‘Like now I’m confused …’ the blurred boundary between art and crime: Devaluing the cultural worth of graffiti writing

RON BAIRD

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The City of Melbourne is recognised as a vibrant cultural and intellectual metropolis that is home to a thriving graffiti and street art scene. However, municipal authorities draw a clear distinction between graffiti and street art that results in tensions related to the cultural worth of each art form. Despite domestic and international visitors’ obvious interest in graffiti, Melbourne has taken a solid stance focused on the eradication of graffiti via its graffiti removal program, and by working to prevent graffiti via anti-graffiti education programs and the cultivation of what it terms ‘high quality street art’. The contradiction at play here has the potential to negatively impact the development of young street artists about whom little is known. Based on qualitative interviews with active Melbourne graffiti writers gathered as part of a larger PhD study, this article presents the lived experiences of graffiti writers, arguing that Melbourne takes a myopic policy position on urban art that justifies the promotion of a valued art practice in ‘street art’, while simultaneously criminalising and devaluing graffiti writing.

Keywords: graffiti, street art, youth, crime, policy, economies of worth.

Graffiti[1] has become part of the contemporary cultural landscape of the City of Melbourne, a city recognised as a vibrant cultural and intellectual metropolis and home to a thriving graffiti and street art scene. As such, Melbourne is branded as a graffiti capital of the world (Cubrilo, Stamer & Harvey 2009; Dew 2007; Ganz 2004). Yet, there is debate and tension about the significance of graffiti as a recognised and legitimate cultural artifact. On the one hand, graffiti is viewed as vandalism or criminal damage, a blight on the city landscape that defaces the urban environment (Carney 2017; Dow 2017; Moreau and Alderman 2011; Simonis, Langmaid & Hore 2017). On the other hand, graffiti is increasingly viewed as a vibrant, cutting edge art form showcased in a number of city laneways and featuring in internationally acclaimed compendiums of graffiti (Cubrilo, Stamer & Harvey 2009; Dew 2007; Ganz 2004; MacDowall 2006; McAuliffe 2012; Young 2013).

In the course of the analysis of the interview data for the larger PhD study, an interesting theme emerged around the notion of the relative worth of graffiti in relation to its potential commercial value. This is often at the heart of the tension experienced between street artists and graffiti writers. Street arts enjoy legitimation and capacity to be represented in gallery shows, whereas graffiti writing is often perceived as vandalism and is ultimately stigmatised and labeled as an act of willful criminal damage (Campos 2015; Lachmann 1988; Young 2013). This prompted, first, the exploration of the concept of graffiti as a legitimate art practice in relation to its more socially accepted cousin, street art, and second, exploration of how perceptions of graffiti and street art as illegitimate and/or legitimate are formed and justified.

Context

Each year a significant number of people visit the City of Melbourne from both domestic and international locations to experience Melbourne’s vibrant graffiti culture. There are now even city graffiti tours, and Melbourne features regularly on “Top 10” internet lists of best international graffiti locations as well as in a range of tourist advertisements about city life and culture (Young 2011, 2013).

Despite a positive shift in the reception of graffiti as an urban art form with aesthetic merit, the value of graffiti continues to be contested, and graffiti still attracts negative media coverage (Carney 2017; Dow 2017; Hudson 2009; Langmaid 2017; Simonis, Langmaid & Hore 2017). Melbourne’s young graffiti writers[2] are portrayed as deviant vandals in newspaper headlines such as “Melbourne’s Graffiti Pests”, “Painting the Town Dreadful” and “Growing Graffiti Vandalism”. It appears that there is a contradiction at play in the wider society’s perception and understanding of the youth cultural practice of graffiti, which is simultaneously celebrated and vilified and creates a tension and debate regarding the place of graffiti in the contemporary city (Halsey and Young 2006; Iveson 2010, 2013; McAuliffe 2012; McAuliffe and Iveson 2011; Mubi Brighenti 2010; Young 2010, 2011, 2013). While graffiti and graffiti artists like Lister, Sofles and Adnate, who have made the transition to “street artist”, are celebrated, other graffiti writers like Nost, Pork And Lamb are treated with contempt (Bucci 2017; Dow 2017). Yet the artistic skill and aesthetic elements of graffiti are present whether the pieces are produced legally in Hosier Lane[3] or illegally along a train line or on a warehouse wall.

The City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014–2018 is the key instrument that sets out the strategy to address graffiti in the municipality of Melbourne. The plan articulates a three-pronged approach to combating graffiti, including rapid response graffiti removal, anti-graffiti education programs and the promotion of “high quality” street art. The plan suggests “graffiti can have a negative impact on community perceptions of safety and public amenity” (City of Melbourne 2014, p.3). The primary target articulated in the plan is the “tag”. All graffiti forms are focused on lettering styles; to be a graffiti writer is to “write”, so letters and fonts are particularly important, and thus tags are stylised calligraphic signatures depicting a writer’s or crew’s name scratched, painted or otherwise marked upon a surface. Tagging and its eradication are the almost exclusive focus of the plan, thus defining graffiti as “writing or drawings scribbled scratched or sprayed illegally on a wall or other surface in public space” (City of Melbourne 2014, p.1). The rationale for graffiti eradication outlined in the Graffiti Management Plan 2014–2018 states:

The city of Melbourne removes Graffiti in the public space because it has a negative impact on the amenity and presentation of the municipality. Graffiti removal is part of good municipal management – in the same way as street cleanliness and the collection of dumped rubbish.

This statement emphasises why the City of Melbourne municipal authorities view graffiti as problematic; it creates a perception of threats, threats to public safety, and a threat to the city’s image as an aesthetically pleasing, safe place to visit. However, these threats in and of themselves are innocuous and in all probability are unfounded. One effect of this position, implied in the above statement, is that the presence of graffiti generates fear, which aligns with Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) “broken windows” theory; this criminological theory posits that any minor criminality or negative visual stimuli, such as buildings with broken windows or graffiti in an urban area, will lead to increases in crime and anti-social behaviour (Wilson and Kelling 1982). Following this line of argument, graffiti is perceived as producing fear among citizens, and, by drawing on the theorisation of the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966), graffiti is presented by the City of Melbourne in the same category as “dumped rubbish” or pollution that is “matter out of place”. This displaced object has the symbolic power to induce fear as it is linked to and is constructed as criminal behaviour. Little is known, however, about the lived experience of graffiti writers in this climate of contradiction.

This article presents first-hand accounts of graffiti writers’ lived experiences and understandings of their place in Melbourne’s urban art culture that portray a dual and contradictory view of graffiti writing. The findings of this study indicate that Melbourne graffiti writers experience the practice of graffiti writing in the shadow of Melbourne’s municipal authorities. These authorities take a blinkered policy position on urban art, justifying the promotion of “street art” as a valued art practice, to the detriment of the criminalised and devalued art practice of graffiti writing.

Methodolgy

The data presented was drawn from a larger qualitative PhD study of 11 active graffiti writers using an adapted ethnographic approach that combined a mix of research strategies including semi-structured interviews. The practice of graffiti writing via a city council-run aerosol arts program was also observed. As this study is concerned with understanding the lived experience of graffiti writers, a social constructivist ontology is appropriate. A social constructivist position denotes that the subjective experience of graffiti writers and the meanings they make from their involvement in the practice are negotiated socially and historically, and thus privilege the participants’ experience as related to the researcher (Creswell 2007; Lincoln and Guba 2000). The participants were recruited at two field sites: one in the western suburbs of Melbourne via a local government council and the other in the City of Melbourne, via a street art studio in which a number of graffiti writers rented studio space. This paper draws on a small sample of excerpts from interviews conducted with the graffiti writers who participated in the larger study, which investigated how the practice of graffiti writing is learned and how young people experience this learning.

The process of analysis of the data followed the process described by Creswell (2007); Miles, Huberman & Saldana (2014) and Richards and Morse (2013). Concepts were not defined prior to coding, but emerged during data analysis. The aim was to become immersed in the interview data and gain an appreciation of the whole interview before breaking it up into themes and codes. This process allowed for “opening up the codes to reflect the view of participants in a traditional qualitative way” (Creswell 2007). The codes were developed by focusing on the words of the participants themselves.

The theoretical position employed in this paper draws upon Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006) concept of “economies of worth” that is used to analyse the data. An economy of worth is a new way to view a social phenomenon that deviates from the traditional collective/individual dichotomy of the social sciences and places the focus on the “common elements of these contrasting explanatory methodologies” (Boltanski & Thévenot 2006). An economy of worth stipulates what objects are valid, how they come to be validated and in what graded order this occurs in the world within which people interact. The concept is used to understand how social actors come to justifiable agreements by taking into account “justification logics” and the variety of conceptions of the common good linked to those logics.

Findings

A number of core themes emerged from the analysis of the data. The findings of this study indicate that tensions exist between graffiti writers and street artists. In addition, Melbourne graffiti writers experience the practice of graffiti writing in the shadow of Melbourne’s municipal authorities, who take a blinkered policy position on urban art, justifying the promotion of “street art” as a valued art practice to the detriment of graffiti writing which is devalued as an art practice but simultaneously celebrated and vilified by municipal authorities.

Tensions between graffiti writing and street art

The data indicate a tension between graffiti writers and street artists, a distinction that is also clearly articulated in the City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014 – 2018 (2014). The tension revolves around the nature of the cultural worth ascribed to these objects as derived from what is understood to be in the common good of the public consumers of these objects that are produced in public space (Young 2013).

Graffiti focuses on the production of stylised lettering that depicts an individual graffiti writer’s or crew’s name, whereas street art involves the placement of unsanctioned artwork in public space and can include stencils, posters, paste-ups, sculptures and street installations as well as pictographic images rendered in spray paint (Wacławek 2011). To be a graffiti writer is to “write”, thus letters and fonts are of particular importance to the culture of graffiti writing, a central tenet of graffiti as opposed to street art. As JD, one of the study participants remarked, “unless you paint letters you are not doing graffiti, you might as well be doing street art”. As mentioned previously, graffiti and street art often suffer from tensions, antagonisms and resentments. Much of the resentment derives from the fact that street art is less vigorously policed than graffiti writing (Young 2011) as Jack, a graffiti writer and youth worker, attests:

… that split between street art and graffiti is pretty strong as well, so if you’re a well known street artist and people like your stuff, that doesn’t mean graffiti writers will care about it as you register very low on their importance levels …

Although the tension experienced between the two cultures is real, it is also at times a paradoxical relationship as street artists and graffiti writers will often collaborate or share studio space. Tyrone, a long-term veteran writer in the Melbourne graffiti scene, corroborates this point, explaining that:

… when I was young, doing graffiti, I bashed people who did street art … that’s not me now. I’ve got a street art gallery right now, I’ve got studio space here [in a street art studio].

The positions articulated by Jack and Tyrone are justified based on an assessment of the cultural worth attached to the contested artifact. In this case, street art is deemed to be lacking due to its perceived illegitimacy among graffiti writers who place a high value or cultural worth on the illegality of graffiti as distinct from street art, which is largely produced in a legal context (Waclawek 2008). This also extends to notions of risk. Due to the illegal nature of graffiti writing there are more risks associated with the practice than there are with legally produced street art, and this contributes to the perception among graffiti writers that street art is a lesser or inauthentic practice.

‘Do you like me or you don’t?’ The simultaneous celebration and vilification of graffiti writing

As the study participants discussed the tensions between graffiti and street art, a counter narrative began to emerge of a simultaneous and contradictory nature. One of the study participants, Tyrone, recently returned from a trip to a graffiti festival in Mongolia where he painted murals and presented workshops for local graffiti writers in Ulan Bator. On his return, he encountered at Melbourne Airport the intersection of culture and crime in the form of tourist marketing of the criminalised culture in which he participates. As Tyrone relates:

… as you fly into Melbourne there’re pictures of street art on the walls, on big canvasses. They have in the [in-flight] magazine – in the Qantas magazine, things to do in Melbourne, the street art tours and stuff like that.

There is a clear articulation of city branding in the display of street art in the arrivals area of Melbourne Airport and in the in-flight magazine’s message; however, for the graffiti writer this represents a contradiction of the simultaneous celebration of graffiti and its de-valuing and criminalisation. Tyrone put this contradiction into context when discussing the perception of graffiti as articulated in local government policy. He stresses not necessarily people, the public, but specifically policy designed to control, as Tyrone articulates:

… while they’re trying to gain control with their new laws and rules, they’ll happily use what you’re doing to appear like they’re open-minded. Like tourism Australia, welcome to Melbourne, full of graffiti, and then you get caught doing graffiti and they’re like OK you’re gonna have to do two hundred and fifty hours of community service and pay twenty grand. Like well, do I get a cut of the piece you showed of mine on the TV ad, do you want to pay me 200 grand ’cause you’ve just made a whole lot of money out of tourism. Like now I’m confused, do you like me or you don’t …

The above quote indicates that graffiti writers experience the blurred boundary between art and crime in the contradictory position espoused by Melbourne’s municipal authorities. The City of Melbourne and Tourism Victoria regularly use images of graffiti in their advertising material in an effort to portray Melbourne as an artistic and cultural capital, and in this way seemingly legitimatise graffiti as an urban art form (Dovey, Wollan & Woodcock 2012; Stewart 2008). In doing so, however, the artist is still criminalised and subject to penalties (community service or a monetary fine) despite the fact that the graffiti writers’ artwork was used in advertising material inviting tourists to indulge themselves in a street art tour and discover the hidden graffiti gems of the city’s laneways. The problematic juxtaposition of using graffiti as a marketing tool while simultaneously taking a zero-tolerance approach to the production of graffiti in the public sphere negates the plurality of value systems within the community and privileges acceptance and justification of graffiti practice only when it serves the purposes of Tourism Victoria and the City of Melbourne. In this context, the attribution of graffiti’s worth is related to the state’s position as an arbiter of “rightness”, which can be used to justify an action (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006).

Legitimation or cooptation: Devaluing graffiti in favour of high quality street art

The contradictory stance assumed by Melbourne City Council in relation to graffiti is further complicated by an apparent shift toward greater legitimation of graffiti among certain community organisations. The apparent positive shift in the reception of graffiti is best exemplified by the recent launch of the Intercontinental Hotel graffiti laneway-themed ballroom and function room. These graffiti-themed renovations seemingly illustrate the increasing mainstream acceptance of graffiti writing. The graffiti tags and pieces incorporated into the hotel’s renovations were carried out by local graffiti writers and street artists, including two of the research participants in this study. While some graffiti writers view these events as steps toward the legitimation of graffiti, others argue this is nothing more than the co-optation and commodification of the culture for commercial means, as indicated in the quote below by Tyrone:

We went to this opening of a new hotel last night that we’d painted in, the Intercontinental Hotel next to Rialto. They’d made the whole place like laneways inside and done it all up with street art and shit. It was kind of like I felt like a prostitute because we’d painted this thing for not much money at all. Then they’d spent all this money and song and dance to say how street art they are and how cool it is and all this. So it’s like, yeah, the contradiction of they didn’t – they wouldn’t let any graffiti artist hang out in the hotel, but they’ve got all our art in there. So it’s just a joke really.

Tyrone’s response to his involvement in the Intercontinental Hotel graffiti-themed renovations is instructive as it helps to highlight the sense of co-optation felt by some graffiti writers to these perceived moves towards the legitimation of graffiti. This discussion also signals how these events highlight the contradictory nature of Melbourne’s Graffiti Management Plan 2014–2018 (2014) and its impact upon graffiti writers who are simultaneously celebrated and vilified.

Tyrone explains that he felt like a “prostitute” selling himself – his art – for very little financial gain, and, while the artists were invited to attend the launch, they were made to feel unwelcome and excluded. The concept of economy of worth articulated by Boltanski and Thévenot (2006) has two levels, the polity and the common world. A polity is a legitimate order that can be perceived as a higher common principle that will sustain justification. Boltanski and Thévenot (2006) identify six different polities: the inspired polity, the domesticate polity, the polity of fame, the civic polity, the market polity and the industrial polity. Tyrone’s statement speaks to a conflict between the market polity and the civic polity in relation to the relative worth of graffiti. The polity model gives direction to the ordinary sense of what is just and worthy (Boltanski & Thévenot 2006).

On the one hand, the Intercontinental Hotel graffiti renovation appears to be a step toward the legitimation and acceptance of graffiti, as it is framed within a market polity – that is, a commercial entity celebrating graffiti in the private sphere. On the other hand, however, the City of Melbourne, within a civic polity orientation, elaborates a contradictory stance in simultaneously seeking to celebrate street art while also criminalising and devaluing the culture of graffiti writing. Melbourne City Council takes this stance on graffiti writing when its purposes do not suit its governance role of catering to the common good of business and property owners affected by criminalised and delegitimised graffiti tags.

The Intercontinental Hotel graffiti theme was staged in Melbourne to further establish and capitalise on the city’s status as a leading champion of graffiti and street art culture. However, there appears to be a contradiction at play; while the City of Melbourne celebrates street art and, seemingly, graffiti writing as well, municipal authorities continue to take a “zero-tolerance” approach to graffiti via its graffiti eradication program articulated in the City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014–2018 (2014) discussed earlier in this paper. The eradication program espouses rapid removal of graffiti in an effort to dissuade and demoralise graffiti writers. However, as Tyrone explains, “rapid removal” does not dissuade graffiti writers from producing their artwork, though it does work well on a political level as a tool to devalue the cultural worth of graffiti:

I mean, I’ve worked with councils and stuff and punishment and removal don’t solve anything. It’s a Band-Aid. I mean, oh, look, people are tagging the streets. Let’s clean it. I mean that’s not really addressing anything. That’s just addressing people’s fears, the broken window effect. The stupid [people] that go, oh, there’s a tag, there must be gang activity. It’s like, okay, good on you, let’s clean it and then tomorrow it will be there again. We’ll clean it again and tomorrow it will be there again. Then we’ll complain at the end of the year that our budget is blown out because these bloody vandals spent $1 million.

In this context, the object (graffiti) becomes ascribed with an exchange value and a worth by way of the polity of the common good. Graffiti shifts from an art object to a commodity that is either valued or relegated as worthless based on the conflict between the market polity and the civic polity as outlined above. In the case of the City of Melbourne’s response to street art and graffiti, that privileges one art form over the other; we see competing justifications for the value of street art over graffiti. Therefore, the worth ascribed to street art is essentialist in its affirming the value-oriented state of art as a commodity, and graffiti’s construction as a valueless object that has very little relative worth for the civic polity. This leads to a zero tolerance approach to graffiti on the part of Melbourne’s municipal authorities. This approach may have a deleterious effect on the future of public art if Melbourne continues to criminalise and subject to penalty aspiring artists just because their chosen art form is graffiti.

To further underscore the shortsighted and contradictory position of Melbourne City Council in relation to graffiti writing, it is useful to briefly highlight the example of Adnate, a successful Melbourne street artist who is currently in demand. Adnate’s roots are firmly in Melbourne’s graffiti writing culture where, as a young graffiti writer, he tagged and pieced Adnate all across the city. We would not have the acclaimed street art produced by Adnate if he had not learned how to write graffiti with a spray can when he began tagging on the Upfield train line in Melbourne’s inner north as a young man in the AWOL crew. His is an example of the progression of an art form that is simultaneously celebrated and vilified in Melbourne. Tyrone sums up the contradictory position that challenges the inconsistent position of Melbourne’s stance on graffiti:

Well, if they [the city of Melbourne] … love the big Adnate and they hate the tag, it’s like, there’s a connection there …

The connection that Tyrone refers to is that whether or not graffiti is celebrated or vilified, graffiti writers possess skills and produce artwork. And while not all graffiti writers will go on to pursue careers as professional artists, by continuing to criminalise the practice, Melbourne’s municipal authorities risk dissuading young, talented artists from emerging simply because they – the authorities – find the chosen art form to be distasteful.

Conclusion

This paper has argued that Melbourne has embraced a myopic policy position on graffiti that justifies the promotion of “street art” as a valued art practice to the detriment of graffiti, which continues to be criminalised and devalued. This paper demonstrates the ways in which Melbourne graffiti writers experience the practice of graffiti writing in the shadow of Melbourne’s municipal authorities, who take a blinkered policy position on urban art, justifying the promotion of “street art” as a valued art practice to the detriment of graffiti writing which is criminalised and devalued as an art practice. The practice of graffiti writing often begins with “tagging”, but evolves from there into practitioners’ production of large-scale colorful and stylised murals termed “pieces” – short for masterpieces. Despite this, Melbourne’s municipal authorities enact laws, plans and strategies that attempt to eradicate the art practice of graffiti writing. This position devalues graffiti’s worth as not befitting of the common good of the City of Melbourne and questions the very nature of what art is, which leaves its young practitioners in a vulnerable position that not only devalues their art practice but may lead to talented artists giving up the practice entirely.

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Author

Ron C. Baird teaches undergraduate criminology and sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences, Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. His research interests are in the area of youth cultures, youth deviancy and informal learning. rbaird@unimelb.edu.au

[1] For the purposes of this paper, graffiti is defined as “to write one’s street-name or signature as a ‘tag’ (calligraphy letters depicting a writers or crew’s name), ‘throw-up’ (quickly executed bubble font graffiti) or ‘piece’ (large-scale stylised mural that depicts a writer’s or crew’s name) in public either illegally or legally, using spray-paint, textas/markers or paint rollers”.

[2] Someone who engages in the practice of writing signature graffiti with a focus on stylised lettering in public spaces primarily using spray paint and markers.

[3] A city laneway in Melbourne’s CBD that is famous for it’s “legal” graffiti and street art murals, which are tolerated by municipal authorities due to its popularity among domestic and international tourists.