type of graffiti, may be limited to the signatures of graffiti writers intending to leave their mark. These tags are not intended to communicate territory or control. In contrast, gang graffiti can be used to mark territory. More intricate graffiti, including images or murals, may range from temporary statements to more permanent representations of community and cultural pride.

Graffiti has traditionally been used to make political statements, although this type of graffiti became much more common in the 1960s, perhaps as a result of social unrest. As a form of vandalism, or communication, graffiti is exercised by marginal groups who are denied legitimate outlets to communicate frustrations or disapproval with the status quo. Graffiti is also an important tool for cultural communication. Building on the political expressions of the 1960’s, graffiti has more recently been associated with hip hop culture. The mainstream public has been introduced to hip hop graffiti through references in films, music, fashion, and other forms of communication. This exposure has provided opportunities for taggers to move from the underground world to museums. Graffiti has also moved from temporary to permanence as artists are recognized and commissioned to create “legitimate” forms of artistic expression.

Graffiti has also attracted increasing interest from the criminal justice system, perhaps as a result of the association with political and cultural communication. Local laws intended to restrict graffiti focus on vandalism rather than expression, often arguing that graffiti is detrimental to the safety and welfare of the public, reduces the value of private property, invites vandalism and additional graffiti, and encourages other criminal activities, eventually producing urban blight. Cities that have adopted a “broken windows” approach to crime control argue that graffiti, along with other signs of vandalism, lead to increased lawlessness. This perspective has resulted in graffiti laws that are overbroad, vague and an infringement on free speech. For example, in Ecko Complex LLP v. Bloomberg, 382 F.Supp.2d 627 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) the court ruled that it is a violation of the First Amendment to refuse to issue a permit based on the fear that a legal display or graffiti could encourage others to paint graffiti.

Graffiti control efforts also include architectural or environmental features, such as graffiti-resistant finishes, monitoring, and other forms of target hardening. Police may also target areas where graffiti is common. Many communities have passed graffiti abatement ordinances that call for quick removal or covering of graffiti. Business owners also remove graffiti out of concerns about intimidating patrons or creating or allowing a hostile work environment. Laws may also restrict access to spray paint and other supplies. As the artistic merit of graffit writers becomes accepted communities have also created legal alternatives, such as approved graffiti walls or other public spaces that highlight the work of graffiti writers.

For more information:

Castleman, C. (1982). Getting up: Subway graffiti in New York City. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Ferrell, J. (1993). Crimes of style: Urban graffiti and the politics of criminality. New York: Garland.

Ferrell, J. (1995). “Culture, crime, and cultural criminology,” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(2).

Kurlansky, M. and Mailer, N. (1974). The faith of graffiti. Westport, CT: Praeger.