Looking at the Writing on the Wall: A Critical Review and Taxonomy of Graffiti Texts

© copyright 1995 Jane M. Gadsby jgadsby@bellnet.ca

This essay is a work in progress and will be added to as I uncover more texts. The review and taxonomy will be forming part of my master's thesis. If you use this text in any form, please be sure to properly cite me as a reference and I would appreciate it if you would drop me a line to let me know that it was useful to you. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or additional texts for this work. Thanx!

Looking at the Writing on the Wall

Graffiti abounds in the world around us. It's visible on almost every conceivable surface, even on some that defy all logic. With the bounty of such material to draw on, graffiti has become a logical focus for many scholars from a variety of different disciplines. Attitudes towards graffiti have a wide variance. Varnedoe and Gopnik (1990) compare art and graffiti in their book. They see graffiti "as a whole is a composite phenomenon, part childish prank, part adult insult" (77). Abel and Buckley (1977) take an entirely different stance. They look at the writing of graffiti as a psychological phenomenon, "a form of communication that is both personal and free of everyday social restraints that normally prevent people from giving uninhibited reign to their thoughts" (3). I have reviewed over a hundred texts on the subject of graffiti and the diversity in viewpoints range from graffiti as amusing (and/or annoying) to graffiti as a significant linguistic event.

With such a wide variety of research available, it would seem that a system for reviewing or categorising these texts is badly needed. With this in mind, my intentions for this essay are as follows:

  1. Define "graffiti"
  2. Discuss graffiti research (a critical review of some of the texts with regards to the problems in graffiti research)
  3. Categorise the methodological approaches
  4. Look at what the future holds for the study of graffiti

What is Graffiti?

The word "graffiti" is the plural of the Italian word "graffito" which means scratchings. "The word is related, both linguistically and in content, with the name of a particular technique of mural painting, that of 'sgraffito'." The common English usage of the word has evolved to include just about any type of public writing, "for which no official provision is made and which are largely unwanted" (Blume 137).

The terminology of the field of study has become imprecise. The word "graffiti" is now used to mean any wall writing or pictures or symbols or markings of any kind on any surface anywhere no matter what the motivation of the writer. This problem was touched on by Dundes (1966) when he proposed that a separate term be used for restroom graffiti and since then the term "latrinalia" has come into somewhat common usage in graffiti research. However, this does not fully encompass all of the different types of graffiti. For the purposes of this essay, I will be referring to six different types:

  • latrinalia
  • public
  • folk epigraphy
  • historical
  • tags and
  • humourous

(these types are defined in the taxonomy in Appendix 1).

Discussion of Graffiti Research

The 1970s were halcyon days of graffiti research (see Figure 1). During this time, researchers from every conceivable discipline were looking at graffiti. This has resulted in a tremendous archive of graffiti data just ripe for analysis. (Note: The graph below is based on the texts listed in the bibliography.)

There are two main problems with the texts written on graffiti. First is the multiplicity of different approaches used. In reviewing the texts on the subject, I found that there were nine different approaches being employed. This diversity can be a strength if used properly. Viewing any subject from varying angles ensures a thorough investigation of all available material. However, without connections between the approaches, such diversity can be daunting and counter-productive. Much of this variation can be accounted since for many people graffiti just isn't a serious field of study. This attitude has plagued researchers who have learned to walk a tightrope between desiring to do "serious" scientific research, such as Regina Blume's look at graffiti as a model of communication, and knowing that for many graffiti is merely entertaining.

These variances in attitudes may also be the cause of the second problem, that many of the texts arrive at arbitrary and/or subjective conclusions. Some of these texts are written up in an extremely light-hearted, cavalier manner with pithy titles and captions using only the intuition of the author of the text as analytical resource (such as Reisner, 1977). Others, however, are written as serious studies but the researchers make leaps in logic that are not supported by the data (for example Landy and Steele, 1967). I will discuss these two problems in graffiti research separately.

Nine Approaches

As expected, each researcher chooses the approach which lends itself to fulfilling his/her needs. This has led to a wide array of approaches: cultural, gendered, linguistic, folkloric, quantitative, aesthetic, motivational, preventative and popularisation1 Each of these approaches has benefits and detriments. By reviewing each one we can get a better sense of how each of these texts can be used for further research.(note 2)


The discussion of culture and the practise of everyday life has interested many modern scholars, including sociologists and anthropologists. In the cultural study of graffiti, researchers look at graffiti as a representation of a specific community or ethnic group. They use all available data in reviewing each graffito (i.e., language, location, etc.) to illuminate the collective everyday life and feelings of the people of that particular culture. The possible difficulties with this type of approach is that odd graffiti (material that is completely different from other material) may be taken as representing a significant portion of the community, rather than just the attitudes of that particular writer. In other words, the individual is seen as less significant than the community.

Bushnell (1990) uses graffiti to show what is important to the people in Moscow and this fascinating book touches on everything from politics to American rock bands. He uses graffiti as a barometer, a way of measuring the effect of changes on the people of Moscow. Graffiti has often been used to study culture as they "reflect the nature of the society that produced them" (Freeman 13). Castellón (1978) and Cohan (1975) examine contemporary graffiti as significant representations of the specific cultures they were studying. The cultural approach has also been utilised by archaeological researchers of folk epigraphy such as Lang (1974 and 1976), who focused on the Athenian Agora and Lindsay (1960) who looked at Pompeii in its final days.


Many researchers find that because restrooms segregate the population by gender, they can study the gender based differences in latrinalia without having to try and guess the gender of the writer. The gendered approach rarely seems to look for similarities between genders but rather focuses on the differences. Bruner and Kelso (1980) reviewed various quantitative studies on graffiti and conclude that there are indeed differences based on gender:

	An inspection of the surface text reveals that male and female
	restroom graffiti differ in two major respects. The first is that
	women's graffiti are more interactive and interpersonal; one woman
	will raise a question and others will provide a string of responses
	and serious replies. . . . Men write about sexual conquests, sexual
	prowess and frequency of performance. . . . Women's graffiti are more
	conversational and deal with relationships; men's are more
	individualistic and deal with isolated sex acts and organs. 

This type of analysis rarely take additional aspects (such as culture or location) into consideration. Cole (1991) and Hentschel (1987) also use the gendered approach to analyse latrinalia and come to much the same conclusions as Bruner and Kelso. It should be noted that also included in gendered analysis are discussions of sexual orientation, such as was done by Sechrest and Flores (1969).


Just as the term implies, the linguistic approach is based on the language used in each graffito and the way the writer employs that language. One of the most interesting linguistic studies was done by Grider (1973) involving the con safos graffiti of Mexican-Americans. These writers use the term con safos or the initials C.S. around their tags and public graffiti as a form of protection for their writings. "Just as the reflection in Perseus' shield killed Medusa, it throws the obscenity or slur back upon the defacer of the graffiti name thus protected" (134). This article deals with the cultural and linguistic use of the term con safos within the community. Other examples of linguistic analysis are Niernberg (1983) and Romotsky (1974). Linguistic analysis is best when used with contextual information from the community where the graffito was located.


This approach stresses the collection of graffiti as accurately as possible. Sometimes there is analysis of the data and sometimes there is contextual information provided but not always. One of the problems with this approach is that sometimes an accurate accumulation is completed with little analysis of the information. When this happens, the collection becomes simply archival. Also, these archives contain only the graffiti which the researcher sees as interesting and rarely is every single graffito recorded. This selectivity in the collection process diminishes the whole.

Read (1977) travelled to tourist attractions across the United States (mostly national parks) in the late 1920s and recorded the folk epigraphy he found. He provided little contextual information for these graffiti but he carefully documented the date and location for each graffito. His motivation was to preserve these writings for posterity. Without contextual information, the only aspect of the graffiti in Read's collection that can be analysed is the words themselves. Blake (1981) and Fraser (1980) are other examples of the folkloric approach.

It should be noted that many of the collections of graffiti that were published for primarily entertainment reasons can also be considered as folkloric since they record graffiti that may otherwise have been lost. Usually the collected graffiti fall into the humourous category.


This approach is basically one of crunching numbers. Little or no contextual information is provided and usually the researchers are studying differences in graffiti based on content or gender or some other measurable quality. Bates and Martin (1980) found sixteen separate graffiti content categories on the campus of University of Massachusetts. Their statistical evaluation of the collected graffiti detailed how many responses were pro or con regarding a particular subject and there is further breakdown based on gender. Other quantitative researchers include Bess et al (1976) and Deiulio (1973).


What is art and what is graffiti? Aesthetic analysis looks at the artistic qualities of graffiti. There are many common factors between public graffiti and art. Varnedoe and Gopnik (1990) draw comparisons between graffiti art and the works of Marcel Duchamp and Jean Dubuffet. Robinson (1990) documents the subway graffiti art of the SoHo district of New York and its artistic connection to the broader cultural implications of Hip Hop. Usually those texts which engage in the aesthetic approach to graffiti are beautifully illustrated with wonderful photographs.


Why do people write graffiti? Motivational analysis tries to answer this question. It tends to examine the mind of the individual writing the graffito, rather than an entire culture or community, then look for patterns between all writers to find a common denominator. This approach is often used in conjunction with the preventative approach, but not always. Many of the psychologists researching graffiti use this approach (for example, Abel and Buckley, 1977).

Blume (1985) has created categories for the various motivations for writing graffiti (143-145). Basically, she found there were two main groupings with eight sub-groupings beneath them. I have created a diagram to illustrate her concepts and marked it as Figure 2. Her model is one of the few laid out with clarity and accuracy. Part of the problem with much of the motivational research is that much of the conclusions are subjective or that there is little consistency in terminology or approach. There could be a great deal of improvement in motivational analysis of graffiti by following the Blume model.


Many law enforcement agencies, politicians and concerned citizens want to find a way to prevent graffiti because of either the negative atmosphere it creates or the dollar value of the damage caused. The preventative approach often entails research into which surfaces discourage people from writing graffiti. This approach is the only one of the nine I have outlined in this article that takes the stance that graffiti is a disease that needs to be eliminated. Coffield's book (1991) proposes many different ways to prevent graffiti in Britain including Neighbourhood Watch programs, improved housing programs and education while still recognising the artistic factors involved in the creation of graffiti. Glazer (1979) and Stewart (1987) also deal with the prevention of graffiti.


Humour books are very popular and one need only check out the local bookstore to see why publishers want to print humourous material. This category really isn't a approach since most often it is just a collection of graffiti provided to entertain the reader. Both of Colombo's books (1975 and 1983) fall into this category. Rarely are the locations of graffiti listed, except in very vague terms, and there is no contextual information, just subjective commentary from the author. The books are quite amusing as they were designed to be, but there usually is not enough information on the writings or their surroundings for the collection to be used for anything other than entertainment.

I have found that the most thorough examinations have employed two or more approaches. For example, Davies (1985) uses gendered, linguistic, folkloric and motivational approaches and the result is a thorough and thought provoking article. I have categorised all of the one hundred and seven texts that I analysed by their methodological approaches and created Figure 3 to illustrate the most commonly used approaches. As you can see, the folkloric approach has by far been used by more scholars to date. However, as will be discussed later in this essay, that appears to be changing.

Subjectivity in Research

One example of an arbitrary conclusion appears in Landy and Steele's article "Graffiti as a Function of Building Utilization" (1967).(note 3) These researchers review their quantitative findings and conclude that specialised graffiti were found more often in specialised buildings rather than buildings with a more general use. This is quite logical based on their research. However, they don't stop there. They add the following statement:

	Male toilet rooms had writing on almost all the walls, doors and
	cracks between tiles, on vertical and horizontal planes and were
	generally dirtier than female toilet rooms in the same buildings. 
	The absence of graffiti and the greater evidence of smoking in female
	toilet rooms might reflect the need for phallic expression (Landy
	1967). Whereas males act out this need by creating graffiti, females
	smoke it out! (712)

This conclusion has no support from the data they gathered and is, quite frankly, just the opinion of the researchers. With no other data to draw on, they make a completely arbitrary link between females leaving cigarette butts in their restrooms and their "needing" phallic expression. (note 4)

Arbitrary conclusions such as the one detailed above stem from trying to analyse graffiti in isolation with little or no contextual information. Reisner (1967) collected graffiti from restrooms from cities all over the United States and categorised it in chapters like "Sarcasm and Cynicism" or "Homosexual Billets-Doux." His choices for what goes into what category are subjective--he provides no contextual information other than the location of the graffiti. In the chapter entitled "Braggadocio" he gives his opinion on the graffiti in that chapter:

	Most boasts are written by people who are lonely, who are perhaps
	unappreciated socially and at work. "See," they are saying, "the
	world doesn't know what it's missing!" But true or untrue, silly,
	sad or sick, the boasts are just begging for a put-down--and get it. 

Reisner makes a lot of assumptions, especially considering he has not spoken to any of the graffiti writers (or if he has, it is not documented). The commentary he provides is just his opinion based on what he reads into the graffiti. The difficulty with this type of assessment is that he can only read from his point of view and from his own experience. The writer's life experiences may be completely different from the researchers so the only way to truly understand the meaning behind the graffito is to either speak to the writer or to accumulate enough appropriate contextual information so that an accurate estimation can be made.

Lets take one of the pieces of graffiti that Reisner lists under the above description--"I have crabs." This graffito was found in a women's restroom and, according to the chapter heading, this is considered as "braggadocio." But was the woman who wrote this really bragging? That is possible but it is also likely that this was a cry for help or, even more likely, someone trying to start a conversation to get advice (see Appendix 1 for more information on conversational graffiti). Considering the conclusions of many of the people doing gendered research (such as Cole or Hentschel), it is quite likely that this is the case. However, Reisner has only looked at this graffito from his own point of view and since he is neither a member of the community nor a woman, his opinion is uninformed and subjective.

Categorising Graffiti Research

Above I have discussed various types of graffiti and the nine different approaches used for studying the subject. In the taxonomy in Appendix 1, I have taken one hundred and seven texts on graffiti and categorised them according to the approaches used, the type of graffiti analysed and the year the text was published.(note 5) My purpose in doing this to provide a tool for other researchers, enabling them to find texts dealing primarily within their fields of interest. I have found that some people are interested only in quantitative research while others want anything dealing with tagging. By using the chart, one can focus on latrinalia of the 1970s or on the folkloric texts. In my own research it has become apparent that because the word "graffiti" encompasses such a broad range of writings that specific research is quite difficult and time consuming. It is my hope that this chart will make the process simpler and more thorough for others. It should be noted, however, that for this chart I have only used texts printed in English. There is a plethora of texts in other languages, but, unfortunately, I do not read any other language but English. The bulk of the research appears to be in English or German.

What the Future Holds

I can see two main facets missing from most of the research to date. The first and foremost missing element that I will discuss is what I will call the sociolinguistic approach. Secondly, I will look at the great need for interaction between graffiti researchers from around the world.

The Sociolinguistic Approach

Folklorist Moira Smith (1986) really nails down the problem with most of the research--the lack of contextualisation. "Scholarly studies of graffiti can be divided into two camps: those which treat the material completely but indirectly and those which look at the texts directly but selectively" (100). I see the blending of these as sociolinguistic. This entails taking a linguistic event (such as the writing of a graffito) and then working outwards to incorporate other graffiti events, cultural facts, local customs, and anything that would have influenced the writer of that graffito. It is only in this way that researchers can really come close to understanding the writer since in most cases we have no access to the minds of these people.

I know of one graffiti incident that occurred here on the York University campus that shows the importance of the sociolinguistic approach. A Women's Studies course met in a classroom in Vanier college weekly. During a class, one of the women looked up and noticed that written in chalk on light fixture were the words "cunt blood." They pointed this out to the professor who, at the end of the class while many of the students were watching, climbed up on a desk and changed this graffito to read "cunt blood is sacred," presenting her class with a visual demonstration of reclamation.

Let's just surmise that long after this class has left the room, a graffiti researcher (like myself) was to happen upon this phrase without any of the story behind it. I would start by looking carefully at this graffito to ascertain that, by the different handwriting, it was written by two different people. While I wouldn't know that a professor had added the ending, I would be able to determine that there were two different motivations at work here. The language used is quite significant as words like "sacred" are not thrown around easily by the majority of the York population. By checking the schedule for that particular classroom, I would find that a Women's Studies class met there and may be able to piece together much more of the possibilities concerning this graffito. It would also be important to look at the timing of this writing. If this appeared close to December 6, it is possible that the second writer was influenced by the recollection of the Montreal Massacre, the commemoration of which is observed by many on campus. There are many, many more aspects that could be connected to this particular linguistic event but I think the point is made--it is impossible to look at the event in isolation without all of the contextual information as that would lead to the subjective opinions discussed earlier.

While there are few articles presently available that incorporate the sociolinguistic, the good news is that changes are happening. In the articles I studied for this essay, I found only three that pursue research that employ the concepts outlined by Smith (1986). Those texts are by Birch Moonwomon (1992), Catherine Davies (1985) and Urs Dürmüller (1988). However, more recent articles are getting closer and closer, such as the articles by Cole (1991) or Hentschel (1987) or Erickson (1987). And what better way to usher in this change then with that modern technological wonder--the computer.

The Information Superhighway

Recently I responded to a posting on the internet and discovered that there are many other people working in my field. This was quite a revelation! I've spent years studying this topic on my own with only textual sources for information and thinking that I must be incredibly odd for even considering graffiti a serious subject for research. Suddenly I was connected with other researchers and exchanging resources. So much is shared across cyberspace and anyone looking at graffiti should be aware of the newsgroup alt.graffiti (note 6), and the most exciting development of all, Art Crimes on the World Wide Web, where actual photographs of graffiti are posted and categorised by location. The graffiti artists also post comments or advice and answer questions in the discussion formats provided and, in a unique spirit of co-operation, the observers and the observees work in tandem while still maintaining the anonymity the artists often desire.

With all of this technology available at our fingertips, graffiti scholars can now discover similarities and differences, share insights and generally improve the quality of the research produced. While the 1970s may have seen an explosion of graffiti research, it is likely the 1990s will go even further on a much more global scale. This is an exciting time!

Graffiti has been around for thousands of years and is not likely to disappear in the foreseeable future. Hougan (1972) suggests that people in authority would learn more from reading the restroom walls then by taking a poll. My research into graffiti at York University would seem to reinforce this. When some event or problem troubles the community (such as the Montreal Massacre, the Gulf War or even the general hatred directed towards the campus food services), these anxieties manifest themselves in graffiti. This is the great strength of graffiti research, that it enables us to tap into the minds of everyday people and discover people or ideas that may otherwise be silenced.


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  1. The labels for these methodologies are my own and not used by the authors. Usually the writers of these texts do not identify by name the approach they are taking.

  2. In Appendix 1, I have created a taxonomy of the 107 texts used for this article.

  3. This article falls into both the gendered and empirical methodology categories.

  4. Rudin and Harless (1970) adeptly dispute these conclusions in their article. They found that the presence of smoking paraphernalia in women's restrooms was due to the fact that women were only allowed to smoke in restrooms yet the restrooms contained no ashtrays, etc. They also found that the lack of graffiti in women's washrooms was connected to the fact that women view the washroom as more than a toilet; they see it as a place to meet and talk and smoke, etc. Neither of these functions have anything to do with the "phallic expression" mentioned by Landy and Steele.

  5. It should be noted that this chart is in no way complete. I am still in the process of tracking down other texts on the subject so this chart will continue to grow as I locate more texts.

  6. I have been monitoring the "alt.graffiti" news group for at least two years. It rarely had any postings on it and if there were, these postings were slogans or jokes, the kind of writing you might see on the restroom wall. Then, quite suddenly, things changed about six months ago [1994]. Now there are discussions on various paints and markers between European and North American graffiti artists as well as researchers posting bibliographic information. Monitoring these changes leads me to believe that graffiti research is being taken more seriously now by people everywhere.

  7. I have contributed photographs of the graffiti of York University and this in turn has resulted in people from all over North America writing to me. I also have a bibliography posted and this document will also be posted and updated when needed.

© copyright 1995 Jane M. Gadsby jgadsby@bellnet.ca

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