Appendix 1

Taxonomy of Analytical Approaches to Graffiti

© 1995 Jane Gadsby

As outlined in the attached essay, part of the problem with graffiti research is that so many approaches are being employed and so many different types of graffiti being analysed. This makes it difficult for researchers to sift through the available material to locate texts that are applicable to their own interests. Therefore, I have begun the creation of a taxonomy of this literature in the hope that it will be added to and built upon as more texts are created. As well, I plan to use this as a portion of my master's thesis.

The taxonomy is divided into the nine methodologies that I have outlined in the essay. However, as Dundes (1966) pointed out, the term "graffiti" is too broad for accurate usage as "it included all kinds of inscription and marks placed on walls" (91). It is important to make sure that there is a clear lexicon of graffiti. Below I have categorised graffiti into six common types (note 1) as follows:


This term was first coined by Dundes to refer to graffiti found in restrooms, because, as he states in his article "Here I Sit--A Study of American Latrinalia," it is preferable to the term "shithouse poetry" (92). Latrinalia is the most common type of studied graffiti since "one of the few places where dirt be displayed and discussed in American culture is the bathroom, private and public."


Quite often graffiti written on exterior walls of buildings or subway cars, etc., is just referred to as "graffiti." This type of graffiti is far too important not to be recognised as distinct. Therefore, I use the term public since these graffiti are often territorial or contain messages offered for mass consumption. These graffiti usually appear outdoors or in high traffic indoor areas such as bus stations or libraries.


Often tags are part of public but not always. They do utilise the same locations and surfaces but the basic difference is that the message is meant only for insiders to the community. Those who study graffiti will start to recognise that each tag is unique and represents a person. This is much more individualised than a mere name, since many people can have the same name. It is closer to being like a fingerprint--no two people have the same tag. A tag usually involves the blending of several different elements, piecing together a part of the writer's name or initials, their street number, a symbol or something else of significance to them. Norman Mailer (1974) includes quite a list of these tags in his book The Faith of Graffiti, including such examples as CAY 161 or TAKI 183. Other examples of researchers who discuss the significance of tags are Bonuso (1976), Erickson (1987), Grider (1973) and Hager (1984).


This refers to graffiti being analysed by someone not contemporary to the writings. While they may contain many of the elements or characteristics of the rest of the graffiti types, the researcher is at a tremendous disadvantage since they cannot have any insider information as they have not lived during the time the graffiti were written, nor do they have access to the thoughts and conditions of the people writing it except through other historical or archival sources. The most famous examples of this type are the wall writings of the people of Pompeii which have been examined by people like Lindsay (1960) or Tanzer (1939).

Folk Epigraphy

This type of graffiti is, as the name implies, the carvings of the common people. Usually folk epigraphy is craved into rock, trees or finished wood surfaces. However, in Lindsay (1960) the people of Pompeii carved graffiti into the walls around them. Read (1977) accumulated an early collection of folk epigraphy when he travelled the United States in 1928. Folk epigraphy seems to be a dying art form, especially since the advent of spray cans and magic markers which are faster and easier to use.


The humourous category is a very difficult one to pin down. A lot of the graffiti accumulated through the entertainment methodology (such as the books by Colombo and Mockridge) fall into this grouping but there is more to humourous graffiti then that. Beck (1982) and Warakomski (1991) look at this graffiti linguistically or to analyse the motivations of the writers.

The graph below measures the occurrence of the types of graffiti used in the articles I analysed. The most popular type for analysis is public graffiti though latrinalia is used almost as much.

But the comprehension of graffiti would not be complete without a look at the motivations behind writing it. Blume (1985) outlines two major classifications for motivations with eight sub-groups beneath them (143-145) [note 2]. For use in empirical research, these groups are accurate and through. However, for a taxonomy of this nature (which is focusing mainly on research methodologies), I have simplified the motivations for graffiti communications into two groups as follows:


As the name implies, conversational graffiti solicits a written response from some known or unknown person. The most common place to find conversational graffiti is in the restroom thought it is not exclusively latrinalia as I have seen some in library carrels or selected public walls at York University. Moonwomon (1992) studied a particularly involved conversational graffiti discuss. One short graffito resulted in thirty-six responses regarding an occurrence of great local significance--a rape on the Berkeley campus. Many of the comments were questions, inviting further response to the discussion.


A person writing declarative graffiti is not attempting to obtain any written response from his/her readers. The graffito simply states a point of view or humourous comment. Artistic graffiti or tags would also fall into this category as does the vast majority of the graffiti written or studied. Posener's books detail graffiti of activist groups in Australia who use these writings to oppose sexist advertising and policies. Graffiti such as "women say no to male violence" or "rapists are in the home too" are declarative as they are not inviting discussion but stating opinions (Posener, 1982, 32-34).

For the purposes of this taxonomy, I have not marked all of the declarative graffiti since almost all of the graffiti analysed is declarative. It is safe to assume that any texts not marked as analysing conversational graffiti, analyse declarative. There are a few that I have marked and these are done so because the graffiti presented is of particular interest, usually for political reasons. In addition to this, I have noted where the graffiti analysed is locationally specific. This denotes research that occurs on graffiti in a very specific location, such as the campus at Berkeley or the subway cars of New York City. I think this is important as some collections of graffiti are taken from different cities so that there is no common cultural or locational background. Usually the locationally specific research has contextual information as well as the graffiti themselves.

For definitions of the methodological approaches, please refer to the essay "Looking at the Writing on the Wall."

Table 1

Table 2

Table 3

Table 4

Table 5

Table 6

Table 7

Table 8

Table 9

Table 10

Table 11

Table 12

Table 13

Table 14

  1. It is important to remember that a single piece of graffiti could be considered as more than one type. For example, one piece may be both public and humourous.
  2. For more detail on Blume's model, see page 8 of the essay.

© Copyright 1995 Jane Gadsby. Comments to

Art Crimes Front Page