***D R A F T C O P Y***

© copyright 1995 SHERRI CAVAN, PH.D.

ABSTRACT: This paper addresses the distinction between deviance and diversity by focusing on the interrelated complex of rule makers who prohibit graffiti, rule enforcers who attempt to eradicate it and rule breakers who are motivated to make their mark on the environment in spite of the active opposition of others. Each of these social roles is embedded in a subculture that justifies and organizes the activities of its members, creating meaning and morality, motivating and reinforcing behavior, even in the face of failure (to eradicate graffiti) or punishment (for making graffiti).


In the early years of the 20th century philosophic and scientific ideas about relativity challenged the assumption of a single, fixed perspective. By mid-century these ideas were reflected in sociological theorizing. In this new manner of thinking, a single, unified standard gives way to multiple social realities that coexist and commingle, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in cooperation, sometimes oblivious to one another. The moral absolutes that dominated the pre-modern mind do not disappear, but they are no longer the only conceivable standard of judgment. Besides what appears as the dominant culture are multiple subcultures, each with its own vital agenda of values and goals, standards and sanctions, differentiated by power, influence and style. [FN.]

Relativity emphasizes the parts power and politics play in establishing the dominance of one subculture over others and thereby establishing the agenda of the dominant or official culture, that unique subculture against which all other subcultures are evaluated and subordinated. What is officially regarded as deviation (that category of acts the authorities seek to prohibit and punish) and what is an expression of diversity (any tolerable alternatives) is but a temporary expression of the dialectics of difference----the conflict between the authorized version of social reality and all those other claims. [FN.](SERIAL MURDER, AND CLAIMSMAKING)

Relativity views "social order" as an ongoing, practical accomplishment, a product or by-product of people going about their everyday lives making rules, breaking rules, enforcing rules, and witnessing these moral dramas of deviance from one standard and conformity to another. [FN. Becker, Lemert]

Many topics illustrate the relativity of deviance and conformity and how these practices become institutionalized in the complex of subcultures that, taken collectively, make up society as an entity. I will address the topic of graffiti---those unauthorized words and images that appear in public places.


This paper derives from fifteen years of studying graffiti, among other topics---specifically political and white collar rule breaking. The graffiti project began in l980 as the subject of a qualitative research seminar I was teaching. It continued as a personal exploration in the theory and methods of visual sociology. [FN.] Gradually it became a cross-cultural odyssey. [FN. on the sample]

My research is not funded. However, graffiti is not difficult to observe: it is everywhere. I use a very small camera, a notebook and a pencil to document my observations. I talk to people about graffiti, eliciting their opinions and experiences. I have a growing network of contacts with people in the graffiti world and with people who are active in graffiti eradication. I maintain a copious file of clippings and illustrations that document what is known of the history of graffiti and the ongoing "graffiti war" as it is reflected in my local community, San Francisco, and elsewhere. Friends, colleagues, acquaintances and students, aware of my interest in graffiti, provide me with clippings, pictures, references and stories. I keep current with the research being done by others in this field. (FN: graffiti bibliography) This analysis is based on these sources


Since the 1980s, authorities in communities throughout America have used the rhetoric of "war" to define the "threat" posed by graffiti and to justify the mobilization of community resources to eradicate it. The monetary cost of these aggressive campaigns is in now in the billions of dollars and it is difficult to calculate how much ink and video tape has been expended in popular stories about the graffiti menace.

Yet by any measure, there is more graffiti now then before graffiti was declared a social problem and war envisioned as the solution. Almost two decades have passed since this war was decreed. Despite the considerable economic and social resources the rule makers have invested, despite the enthusiastic support of these polices by both official and volunteer rule enforcers, despite the continued support of the graffiti eradication program in the press and on television, the war has not been won. Instead, the conflict has been institutionalized.

Subcultures of rule breakers have emerged out of this routinized conflict. The beliefs and practices associated with the "aerosol nation" of youthful graffiti writers have taken form and substance from their conflict with the authorities and the conflict with one another. [FN. Matza, Subterranean values] What was historically an ad hoc activity, motivated by impulse, became organized, with rules governing the behavior and a value system establishing the basis for judgment and reward, differentiated internally into high status muralists and low status taggers, as well as outlaws who "dis" (disrespect) their peers as well as disrespecting the establishment. [FN...]

These ideas and images associated with the graffiti subcultures diffused from big cities to the suburbs and small towns throughout America and abroad. [FN.] The young (mostly) males involved in the subcultures represent every race, every ethnicity, and every social class. The innovative style coming out of these gangs that call themselves "crews" has been established as an identifiable style of art by being featured in mainstream galleries, museums, and art books, along with being the topic of criticism in established art journals. [FN.]

On the other side of the equation, subcultures of anti-graffiti enthusiasts have emerged, providing residents of local communities with an issue to rally around. Schools, churches and neighborhood watch groups, as well as independent good Samaritans, have joined together in collective action to eradicate the menace from their community. In San Francisco, hardly a month goes by without an announcement of a graffiti eradication work party taking place in some part of the city. People meet and sign in, establishing a network of activists who are willing to come out on a cool and foggy Saturday morning to paint out the marks the graffiti artists have painted in. The city provides paint and brushes; local businesses provide coffee, donuts and juice.

In the rhetoric of the ruling class, graffiti symbolizes anarchy, its very presence an unquestioned threat to social order. Graffiti destroys the beauty of the environment and challenges the resolve of the authorities to maintain their aesthetic vision of what public space should look like.[ pictorial examples of the dominant aesthetic]

The anti-graffiti crusaders act in the name of established authority. They make their mark by marking over the anarchy of the rule breakers, eradicating what is "ugly" and "offensive". Despite cursory instructions that "neatness counts", the crusaders use very little technique in their applications, and the paint they are provided rarely matches the background color, although sophisticated computer color matching has been developed and entrepreneurs with a van can match the background paint on the site. Their services are costly, but they eliminate all traces of the multiple layers of meaning expressed by the interaction between the rule breakers and the rule enforcers. Without the services of background color matching it is difficult for the untutored eye to distinguish what is beautiful and what is not; what is anarchy and what is style; why irregular patches of beige, often dripping around the edges, are preferable to elegant calligraphic curlicues in bright colors, carefully applied to express technique by avoiding drips and splatters. (pictorial examples of anti-graffiti whitewashing and what is eradicated)

Like the graffiti movement, the anti-graffiti movement goes beyond the local community. In 1991 The National Graffiti Information Network was established in Long Beach, California. That fall, they held their first extra-local conference in Denver, Colorado. Reinforcing one another's belief in the seriousness of the graffiti problem, participants included city officials, community leaders, and neighborhood volunteers. Entrepreneurs with newly developed products that can be used in the eradication of various types of graffiti were present also. The president of a painting company planning to market a new anti-graffiti coating is quoted as saying, "Business is booming". Participants at the Denver conference discussed the latest technologies for graffiti eradication, the need for stricter laws, better enforcement, and more stringent penalties, along with ideas about prevention programs. [FN article + experience.]

Graffiti artists also have an entrepreneurial side. Unauthorized art in public places can be the beginning of a professional career in the art world, as it was for Keith Haring, who began painting in New York subway stations. However, the fads and fashions of the art world are constantly changing. Whether they come from art school or from the streets, few who begin a career in art make art their profession for long. (FN BECKER, ROSENBAUM)

The career of the dilettante street artist is even shorter than that of the professional artist. Regardless of whether or not they have encounters with the legal system, most leave the scene by their early twenties. There are very few thirty year old graffiti artists. (FN Werthman & Pilavian, police encounters with juveniles)

Still, some like Crayone manage to keep a foot in different worlds, advertising his work in various local papers, earning money for commissioned pieces, and still occasionally getting up with his crew, "Together with Style". I first met him at the big, a fresco graffiti gallery on Market Street. One afternoon I ran into him as he and a crew of two were painting a large "Save The Rainforest" mural on the wall of my corner grocery store. Crayone said the grocers were paying him $300 for the job, which took most of a day, part of a day, and considerable spray paint. My grocers are not connoisseurs of art. Their objective was to inhibit "tagging", and indeed, the wild style mural on the long wall of the grocery and the realistic portrait of Bob Marley on the short wall have remained relatively pristine compared to the walls on either side of them. When the murals are tagged, Crayone returns and touches up the mischief.


In the museum at Ephesus, Turkey, there are two Greek portrait busts. On each sculpture the nose is broken off and a cross is carved on the forehead. The English guidebook points out these "marks of vandalism" to tell the history of the statutes and the place where they were found. The curators did not remove these pieces from the viewing public because Christian zealots "ruined" what the Greek classicists had in mind when they created these works of art. Instead, the marks are incorporated into the story as part of a series of events that make up the history of these pieces of art and that part of the world.

Similarly, people do not go to the ancient city of Pompeii and say "Look at all that graffiti. This place is a mess. Those people have ruined everything for everyone else. I'm sorry I ever came here." Instead they view the copious graffiti on the walls of that place as a normal feature of the landscape. Guidebooks help tourists decode the popular inscriptions written on every public wall. No distinction is made between the proper and the improper, between what is valuable and what is vandalism. All is history. The frescos represent the history of the elite; the graffiti represents the history of the common people. (FN Tanzzer) In contrast, the current mayor of San Francisco made the eradication of graffiti a cornerstone of his campaign for office, claiming that graffiti is one of the "quality of life offenses" that drive tourists away from the city and therefore cost the community money in terms of unrealized revenue.

Actually, the presence of graffiti may enhance rather than diminish market values in the modern world. Consider the Berlin Wall. For over 40 years, photographers have documented the ever changing graffiti that embellished the west side of the wall, where dissent was still possible. When the wall was demolished as evidence of the reunification of Germany, segments of the wall went to various museums and libraries, as well as private parties. In California, both the Nixon Memorial Library and the Reagan Memorial Library exhibit a slice of the wall, ablaze with graffiti, exhibited as a symbol of the historic era. Ironically, it is the existence of graffiti that makes it obvious that the wall has been installed upside-down in the Nixon Library. There, in the gift shop, visitors can buy considerably smaller chunks of the wall. The pieces with graffiti are priced higher than the unembellished chunks.

The impulse to make a mark on the environment is very ancient. Since prehistoric times people have used the available technology to make a record of themselves, their beliefs and their practices. In fact, ancient painted and carved rocks are critical data for archaeologists in their quest to reconstruct the prehistoric era. (FN LASCAUSU) We do not describe these marks of our ancestors as "destroying nature", even though we use these terms to define the same behavior by our contemporaries. Employing this logic, the national parks service carefully preserves the petroglyphs and rock paintings of the past while they suppress, erase and punish anyone leaving their mark on the landscape today. One is "history", the other is "vandalism."

These examples suggest that whether making a mark on the environment is a characteristic expression of our species---that is "history"---or whether it is a kind of perversity---that is "vandalism"---is relative. It depends on who is making what marks in what social and historical context and with what objectives, as well as who is passing judgment on this activity and why. If we see "graffiti" and think "dirty, ugly, meaningless, visual pollution, wrong, destructive, bad" we express a socialized point of view. The truth of these judgments is not some absolute reality that is "natural and obvious" but instead, truth is a point of view that is learned from and reinforced by a variety of others: our peers, our parents, the authorities, the media taking the role of the "generalized other". [FN. social learning theories]

Critically important to the social construction of meaning are people in positions of power and authority, the rule makers. They form, inform and reinforce the perceptions and judgments of an authorized social reality and they enforce this ideal by various methods of reward and punishment.

What makes graffiti wrong is the claim that "public" space should represent onlythe interests of the propertied class. This unspoken assumption is the premise from which contemporary graffiti is defined as ugly, meaningless, dirty, destructive and the wholesale eradication of graffiti is viewed as a socially responsible act. Unlike the rule makers at the museums in Ephesus and Pompeii, American lawmakers do not see the marks on the walls of the city as representing a part of history, speaking to the lives of powerless and marginal people. Rather, in defense of their singular claim to public space, the authorities have undertaken a broad range of punitive actions. In California, as one example, the graffiti menace serves as the justification for legislation restraining trade by prohibiting the sale of spray paint and broad tipped ink markers to people under the age of 18. In response, some young people identify themselves as the "aerosol nation". Their goal is to question the rules of authority by doing art wherever and whenever they can, while other youth tag over their peers expressions and rule enforcers paint over them both.

In various communities throughout America local authorities have

Local authorities believe these responses are appropriate punishments for breaking their rules about who has the right to express themselves where.

By using their power and influence to legislate against the practice of graffiti, civic authorities transform a very ordinary and ancient form of behavior into a crime. Those who practice graffiti become rule breakers---"criminals"---while community resources from public sentiment to cash allocations are mobilized in defense of the authorized version of public space.

Despite all of the propaganda, prohibitions and punishments associated with contemporary graffiti, representatives of the dominant culture exploit the character and style of graffiti when it is profitable to them to do so. Film makers who want to give an ethnic or class illusion to a neighborhood cover the walls with imitations of the graffiti that the city authorities are trying desperately to eradicate (cf. "Sister Act"). In a recent advertising campaign, the billboards for an automobile incorporated what looks like graffiti sprayed on the ad but is actually part of the authorized text. The National Graffiti Information Network protested Chrysler's glorification of crime. Nonetheless, those who make the rules that prohibit graffiti by defining it as "bad" recognize a category of "good graffiti" as a function of who is writing what where when and why. During the 1990 Gulf War, the al-Mutla barrage killed thousands of Iraqi servicemen and civilians. A newspaper account describes the copious graffiti American troops left on the enemy equipment destroyed at this gravesite. In his State of the Union address the following year, President George Bush quoted some of this "good" graffiti as testimony to the courageous and independent sprit of American youth serving in the interests of their country. [FN.]

These authorized distinctions between "good graffiti" and "bad graffiti" suggest that the "graffiti problem" is about constraints on freedom of expression. Graffiti gives voice to unusual, unpopular, unacceptable, inaccessible ideas, expressing them in unorthodox and unauthorized places. When graffiti is forbidden by the authorities, it is a crime.

As a social practice, it is most frequently (but not exclusively) done by powerless, marginal people, people without social and/or economic resources, people without property rights. (FN) Those who own space have few restraints on what they can express. Although the freedom of expression of the propertied classes has been tested on more than one occasion by neighbors protesting one another's taste in art and/or politics, American courts have generally sided with the right of the individual to self-expression. For example, when the case of "too many Christmas lights" was brought before the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas upheld the lower courts ruling that the offender reduce his Christmas display (Dec., 1994). The accused was not prohibited from embellishing his property, only admonished to keep that expression "within limits". People without property rights find themselves in a very different situation. Having no economic assets there is no place they can express themselves freely. Rather than being appreciated for their creative spirit and the colorful contribution they make to the urban landscape, they are introduced to law breaking by those who criminalize their behavior.


What would happen if graffiti were not criminalized? Would everyone rush to the walls with magic marker and spray paint? Not necessarily. The more involved people are in the everyday management of their own lives, the more involved they feel in the affairs of their community and the more varied ways they have to express themselves, the less likely they are to do graffiti. One way to inhibit graffiti is to provide meaningful participation in a richly textured social life to the poor as well as the rich, the young as well as the mature, although such a proposal is clearly neo-utopian thinking.

Besides, marginality is always relative and other reasons motivate graffiti in addition to expressing discontent or striving for status in an adolescent peer group. (FN REVIEW OF MOTIVES) It is unlikely that the impulse to make a mark and send a message will ever be eliminated. Even the National Graffiti Information Network acknowledges that the best they can hope for is "containment".

What would be the consequence if graffiti were not prohibited but seen instead as diversity, as modern petroglyphs or urban folk art? A different aesthetic. Public space would appear different, although perhaps not much different. Those who are seriously involved in the graffiti subculture---and therefore those who are motivated to do the most graffiti---act with very little regard for the punitive consequences of their actions now. If there were no punitive consequences, there would not necessarily be more graffiti than there is today.

Eliminating the risk and high stakes associated with getting caught diminishes the thrill associated with breaking the rules of the dominant culture and therefore makes graffiti less desirable to some, especially young males looking for a way to test their manhood individually and to bond with others collectively. So it is very possible that without criminalization there would be less graffiti than there is now, less restraint yielding less motivation to resist.

Even if there were no change in the amount of graffiti, there is another socialized way of seeing. Outdoor "graffiti galleries" can be examples of a different aesthetic of public space. They are "folk art" in the literal definition of the term: spontaneous expressions of untutored artists. (FN--, PLUS LEBFERVE) Public space embellished with multiple layers of colorful graffiti looks different from space that exhibits the authorized aesthetic of unadorned gray or beige surfaces. But outside of a cultural system of aesthetic values, no thing is inherently beautiful nor inherently ugly. By broadening our values, we encompass rather than exclude alternative versions of beauty and joy.


Why bother to legislate against graffiti and propose more and more severe punishments for an activity as insignificant as leaving a bright colored mark on the public walls of the city as testimony of the authors' mortal existence?

We must understand that the graffiti wars are not just about conflicting definitions of pleasure and aesthetics. They are also about displaying power and displacing attention. Even if the authorities were to acknowledge that graffiti expresses a different aesthetic, they would still demand the right to control what the city looks like, for that is what power and influence are about. Establishing the canon for what is beautiful and what is ugly is one of the ways power and influence are displayed. Punishing the behavior of others is another way power and influence are displayed.

In addition to asserting their power and extending their influence, those in positions of authority have a vested interest in perpetuating the conflict. (a.) It reinforces the war metaphor; (b.) It fulfills the need for a scapegoat; (c.) it mobilizes citizen involvement with and allegiance to authorized objectives.


The war metaphor is a way of seeing that views all conflict as expressions of victory and defeat, winning and losing, total success or contemptible failure. The war metaphor leaves no room to see conflict as a tragic misunderstanding, or as a comedy of errors, or as a cautionary message. Rather, in this gothic vision of the world, no conflict is too small or too insignificant to symbolize war. Consider some of the ordinary headlines in my local newspapers, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner:

Mortgage lenders wage telephone war (3/22/93)

5-yar bidding war for Continental getting hotter (10/7/92)

Task force wars on toxics (9/20/86

Scientists say U.S. is losing war on cancer (2/5/92)

"Preventing playground warfare" ( 11/5/92)

"Airline fare wars" (2/14/93)

"Peace in our Park as dahlia war ends" (9/4/93)

"US is winning chip war vs. Japan" (4/7/92)

"Success in S.F war on graffiti" (7/20/86)

"S.F. losing war on graffiti" (6/30/87)

This ubiquitous metaphor---and its derivatives such as enemies, aggression, killing and destruction---is found at every level of the popular culture. As a single example, consider the advertising copy for a video game, targeted for both youthful and mature consumers:

[T]he Super New. Street Fighter II, the hottest arcade around is here...purchase the game with only one objective---to win!

The war metaphor enflames the passions with fear---whether virtual or real---and patriotism---whether symbolic or emotional. The war metaphor polarizes the world into the implacable enemy, who plays by no known rules, on one side and on the other, the embattled forces of virtue, pushed to extremes in self-defense . (FN 20th c.)


The drug wars, the wars against the poor and the homeless, the wars against street crime, litter, and environmental degradation, the great graffiti wars of the late 20th century are all wars for distraction. They mobilize community sentiment against a powerless, named enemy while the passions they engender direct attention away from other events. The "enemy" is a scapegoat, given the ritual role of both evoking and diffusing strong sentiments, feelings, emotions.

In part. these domestic wars of distraction serve as substitutes for more ambitious wars. The end of the Cold War and the beginning of the domestic wars are found in close historic proximity. Waged with enthusiasm on both sides of the globe, from the American perspective, the cold war cast our former ally---the Soviet Union---in the role of our nemesis. In the name of national defense, civil rights were curtailed and military spending expanded. The voices of youthful dissent that were raised in the 1960s reopened the debate about "freedom of expression". The defeat of American military forces in Viet Nam in the 1970s challenged the unquestioned superiority of American military intervention. By the 1980s, the Cold War came to a symbolic end as our enemy gave up its evil ways, converted to capitalism, and reentered global society.

If we examine these domestic wars in their historic context we see that they are declared and waged through the 1980s, as though to substitute for the loss of more grandiose conflicts.

However, they served other interests as well. The 1980s was also a period when the crime rate of the ruling class was rising dramatically.[FN.] During this time, stories about the graffiti menace are found on page one of the newspaper while stories about white collar crimes appear in the business section or buried on a back page with the obituaries. Where "war" is the metaphor used to describe the conflict between the authorities and powerless people, "scandal" is the metaphor used to refer to rule breaking by the rich and the powerful. While community sentiment is actively mobilized against youthful graffiti artists, white collar criminals who raided the savings and loan industry are subsidized by legislative bail-outs that passively mobilize the taxpaying public in defense of ruling class rule breaking. In l990, Fortune Magazine listed 282 men and 49 women who had been found guilty of one or more felonies involving fraud (of over $100,000 for each count) in conjunction with the failure of the American Saving and Loan institutions in the l980s. Though the cost to tax payers for repaying the insured depositions may amount to more than a trillion dollars, these people received an average sentence of 3.5 years, and spent even less time in prison. The editors of Fortune write, "Today's S&L fraud dwarfs every previous carnival of white-collar crime in America." (p.92: Nov. 5, l990)


In addition to displacing attention away from elite rule breaking, wars waged against powerless people give ordinary citizens an opportunity to "do good" by enforcing authorized rules. It empowers them---or at least it gives them the impression of power.

My neighbors established an adopt-a-sign-or-a-wall anti-graffiti policy in our small district, each pledging to keep their site free of graffiti by applying paint provided by the city and stored in the garage of a helpful neighbor. Since I declined to engage in these anti-graffiti activities, a neighbor from around the corner took over the responsibility for the sign in front of my house as well as patroling his own sign. These efforts brought people in the neighborhood together with a serious purpose. The feelings of power experienced from actively defending their neighborhood against the forces of chaos led someone to suggest that we also eradicate the myriad of notices that get posted on the utility poles that transverse the neighborhood, advertising lost cats, a man with a van, spiritualists and heavy metal bands. I was more successful getting my neighbors to recognize this as a freedom of speech issue. So instead of making it a neighborhood policy, they invoked the principle of lazier faire: people who wanted to remove notices from the utility poles could do so and others could leave them. Next the topic of pigeons came up---how we could get rid of these "filthy creatures". My neighbors' experience with graffiti-eradication was leading them to dreams of increasing control over the public spaces of our neighborhood.

In contrast, the complexity, the remoteness, and the considerable power and influence of political and white collar criminals does not invite ordinary people to be active participants in law enforcement. The complexity of the activity involved in elite rule breaking creates a barrier to easy comprehension. The institutions of information and influence do little to enlighten the public about the crimes of the ruling class, since the owners of these agencies have membership in that class and may themselves be active participants in either the crimes or the cover-ups, or both. Ordinary people are removed from the scenes of elite deviance; they learn about the nature, the extent, the scope and the consequences of elite rule breaking only when the institutions of secrecy break down. (FN examples). The FBI Uniform Crime Reports represent the basis of all public statistics about "crime in America". It addresses only interpersonal crime, not institutional assaults. White collar crime is neither statistically traced nor tallied, so there is no official record of its extent, whether it is decreasing or whether it is increasing, rates of recidivism, the dollar cost to society, etc..

Segregated from the sites of power and influence, ordinary people generally learn about elite deviance as theater, as the media play out the dramatic scandal of ruling class rule breaking in headlines, television coverage and radio talk shows. The social, economic and political success of former while collar felons minimize their perceived threat to society. Consider a few of the more publicized careers: Convicted of burglary for political objectives, G. Gordon Liddy spent 52 months in prison. Upon his release he took to the lecture circuit with his former "enemy, Timothy Leary, had a few bit parts in Hollywood movies, and now is from convicted political burglar to national radio talk show host on the air four hours a day, five days a week. Convicted on numerous counts of fraud and manipulation of stock and bond markets, Michael Milken went from prison to the lecture halls the U.C.L.A. School of Business. Public outcry forced his resignation, but the fact that he was invited as an inspirational speaker is telling in and of itself. A few years earlier, his mentor, Ivan Boesky, addressed the graduating class at the UC. Berkeley, telling them, "Greed is good." Like his prodigy, Boesky also spent time in federal prison, emerging from his sentence tanned, rested and ready to resume his place in the ruling class. Consider Oliver North. Accused of masterminding a complex extra-legal financing of Latin American insurrection forces in defiance of congressional order, his convictions on three felony counts, including lying to congress, were overturned on appeal. After running a close but unsuccessful campaign for the United States Senate from Virginia, he was awarded his own radio talk show in the Washington DC. area. Like Liddy, North is in an especially powerful position, able to influence large numbers of people that their vision is right.


How we as observers feel about graffiti is a function of whose side of the conflict we are on---whose values we share or do not share, whose status we respect, whose situation we empathize with----the authorities who make the rules, the people who enforce them, or those who break them. [FN. Gouldner] During the second world war, inmates in German concentration camps left copious graffiti wherever they dared, in direct defiance of the rules of the Nazi authorities who prohibited and severely punished such expressions. Today, most people see those defiant acts of the inmates as heroic, they would understand the vision that graffiti expresses is an authentic and poignant voice of oppressed people facing genocide.

Placed in their historic context, the great graffiti wars of the late 20th century illustrate the relativity of judgments of deviance and diversity, and how the dynamic interaction between the participants of different subcultures, each with their own agenda and resources, produce the perceived reality of these conflicts.

At least two version of the 1980s exist. The version from the top is one of technological and economic growth. The version from the bottom is one of social and economic oppression. By the 1980s, the last vestiges of the social and economic programs that expressed the idealism of the 1960s had atrophied, while deregulation of a variety of industries, especially banking, severely effected the flow of cash through the society. Profiteering was the rule in financial transactions. Technological innovations replacing human labor with automated production and service systems combined with corporate management practices of "downsizing" the workforce to protect and enhance profits. As a result, great wealth was created for some, along with great poverty for many.

Beneath the surface of technological progress and economic success was and still is a massive sea of discontent. Historic records document the fact that urban walls are always coopted by the disenfranchised to express their discontent. (FN) But in the historic context of the 1980s, local authorities overreacted to this expression. Rule makers were quick to define graffiti as a challenge to their authority. There was little resistance to criminalizing the behavior. In response to the authorities, subcultures emerged, motivating more and more elaborate expressions of graffiti. The authorities escalated their sanctions and the sub-cultures became more entrenched. As the rule breaking subculture grew, anti-graffiti subcultures emerged. At an graffiti eradication work party, I overhead someone say that the graffiti artists had also read the announcements about the graffiti-eradication workday. They came out the night before and added considerably more graffiti around the school, providing more work for their graffiti foes. Like a video game, the participants are locked into a version of Street Fighter II, parents against children, authorities against outsiders, the powerful against the powerless, each the nemesis of the other.

Between the first version of this paper and the last, a youthful tagger has been shot and killed by an armed citizen intent on protecting public property from enemy attack. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office declined to file murder charges against the gunman; the aunt of the slain 18 year old threatens revenge. (Chron 2/8/95, p. D16; Examiner, 2/24/95 pA7) The conflict continues to escalate.

Can a society that envisions war as the ultimate metaphor, enshrines hierarchy while preaching democracy, and practices the politics of exclusion rather than inclusion ever acknowledge writing on the walls as an ancient and common practice, as expressive of our humanity as making those walls gray and imposing? Today's graffiti challenges the authorized vision of social reality. But these aerosol revolutionaries are powerless and young. They fit the criteria for an ideal scapegoat better than the ideal of a cultural liberator. Even though their innovative, visionary styles are routinely coopted, commodified, and capitalized on, it is unlikely their aesthetic visions will be granted legitimacy in the 21st century, if such a thing is possible at all.

Author: Sherri Cavan

Cavan, Sherri, "The Great Graffiti Wars of the Late 20th Century"
Paper presented at the Pacific Sociological Association, 1995

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