Behind the tag: A journey with the graffiti Silvia Pietrosanti

University of Amsterdam
Behind the tag: A journey with the graffiti
writers of European walls
Silvia Pietrosanti
Master Thesis
MSc European Communication Studies
Graduate School of Communication
Supervisor: Linda Duits
Amsterdam, 7 t h of June2010
Table of contents
Acknowledgments……………………………………………………………………………….. IV
Preface…………………………………………………………………………………….……… V
1. Introduction………………………………………………………………………… 1
1.1 Research Topic……………………………………………………………... 1
1.2 Problem Formulation………………………………………………………..1
1.3 An introduction to the graffiti subculture……………………………….. 2
1.4 Societal and academic relevance…………………………………………. 5
1.5 Chapter outline……………………………………………………………… 7
2. Theoretical Framework: Behind subcultures…………………………………. 8
2.1 Introduction...…………………….................................................... 8
2.2 Subcultures………………………………………………………………..... 8
2.3 Subcultures as a form of protest…………………………………………. 9
2.4 Youth and masculinit y as main actors in subcultures………………….. 12
2.5 Subcultures as a pursuit of identit y and identification………………… 14
2.5.1 Belonging and performance……………………………………….17
2.6 Subcultural capital as a means for achieving identit y affirmation…… 19
3. Methods……………………………………………………………………………… 22
3.1 Research Design…………………………………………………………………22
3.2 Participant Observation……………………………………………………….. 23
3.3 In-depth semi-structured interviews …………………………………………. 24
3.4 The sample ……………………………………………………………………….25
3.5 The role of the researcher………………………………………………………27
3.6 Ethical considerations…………………………………………………………..27
3.7. Data anal ysis…………………………………………………………………… 28
3.8 Qualit y of this research………………………………………………………...28
4.1 Introduction…………………………………………………………………..31
4.2 I tag, therefore I am………………………………………………………… 32
4.3 Affirming the self……………………………………………………………37
4.4 Territory……………………………………………………………………... 41
4.4.1 Over the borders…………………………………………………... 44
4.5 The crew…………………………………………………………………….. 46
4.5.1Group identit y performance………………………………………. 47
4.6 Illegalit y…………………………………………………………………….. 51
4.6.1 Don’t tell me I can do it!.................................................... 53
4.7 The blank message of graffiti…………………………………………….. 55
4.7.1 Audience…………………………………………………………… 56
4.8 The beginnings……………………………………………………………… 59
4.8.1 Keep it going………………………………………………………. 60
4.9 Commitment…………………………………………………………………. 62
4.10 Conclusive thoughts………………………………………………………. 65
5. Conclusions………................................................................................... 67
5.1 Introduction…………………………………………………………………. 67
5.2 An extensive answer: combining theory and results …………………… 68
5.3 Theoretical implications…………………………………………………… 74
5.4 Methodological reflections………………………………………………… 75
5.5 Future research……………………………………………………………… 76
Appendix 1: Topic list for Semi-structured interviews…………………………….84
This thesis has been a long and sometimes painful project. It was hard to
keep the motivation high the all time. Therefore, I would like to thank all the
people that contributed to its realization. First of all, thanks to m y supervisor
Linda Duits for her directions and encouragement. Special thanks go to Barbara
for her countless advises and for cheering me up when things were not working
out as I wished. Thanks to Patrik and Alessandra for being always there and
providing support and self confidence when I was loosing it. Thanks to m y
flatmates Pietro and Vincenzo for waking me up in the morning and tolerating m y
stress. M y sincere thanks go to Philippa for being such a good friend and for
carefull y correcting my English together with Gail. I could not have written this
thesis without m y library buddies Stefan, Sonja, and Francesca. Thanks to Jort for
putting me in contact with several writers at the beginning of this research.
Thanks to m y parents and m y grandmother for their love and their support without
which I could not have been able to finance this master and m y staying in
Amsterdam. Thanks to m y sister Giorgia, Thomas and m y friends in Ital y for the
numerous ‘msn’ motivational chats.
M y biggest thanks, though, go to all the writers that shared their secret
stories and took me in their world. They are: Renok, Hero, Philo, Raw, Edge,
Luther, Hirock, Mirics, Mars, Twice, Gear, Some, Revs, Aso.
I’ve been always fascinated b y graffiti on the streets. I come from a town
close to Rome, and I have often travelled b y train to follow classes for m y
previous studies. The railings were so intense with writings that I could not stop
wondering what was behind these written names, what they actuall y meant.
Graffiti subculture does not share its stories, but I was sure that what was written
on the walls would reveal something about the lives and relationships of those
who wrote them; however, for long time I had forgotten about that investigation.
The question of graffiti crossed m y mind again last year, during a class named
‘Subcultures and Lifest yles’ when I had to pick one subculture to discuss in a
final paper. I chose the graffiti subculture so that I could finally explore what was
going on in the minds of the people standing behind those tags. However, after
reading for that paper, m y interest for that subculture grew extensivel y, and I was
eager to know more and find out about areas that were left undressed b y previous
studies. What I really wanted to do was go into that field and experience these
things that were only theoreticall y described and write m y thesis to give a voice
to the graffiti writers. Since most of the studies were centred in the United States,
I wanted to look at the subculture from a European perspective. Amazed b y the
job done b y Nancy Macdonalds in London and New York (2001), I decided to
explore the graffiti scenes in Rome and Amsterdam.
1. Introduction
1.1 Research Topic
Hero, Raw, Twice, Renok. These and countless other names are written
repeatedl y b y invisible hands on walls, subways, trains, trucks, bike baskets, and
roofs all over every cit y. It is almost impossible to catch a graffiti writer painting
a piece, however new marks of colour appear each morning in incredibl y visible
spots. People may say it is vandalism, art or addiction. Though, do we ever
question who these phantoms of the night are and what these writings stand for?
This thesis is about the graffiti subculture. Graffiti is almost everywhere in the
contemporary urban landscape, but not everybod y notices it. In fact, most people
seem to be indifferent to the phenomenon, considering it to be an integral part of
the cit y without really questioning it. People that are obsessed with graffiti are
the ones who make it or fight it. Graffiti is ‘a background scenery, an urban white
noise which is recognized but rarel y registered […] We are unaware that the cit y
walls are alive with its social drama. We have no clue that the tangled mass of
names crawling across their surfaces speak’ (Macdonald, 2001: 1-2). Being a form
situated between visual and verbal expression, graffiti combines different
linguistic and artistic forms to express messages of personal and social
communication. Indeed, what is written on the walls often reveals something
about the lives, relationships and identities of those who wrote them.
1.2 Problem formulation
This research, based on the assumption that graffiti is essentiall y a
communication medium, revolves around the theme of identit y performance.
Namel y, it is the identit y performance that takes place on the walls, through the
sole use of forms of colours. Consequentl y, marking the territory will be
understood as construction and affirmation of the self. As it will be explained
below, the phenomenon of graffiti as a subculture developed in the United States
and successfull y sprung up in Europe as a result of the media, especiall y
underground magazines and documentaries. Thus, 40 years after its creation, this
thesis explores the characteristics of graffiti in Europe as an ‘imported product’.
The cities of investigation are Rome and Amsterdam as two European cities with
a significant graffiti scene. However, what is described on these pages is not a
comparative stud y of graffiti in these cities, rather, the attention is on what unites
them. Hence, the research question has been identified as follows:
RQ: How do graffiti writers perform their identity in European cities?
The identit y performance is intended as the presentation of both personal
and group identit y, and it will be explained in terms of appearance, spaces, time
of dedication, reasons, and commitment to the broader subculture. The latter
occupies a central role, as one’s identity is constantl y related to the communit y
one belongs to or feels a sense of belonging. Therefore, investigating the identit y
performances of the graffiti writers also means examining how they relate to both
the global graffiti subculture and the outside world. Previous studies have proved
that members of a subculture tend to ‘alienate’ from the outside world,
manifesting a sort of ‘resistance’ against the hegemonic culture. Thus this stud y
will verify whether this occurs in the graffiti subculture as well and whether this
subculture transcends its localit y.
1.3 An introduction to the graffiti subculture
The word graffiti is derived from the Italian word graffito, which means a
scribbling or scratching down on buildings or walls. The origins of graffiti can be
traced back to the cave drawing of prehistoric man. In fact, they can be found
preserved on walls of Pompei and on ancient monuments in Egypt (Othen-Price,
2006). Rediscovering this antique practice, sub-cultural graffiti originall y comes
from New York about 40 years ago as a neighbourhood based activit y. According
to Powers (1996), an article that appeared in the New York Times on Jul y 21, 1971
made ‘tagging’ a competitive activit y. This article was about an anon ymous
Manhattan teenager nicknamed ‘Taki 183’ who was described as the ‘king’ of a
train line. Man y kids understood that graffiti could help them obtain recognition
and respect among their peers, and therefore the number of graffiti writers that
secretl y enrolled in the ‘king of the street or of a train line’ contest (invisible to
the majorit y of the population) increased enormously. Afterwards, tags became
larger and more elaborate, developing into real murals. Some refer to it as street
hip hop because it has evolved s ynergisticall y with hip hop dance and music
cultures (Macdonald, 2001). Soon graffiti became the element within the New
York Cit y hip-hop subculture that attracted the most media attention because of
its steady growth in popularit y among youth and the high cost for its removal
(Alonso, 1998). This cultural activit y eventuall y spread westward, as Hip Hop
was exported from New York Cit y to major cities across the United States and the
world during the hip hop popular culture explosion in the earl y 1980s. For
instance, in the early eighties, movies such as Beat Street, Flash Dance and Wild
Style spread the image of urban hip hop culture both in the US and world wide
(Powers, 1996). Soon, in fact, Europeans started to produce graffiti as well. By
the mid-1980s, Chalfant and Prigoff (1987) documented sophisticated and
elaborate graffiti pieces and graffiti subcultures in various European cities, such
as Amsterdam, London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Vienna (Ferrel, 1996).
In the contemporary landscape we can see different t yp es of graffiti.
Several authors have tried to make a distinction between them in order to be able
to stud y the phenomenon from different angles. Following Grant (1996), modern
graffiti generall y falls into one of three categories: ‘junk’ graffiti, ‘gang’ graffiti,
and ‘tagging’. He names ‘junk’ the graffiti messages that are not related to a
‘gang’, but the ones that often involve obscene, racist, or threatening themes. In
his pessimistic and anti graffiti view, he sees ‘tagging’, once a nonviolent
alternative to more threatening gang activities, as an entry level offence that can
lead to more serious crimes, including burglary and assault. However, in this
regard, man y studies, such as the one conducted b y Feiner and Klein (1982, cited
in Alonso, 1998), proved that heav y drug use is almost nonexistent among serious
graffiti writers, and activities involved with writing graffiti appear to be their
onl y criminal behaviour. One year later, Adams and Winter (1997), in their article
‘Gang graffiti as a discourse genre’ make a clear distinction between gang graffiti
and tagging in Phoenix. They conclude that taggers are a heterogeneous group,
coming from all ethnic groups and social classes and are generall y less violent
than gang crews. Conversel y, gang members are mostl y found in lower classes
and predominantl y belong to the same ethnic group and have a more pronounced
neighbourhood orientation. For instance, competitions between tagging crews
usuall y revolve around tagging contests, whereas gang rivalries often erupt into
fights and shootings. Alonso (1998) adds two new categories to the classification
of graffiti: ‘political’ and ‘existential’. Writers of ‘political’ graffiti use the
‘general’ public as an audience to communicate ideas against the establishment;
this is wh y their writings are generall y placed where an extensive viewing is
guaranteed. Political groups use graffiti as a communication tool because it is the
safest, most economical as well as a highl y efficient way of reaching a desired
conditions, freedom, political power, unemployment, religious thought, and civil
rights. They are often connected to critical social events and are generall y made
where the marginalized have no other ways to let their voices be heard. On the
other hand, ‘existential’ graffiti are the ones that can be consistentl y found in
public bathrooms. They express personal comments, and are most commonly
racial and sexual ones, but they can also contain messages of love, religion or
humour. Alonso (ibid.) describes ‘tagging’ as a st ylized signature that a writer
marks on the urban environment: walls, buses, and trains.
The focus of this stud y will be on ‘tagging’ graffiti. It is the most broadl y
spread and often, when people refer to graffiti, they generall y mean ‘tagging’
graffiti. People that produce it are called ‘graffiti writers’, more simpl y ‘writers’.
Tagging graffiti offers the opportunit y to explore how the concepts of place,
culture, hegemon y and identit y are interwoven not through messages or personal
comments, which are explicit affirmations of the self, but simpl y through ‘tags’
or nicknames placed on our environment.
1.4 Societal and Academic Relevance
Graffiti is categorised in police records as an offence under ‘other propert y
damage,’ as it disfigures public and private properties (Bandaranaike, 2001).
Some people refer to it as an epidemic or a plague; and, it is often associated with
other more serious crimes, such as burglaries, car-jacking, narcotic trafficking,
robberies, murders, and assault. Tagging is often seen as ‘dirt y, obscene, and
disease like’ (Grant, 1996). Therefore, the societal relevance of studying graffiti
is given b y the constant ongoing debate on what it reall y is: while it is seen b y
some as a problem that requires an appropriate response, it is seen b y others as a
generous expression of creative energies upon accessible space. Public attitudes
towards graffiti tend to vary between indifference and intolerance. There is a
growing consensus that the problem of graffiti, if left unaddressed, creates an
environment where more serious crimes flourish and can quickl y degrade once
low-crime areas (ibid.). Slahor states that the apparentl y minor offence of graffiti
can have demoralizing consequences for a communit y (Slahor, 1994). Allowing
graffiti in an area encourages other offenders to degrade the communit y with
more graffiti or other acts of vandalism. Nevertheless, those who shape public
perceptions of urban graffiti, such as the media, anti-graffiti campaigners, or
others, intentionall y and unintentionall y confound the boundaries between the
different t ypes of graffiti and graffiti writing, confusing one with the other in
their condemnation of all graffiti as a crime (Ferrel, 1996). In so doing, they
distort public debates about graffiti and obscure the public understanding of the
specific social and cultural value of graffiti. As Hager (1984:77) says, graffiti
‘may have been started b y a hodgepodge of impoverished art school dropouts and
unschooled graffiti writers, but b y 1982 they had turned it into the hottest art
movement in America’ (cited in Ferrel, 1996). Indeed, graffiti writers do receive
a fair amount of media coverage, but much of it seems to be uninformed and
distorted (Macdonald, 2001). The artists lack power or voices to challenge these
stories even if they wanted to. Therefore, the purpose of this stud y is to
understand this subculture b y giving voices to the artists themselves. In addition,
graffiti are inscribed b y youth (Macdonald, 2002; Othen-Price, 2006). Therefore,
this stud y will contribute to the understanding of how contemporary youth
subcultures establish their cultural autonom y and express their identit y through
public space. Stud yi ng youth is significant as youth is a complex, shifting, and
contradictory category, which is rarel y narrated in the dominant public sphere
through the diverse voices of the young. This is not to suggest that youth do not
speak, but that they are simpl y restricted from speaking in those spheres where
public conversation shapes social policy (Giroux, 1998). Their voices generall y
emerge on the margins of societ y, in underground magazines, alternative music
spheres, computer hacker clubs, and other subcultural sites. While lauded as a
s ymbol of hope for the future, they are often associated with rebellion and
From a scientific point of view, graffiti as an object of research has been of
interest to several disciplines: linguistics, cultural studies, history, ps ychology,
art and communication. This approach to graffiti defines for this genre a
particular set of social interactional roles (Hanauer, 2008). However, much of the
existing literature on the graffiti subculture involves the graffiti scene of the
United States, while an overall European account seems to be lacking. Moreover,
classic theories on youth subcultures (Hebdige, 1979; Cohen, 1972; Hall, 1976,
Brake, 1980) date back to several decades ago, so that it is relevant to verify
whether these theories can still be used for the contemporary graffiti scene.
However, their limit was often one of interpreting the signs or reading the
s ymbols, rather than talking to the people. Consequently, this study will
contribute to the existing literature on subcultures and on youth identit y
performance, thus offering an empirical approach. This thesis will provide a
contemporary account on the graffiti subculture in Europe that is dictated b y the
writers themselves.
1.5 Chapter outline
This thesis is divided into 5 chapters. Chapter 2 provides a critical review
of the literature on subcultures. I examine the Marxist approach given b y the
Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) and argue that the notion of
class is not the onl y factor playing a role in subcultures. Issues of age, gender and
quest for identit y must be intertwined into the theoretical picture as well. Chapter
3 explains the methods I used and asserts the qualit y of the stud y. I also reflect
on m y role as a young female researcher investigating a male dominated illegal
subculture. Chapter 4 focuses on the field. I describe m y journey into the graffiti
world using the writers’ own narrative accounts. Identit y performance is informed
b y the three main concepts: personal identit y, group identit y and feelings of
belonging to the subculture. I furthermore explain reasons, feelings, spaces, and
relations between graffiti and art and between graffiti writers and the outside
world. In the conclusive section, chapter 5, I answer the research question on
graffiti writers’ identit y performance combining theory with results. I also find
the theoretical implications of this stud y and recommend areas for further
2. Theoretical framework: Behind subcultures
This chapter unfolds the theoretical framework of this study, which focuses
on the concept of identit y performance within the graffiti subculture. It is
therefore necessary to introduce both earlier and more recent studies made on
subcultures in order to understand the avenues taken b y previous academic
research and to state the choice of direction for this paper. After a short
introduction on subcultures, the first section explains the work made b y the
Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) on subcultures. The theorists
belonging to this centre are presented as the founding fathers of subcultural
studies and whose works form the basis of most of the following theories in this
regard. This stud y is certainl y influenced b y their thoughts; however both the
merits and the limitations of their approaches will be illustrated in this paper.
Therefore, after a short introduction on subcultures, section 2.3 explains
subcultures as forms of resistance against a dominant culture. Section 2.4 adds
the concepts of yo uth and masculinit y to the one of class. This paragraph
introduces the importance of identit y and need of identification for youth to join
subcultures. These concepts, that seem to have been omitted by the CCCS, are
explained in a more elaborate manner in section 2.5. In this paragraph it is
explained how performance is linked to a sense of belonging to a communit y; and
in addition it highlights the reasons why identit y and identification cannot be
approached separately. The chapter ends, in section 2.6, with an introduction of
the work made b y Sarah Thornton and her suggested theory of ‘subcultural
capital’, drawn on the earlier works of Bourdieu and in contrast to the CCCS’
2.2 Subcultures
Alternative lifest yles and communities have existed for a long time, from
the religious and utopian communities of the earlier times, to the Bohemian and
Romantic identities of the nineteenth century. However, it is mostl y in the 1960s
that counter-cultures, alternative life-st yl es and new social movements started to
develop against the mainstream culture and ideology of that time. They have
helped to shape the variet y of identit y and lifest yle examples that still exist today
(Hetherington, 1998). Following the definition of Curley (2003), the term
subculture can be defined as ‘a cultural subgroup differentiated b y status, ethnic
background, residence, religion, or other factors that functionall y unify the group
and act collectivel y on each member’ (cited in Williamson & Roberts, 2004: xi).
In a way everybod y can be seen as belonging to one or more subcultures. While
some of them remain as subterranean cultural expressions, other subcultures
capture the interest of the cultural mainstream and become part of it. The latter
consists in assimilating the deviant behaviour into the mainstream and it has been
described b y Fiske (1989) as one of the solutions the State can adopt towards
counter-cultures, in order to make them ‘friends’ rather than ‘enemies’. Hall
(1976), explains this as efforts to contain the subordinate classes in order to make
them fit within the definitions of ‘realit y’ favourable to the dominant class.
However, the ideology of the dominant class has labelled this expression of
subcultural resistance as deviant and criminal, often linking it to violent crime.
2.3 Subcultures as forms of protest
Studies of popular culture have been dominated b y a tradition associated
with the 1970’s work of the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS),
Universit y of Birmingham, England (Thornton, 1995). The CCCS group draws on
Marxist understandings of social relations, which sees societ y divided in terms of
power and control of forces of production. The working class is seen as a crowd
of repressed powerless individuals. Since the relationship between the two social
groups is regularl y conflicting at the expense of the subordinate, the CCCS group
used working class problems to explain the purpose of subcultural membership
and to explain subcultural meanings (Macdonald, 2001). Members of subcultures
are seen as working-class rebels that use their subcultural styles as weapons in
this struggle (ibid.). The subculture becomes their way of resolving the
contradictions between their group and the dominant one. Every subcultural
circumstances in which the subculture finds a reason to exist (Hebdige, 1979).
However, these solutions are often hard to understand b y outsiders from that
culture, in fact subcultures tend to express forbidden contents (given b y
consciousness of class, of difference) in forbidden forms (often involving law
Dick Hebdige is one of the leading scholars of the CCCS and one of the
first sociologists to be interested in subcultures. His book Subculture: The
Meaning of Style (1979) is certainl y the book to start with when engaging on
stud ying subcultures. It seems therefore relevant to introduce his view on
subcultures as being engaged in a constant conflict with the dominant class at the
level of appearance, what he calls style. Indeed, following Hebdige (ibid.) social
relations and conflicts are understood b y individuals onl y through the superficial
forms in which they are presented to those individuals. All aspects of culture have
a semiotic value and every phenomenon functions with signs. Stuart Hall claims
that signs ‘cover the face of social life and render it classifiable, intelligible and
meaningful’ (Hall, 1977). These codes or signs tend to represent the interests of
the dominant groups in societ y because they are traced along the lines drawn b y
the dominant discourses. Some groups have more power, which means more
opportunities to produce and impose their definitions of the world on the world,
while others have fewer opportunities to let their voices be heard, to make rules
(Hebdige, 1979). He argues that in the post-second world war period, some groups
started to emerge and challenge the hegemon y of the powerful through style and
through appearances. In fact, the concept of style can be related to everything that
is displayed and performed to others, from a particular st yle of clothing to a
specific st yle of dancing. In every subculture style is pregnant with significance,
nothing is casual. Style is a collection of gestures that constitutes a speech which
offends the ‘silent majorit y’, which challenges the principle of unit y and cohesion
and contradicts the myth of consensus (Hebdige, 1979). These gestures, in a way
go ‘against nature’, because they interrupt the process of ‘normalization’, namel y
what is considered standard behaviour b y the dominant class (Hebdige, 1979).
When individuals get together to resist the hegemonic power, they form
subcultures. These can be used as means of escape and of total detachment from
the surrounding terrain. Different members bring different degrees of commitment
to a subculture. However, they must share a common ‘language’, the same style.
In other words style is the means through which identit y markers and indications
of belonging are expressed (Hetherington, 1998). Hebdige refers to subcultures as
‘spectacular subcultures’, due to the performance aspects involved. The style
displays the codes particular to that specific subculture, demonstrating in this
way that codes given b y the dominant culture can be used and abused. The kind of
methodology that Marxists use is semiotics, which involves examining relations
between signs and s ymbols in order to understand the meanings they produce. For
Hebdige, the task of the researcher is one of creating ‘maps of meaning’ out of
the hidden messages inscribed in codes on the glossy surface of st yle, and to
understand the contradictions they are designed to hide or resolve. In short a
researcher has to determine what specificall y a certain subcultural st yle signifies
to the members of the subculture themselves (Hebdige, 1979). Hebdige looks at
how members ‘steal’, ‘appropriate’, and ‘redefine’ s ymbols and objects of the
‘everyday world’ as a form of resistance.
The concept of ‘appropriation’ of Hebdige is in line with John Fiske (1989),
but the latter introduced the ‘pleasure’ aspect into the idea of resistance, and
distances himself from focusing on the class struggle. However, a subculture is
always formed in reaction to a dominant one. Escaping social control produces a
sense of freedom, often expressed in excessive, irresponsible behaviour (such as
shop-lifting), which represents both the vitalit y and the repression of these
subcultural forces. Instead of speaking about subcultures, he rather talks about
popular culture, which he describes as the art of making do with what the s ystem
provides (Fiske, 1989). Individuals make popular culture the interface between
the products of the culture industry and their everyday life (Fiske, 1989).
Powerful people construct ‘places’ where they can exercise their power (cities,
shopping malls, schools, houses), but the ‘weak’ occup y them and make those
places their ‘own’. If the dominant culture aims at efficiency, popular culture is
‘concerned with meanings, pleasures and identit y rather than efficiency’ (Fiske,
1989: 1). However, these pleasures only exist in its practices, contexts and
moments of production (Ibid.: 50).
Hetherington, 1998, Muggleton, 2000), Hebdige and the CCCS were much
criticised for concentrating too much on the structural factor of subcultures, while
other factors can be just as important, such as gender and age.
2.4 Youth and masculinity as main actors in subcultures
It is often the search for meaning in the life of adolescents, who are often
apathetic to the future, which allows the creation of youth subcultures (Hebdige,
1979). Adolescents tend to drift to delinquency as they search for a thrill or an
adrenaline rush. This ‘rush’ they seek is the result of the fact that a certain
behaviour is not accepted, therefore it is not easil y accomplished through lawabiding means (Matza, 1961). Moreover, illegal behaviours tend to provide higher
economical rewards than legal means (ibid.). According to Downes (1966)
adolescents’ illegal behaviour due to a process of dissociation from middle class
dominated context of school, work and recreation. This disenchantment provoked
an over-emphasis on purel y ‘leisure’ goals sedulousl y fostered b y commercial
‘teenage’ cultures rather than on other non-work areas (Downes, 1966:257).
David Matza in ‘Subterranean traditions of youth’ (1961), introduces the
notion of bohemianism (in opposition to delinquency) as one of the solutions to
the general dissatisfaction experienced by working and middle class adolescents.
According to Matza (1961) youth is a time of rebelliousness where adolescents
have the tendency to drift to three particular forms of revolt: delinquency, or
delinquent youth; radicalism, or political militant youth; and bohemianism, or
cultural rebels. Cultural rebels seek expressive goals, concerned with immediate
gratification, hedonism, creativit y and spontaneit y. They are mainl y middle class
students unsatisfied by the rewards of higher education, since they are less
fulfilling than they were led to believe. They become disillusioned and start
getting interested in other more satisfying things. They value expressivit y through
non violent aesthetic pursuits of hedonism, through a cool mode of enjoyment,
rather than a furious pursuit of pleasure (Young, 1971).
Brake (1985) stresses the importance of masculinit y in subcultures.
Subcultures are seen as forms of exploration of masculinit y, while young girls:
escape into romance and marriage, or drift into sexual misbehaviour, such as
prostitution. ‘If subcultures are solutions to collectivel y experienced problems,
then traditionall y these have been the problems experienced b y young men’
(Brake,1985:163). However, those are still working class adolescents and the
problems they experience arise from contradictions in the social structure.
Through subcultures adolescents generate a form of collective identit y from
which an individual identit y can be achieved outside that ascribed b y class,
education and occupation. James Merrerschmidt, in ‘Masculinities and Crimes’
(1993), claims that crime works as a resource for making gender, as a strategy for
masculinit y. Crime is seen to be a valid and attainable means of accomplishing a
masculine identit y. He relates the high percentage of crime committed b y
adolescents to their lack of power and access to conventional masculine
resources. Crime is the substitute for legal access to gain power. Therefore
‘youth’, ‘masculinity’ and ‘class’ occup y central roles in both subcultural and
criminology studies. Stanley Cohen (1979) has in fact coined the term ‘folk
devils’ to describe delinquent male working class adolescents, as they threaten
the social order and create moral panics. However, class resistance can hardl y be
the onl y reason for man y adolescents to engage in specific and sometimes
dangerous subcultural activities. There must be something more personall y
enriching, such as the quest and affirmation of identity (Maffesoli, 1988;
Macdonald, 2001; Hetherington, 1998).
Adolescence plays a central role for the development of subcultures as it
seems to be the period in which belonging to subcultures becomes appealing as a
mechanism of identity protection (Erikson, 1968). Subcultural ideologies are a
means b y which youth imagine their own and other social groups, assert their
distinctive character and affirm that they are not anonym ous members of an
undifferentiated mass (Thornton, 1995). Youth is a complex, shifting, and
contradictory category that has grasped the attention of man y researchers.
Alread y at the end of the previous millennium, the task of defining what it means
to be a young person seemed to become of central importance (Epstain, 1998).
Adolescence is perceived as a developmental, transitional stage of life in which
dependence and independence coexist (Kahane, 1997). Epstein (1998) claims that
adolescence is the period in the life course in which individuals are most likel y to
be alienated. This happens because adolescents live in a limbo between childhood
freedom and adulthood responsibilities, but nevertheless are supposed to make
choices and to form their own identities. Central among adolescent choices, is the
most frightening one: the choice of a future career.
2.5 Subcultures as a pursuit of identity and identification
The concept of ‘identit y’ is one of the most widel y used concepts in social
sciences and humanities (Duits, 2008). Hetherington (1998), states that the
academic contemporary interest in identit y developed out of earlier studies of
youth subcultures and alternative lifestyles in the 1970s (Hall and Jefferson,
1976; Hebdige, 1979, Thornton, 1995). Everybod y is compelled to make choices
throughout their lives, from questions concerning appearance to ones of beliefs
and occupations. As it has been explained above, during the adolescence period
questions related to identit y construction, such as ‘What to do and who to be’ are
focal for every young adult living in the period of late modernit y. In modern
societies self-identity becomes an unavoidable issue. The self is not something
people are born with, but it is reflexively constructed b y the individual. Indeed,
the self is something that you do, rather than what you are (Duits, 2008).
People’s everyday actions reinforce a set of other people’s expectations,
which tend to follow what is collectivel y understood as normal behaviour.
However, some people feel more enabled to make more unusual choices than
others. For instance, established ways of doing things can be changed when
people start to ignore them, replace them or reproduce them differentl y
(Gauntlett, 2008). According to Giddens (1991), individuals construct a narrative
of the self, which gives some order to their lives and help them to interpret the
choices they have made. Self-identit y becomes a reflexive project that we
continuousl y work and reflect on to make sense of ourselves. Each individual
creates, maintains and revises a set of biographical narratives-the story of who we
are, and how we came to be where we are now (Giddens, 1991). Pride and selfesteem will be given b y the individual’s confidence in connection with the
integrit y and value of the narrative of self-identit y. In fact to believe in oneself
and to command respect of others, people need a strong narrative of what they
are, in which they play a heroic role: a narrative that needs to be creativel y and
continuousl y maintained.
Following Foucault (1988), in order to become the person we want to be,
we think and act b y appl ying what he calls ‘technologies of the self’. These are
tools that allow individuals to transform themselves towards a higher state of
being, to achieve personal growth. According to the definition of Foucault (1988)
‘technologies of the self’ are:
Techniques which permit indi viduals to effect, by their own means, a
certain number of operations on their own bodies, on their own souls, on
their own thoughts, on their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to
transform themsel ves, modif y themsel ves and to attain a certain state of
perfection, of happiness, of purity, of supernatural power, and so on .
(Foucault in Kim Atkins, 2004: 214)
They help to produce individuals’ own self-understanding, as they make
subjects believe that they can be self-determined individuals that hold agency.
They are strategies that the individuals use to perceive their “selves” and to
present their ‘selves’ to others. In this way these strategies seem to be very
connected to the concept of ‘performance’, which will be introduced below. Since
the self is not ‘given’, but has to be created, then life itself could be developed
and treated as a work of art (Foucault, cited in Gauntlett, 2008). In Foucault’s
terms, ‘life as a work of art’ has nothing to do with looking beautiful, but it is
about a beautiful way of living (Gauntlett, 2008). It’s about lifest yle: choice and
st yle.
Coming back to Giddens (1991), lifest yle choices can give people’s personal
narratives an identifiable shape, linking together people that have made similar
choices. A lifest yle can be considered as a container for identit y or, in other
words, the visible expression of a certain narrative of self-identit y. However an
individual might have more than one lifest yle, each one reserved for certain
stories or contexts, that is what Giddens calls ‘lifest yl e sectors’ (cited in
Gauntlett, 2008). Nevertheless, in order to become accustomed with the lifest yle
of a certain social group, initiall y individuals may require some time to adjust.
However, identit y seems to be more than self-reflection. It also involves
issues of belonging, performance, identification and communication to others.
Accordingl y, this stud y is based on the definition of identit y given b y
Hetherington (1998):
Identit y is about both similarity and difference. It is about how subj ects
see themsel ves in representation, and about how they construct
differences within that representation and between it and the
representation of others. Identity is about both correspondence and
dissimilarit y. Principally, identit y is articulated through the relat ionship
between belongi ng, recognition or identification and difference.
(Hetherington, 1998: 15)
Following this definition, identit y is strictl y connected to the concepts of
‘performance’ and ‘belonging’ as a way of differentiating the self from ‘others’
that don’t belong to the same group of people to which one likes to identify. He
relates the three concepts of ‘expressivism’, ‘belonging’ and ‘identit y’. The
relation between them functions as the major feature of the quest for identit y in
modern societies: ‘identit y is not onl y about self-reflection and the development
of a life-project, but it is mainl y about issues of belonging, expression,
performance, identification and communication with others’ (Hetherington, 1998).
The creation of conditions of support, friendship, and solidarity are all important
issues in understanding the role of a structure of feeling within processes of
identit y formation. However Hetherington rather than focusing on the individual
when discussing issues of identit y, like Giddens for instance, he finds himself
closer to Maffessoli (1988) for whom ‘collective identification and belonging is
seen as a means of developing individual identit y rather than its dissolution into
some vaguel y conceived idea of a collective will’ (Maffesoli 1988, cited in
Hetherington, 1998: 16).
2.5.1 Belonging and performance
As mentioned above, the concept of ‘communit y’ is strongl y related to the one
of ‘identit y’ and it is hard to consider them separatel y. In fact, the questions ‘who
I am’ and ‘from which communit y I am a part’ cannot be approached
independentl y (Benhabib, 1992, cited in Duits, 2008). Benhabib claims that in the
realm of personality formation, the development of individual identities is
dependent on the attitudes of individuals to intertwine together a coherent life
story (Benhabib, 1992). Most of the time we define ourselves in terms of where
we are from, yet according to Benhabib, our inner personal identit y is based on an
awareness that is persistent through time. However, Benhabib differentiates the
narrative of the ‘self’ from group or collective identit y, which she claims to be
constructed out of a s ynchronic network of affiliations and sentiments. Collective
identit y expresses the individuals’ sense of belonging within a societ y or a
communit y, but it also implies the existence of other groups, usuall y either
‘outside’ or ‘alongside’ the perimeters of the communit y. In fact group identit y
functions b y creating awareness of separation between different groups, some sort
of boundary condition between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Benhabib, 1992).
Hetherington (1998), based on the earlier works of Durkheim (1964) and
Mafessoli (1988), claims that there is an overriding relationship between issues of
self identit y affirmation on the one hand, and the affectual basis for wanting to
belong on the other. According to him, it is through identification with others that
a sense of self-recognition and belonging with others is achieved. People want to
belong and they want to show their empathy with like-minded people. According
to Maffesoli (1996), this sense of belonging is derived mainl y from fellowship or
communion and it is the impetus behind collective lifestyle identifications.
Lifest yle linkages provide a form of affectual solidarit y that, through the creation
of distinctive s ymbols and forms of communication, creates a process of identit y
formation that seeks to develop difference and resistance.
The chosen identit y takes place through a series of performances in which
identit y processes are played out. In fact identit y is not only achieved through
identification with groups of individuals who share a common outlook, but also
through recognisable performative repertoires that are expressive and embodied.
‘Performance is a way in which we can address the issue of individual identit y
and collective identification without loosing sight of either. […] The expressive,
in the form of shared feeling, emotion, lo yalt y, belonging and ritual processes of
transformation, is of central importance to this understanding of identit y’
(Hetherington, 1998: 53). Moreover, it is both about the everyday lives of
members and about their more visible activities. One is always on stage, not just
when one is performing strong action or protest (ibid.).
Goffman (1959), in his work ‘Presentation of the self in everyday life’ claims
that individuals play roles or ‘performances’ all the time. Societ y is characterised
b y the ‘setting’, the ‘personal front of appearance’ and the ‘backstage’. The
‘setting’ is the overall situation, the ‘personal front of appearance’ is how one
presents himself to the audience, and the ‘backstage’ is what individuals do to
rehearse their performances. According to him, the self is not fixed and finalized,
but mobile, open and multilayered. This is in line with what Maffesoli describes
in ‘Games with Masks’ (1988). Everybod y performs a ‘persona’ or ‘mask’ through
st yle. Hetherington (1998:56) argues that a persona can be defined as ‘a
combination of bodily dispositions, situated performances and identification with
others that use st ylistic effects’. Individuals in fact create their own biographies
through performances in certain spaces, which are called b y Goffman (1959)
‘theatrical spaces’.
Identit y…is something one performs and reflexivel y monitors b y
arranging strips of restored behaviour into a distinctive
performance. In doing so, strips of recognisable behaviour are
chosen through a continuous process of experiment and rehearsal,
involving forms of sociation…which emerge in relation to their
spatial setting. (Hetherington, 1998: 154)
The self is therefore also situationall y located. Both performance and sense of
communit y generally involve attachment to particular places. Making space for
oneself is a major source of affirmation of the ‘self’ and identification with
others. Some places become important for group identification as they are
invested with a sense of home or with other sorts of meanings (Hetherington,
1998). Also ritual processes, through which new identities are created, often
stress the importance of the spatialit y of performance in the process of identit y
formation. However, it is not always about adopting spaces that are alread y
established, but also creating s ymbolic ones. That s ymbolism is given b y the link
that is created between particular identifications and their modes of expression in
These kinds
b y Foucault
Hetherington, 1998) ‘heterotopic’, which means that they stand apart from the
rest of the societ y in some way. These kinds of spaces facilitate opportunities to
be different and to constitute new chosen identities. The space becomes a
paradoxical one without fixed centres and margins, so that identit y becomes all
about multiple locations and the performance aspects
within that location
(Hetherington, 1998). Places are seen through a structure of feeling that is
attributed to them b y the chosen lifest yles practices.
2.6 Subcultural capital as a means for achieving identity affirmation
Sarah Thornton (1995), in her work named ‘Club cultures: Music, Media
and Subcultural Capital’, rejects the work of the Birmingham school in favour of
the approach of the Chicago School, for whom empirical research of social groups
always took precedence over elaboration of theory. Members of a subculture tend
to make ‘meaning in the service of power’. Distinctions are never just assertions
of equal difference, rather they usually entail some claim to authorit y and
presume the inferiorit y of others (Thornton, 1995). Thronton draws on the work
of Bourdieu (1984), namel y on the concepts of cultural capital and social capital.
One of the man y advantages of Bourdieu’s schema is that it moves away from
rigidl y vertical models of the social structure (Thornton, 1995). Bourdieu locates
social groups in a highl y complex multi-dimensional space rather than on a linear
scale. While cultural capital confers social status through education and
knowledge, the category of social capital stems not so much from what you know,
rather who you know (and who knows you). Connections in the form of friends,
relations and acquaintances can all bestow status. The notion of social capital is
also useful in explaining the power of fame or of being known b y those one
doesn’t know (ibid.) well known people are worth y of being known for example,
saying ‘I know him well’ confers a higher status to the person in question
(Bourdieu, 1986). In addition to these forms of capital, Thornton invented the
term ‘subcultural capital’. Subcultural capital confers power on its owners in the
eyes of the relevant beholder. She claims that ‘just as cultural capital is
personified in good manners and urban conversation, so subcultural capital is
embodied in the form of being in the know’, such as using current slang and
looking as if you were born to perform the latest dance st yles’ (Thornton, 1995:
11-12). People gain respect from what they know, own and perform in relation to
a specific subculture. Class is not irrelevant in subcultural capital, but it does not
correlate in an y way with the levels of youthful subcultural capital. In
fact, class becomes obfuscated b y subcultural distinctions. This happens because
one cannot learn at school subcultural capital, it is something extra-curricular. As
a result, after age, the social difference along which subcultural capital is aligned
most s ystematicall y is gender (Thornton, 1995). While girls invest more of their
time and identit y in doing well at schools, bo ys tend to spend more time with
leisure activities and establish their identit y elsewhere. However, girls are not
completel y excluded in the econom y of subculture capital.
Popular distinctions
become means b y which people strive for social power, for a sense of self-worth.
Subculture can be seen in this sense as a multi-dimensional social space. Cultural
differences are not onl y resistances to the domination of some ruling class, but
there are also microstructures of power involved in the cultural disagreements and
debates that go on between more closel y associated groups (Thornton, 1995). For
instance members of the same subculture constantl y catalogue and classify youth
cultures according to the different features that constitute the subcultural capital.
These mental maps, rich in cultural detail and value judgement, offer them a
distinct ‘sense of their place but also a sense of the other’s place’ (Bourdieu,
1990, cited in Thornton, 1995: 99). Members of a subculture are generall y happ y
to identify a homogeneous crowd to which they don’t belong and they feel
somehow superior to. On the one hand, youth do aspire to a more egalitarian and
democratic world, but on the other hand, they create the same s ystems of power
within their own subculture. Classlessness is a means of obfuscating the dominant
structure in order to set up an alternative and ideological precondition for the
effective operation of subcultural capital. The paradoxical combination of
resignation and refusal, defiance and deference would seem to be characteristic of
youth subcultures (Thornton, 1995).
3. Methods
3.1 Research Design
In order to conduct this research I considered an ethnographic approach to
be the most appropriate. The aim of this research was to discover some specific
internal d ynamics of an illegal subculture, more precisel y the one of identit y
performance, which includes personal identit y, group identit y affiliation and a
sense of belonging to the broader subculture. Therefore, it seemed necessary for
me to be embedded in the subculture in order to see how group members make
sense of their experiences. Therefore, the core methods were semi-structured b y
means of in-depth interviews and participant observation.
The term ethnography means ‘to write a culture’. It involves exploration of
a cultural group with the aim of understanding, discovering, and interpreting a
way of life from the point of view of its participants (O’Leary, 2004). The term is
often used to refer to qualitative or interpretative research, wherein behaviours
are studied on a small scale in an everyday, single setting, with observation
(Hammersley, 1990). The process of participation involves the researcher
engaging in impression management. In fact, if the quantitative researcher is
seeking for objectivity, the qualitative researcher considers subjectivity as a part
of the research process: impressions, reflections and feelings become data in their
own right. Quantitative or conventional social scientists rel y on survey processes
on a limited number of group members to understand attitudes, beliefs, opinions,
and behaviours of a certain culture. Conversel y, an ethnographic approach goes
beyond the simpl y exploration of what is, and may begin to explore why it is
(O’Leary, 2004). In ethnography to explore is to understand, discover, describe,
and interpret. Ethnograph y can be reasonabl y powerful in understanding the world
from the perspective of the participants as it involves prolonged and participative
cultural engagement. A qualitative stud y does not pretend to find ‘absolute
truths’, rather limited offers of interpretation, so every statement is related to
subjects and situations; and researches and findings are influenced b y the social
and cultural background of people involved (Gilbert, 2001).
Ethnographers are responsible for bringing the culture into life through the
subjective, partial and variable realities of the participants. However ethnograph y
is not onl y about strengths, but also weaknesses. These include: gaining access
and building trust, emotional costs, and the potential for the researcher to
influence the researched (O’Leary, 2004). Ethnographers also need to guard
against ‘homogenization’ which can lead to the risk of treating a particular group
as one with no divergence.
An ethnographic approach, instead of being based upon a theory as it
happens in quantitative researches, aims to create a grounded theory, which, as
the term suggests, is grounded in the experiences of others. However the theory
can never simpl y emerge from data, because an y observation will always be
guided b y existing images, concepts and theories (Henwood & Pidgeon, 1994). I
started to explore the subculture of graffiti with an open mind, but not an empt y
one. I had questions I wanted to answer, certain dynamics I wanted to discover, a
theory to confirm or contradict, and anal ytic gaps I wanted to fill.
For this stud y, I applied a multi-sited ethnography, since the research took
place in two distinct places: Amsterdam and Rome. My aim was to explore the
scene in the two cities not as a comparison, but as two European cities with a
considerable graffiti scene. Rather than finding differences, I wanted to look at
what is in common. M y purpose was to get a detailed picture of similar processes
that are occurring in the two places. The two methods of data gathering used in
this stud y have been participant observation and in-depth semi-structured
3.2 Participant Observation
Participant observations for this study took place sporadicall y from midJuly until mid- December 2009, in different environments and situations. I wanted
to get into the culture and understand the social dynamics within the group and as
a result I tried to participate in different activities where writers would get
together. These included going out for drinks, spending nights at their homes
waiting to go out and paint, attending parties and legal organized events for
writers, and observing the action of illegal painting on streets, trains, and along
the railings. Several times participant observation also included walking around
the cit y or train stations guided b y one or more writers in order to understand
which ones are the predominant writers in that particular scene or to show me the
places where he left his mark. I am conscious that m y role can be perceived b y
some as ‘a partner in crime’ in this illegal activit y. I was aware I was crossing a
line and walking in places forbidden b y the law; however as a researcher
exploring an illegal world, I considered this necessary in order to experience the
adrenaline and the feelings that come with the practice. All the writers I followed
were extremel y experienced and careful in their approach, that I always felt safe
in their presence. They helped me to overstep fences and to hide and be prepared
to run if needed. Being a participant gave me the opportunit y to comprehend the
relations that occur between the members of the same crew and experience the
special atmosphere created at night in places where you should not be and feeling
the rush and the final satisfaction that comes with it.
I documented m y experiences with pictures and short videos. Moreover,
field notes were taken on a regular basis, both during the events and at the end of
the day. The fact that m y meetings with them were happening at irregular
intervals provided me some breaks to elaborate m y notes and reflect on them
between one meeting and the other one.
3.3 In-depth semi-structured interviews
The participant observation I undertook always involved conversations with
several writers who provided a great source of information, which were integrated
with more formalized in-depth interviews. The interviews took place from midJuly until November. First in Ital y and then in the Netherlands, they were
therefore taken in Italian and in English. They took place in different settings
according to the needs of the participants. Two of the interviews involved 2
writers, instead of one; nevertheless both writers in each interview were able to
answer individuall y to every question. An average interview lasted 45 minutes.
They have been all audio taped and full y transcribed. In front of the audiorecorder the respondents were of course less spontaneous than during informal
conversation, however they seemed to enjo y it and were eager to talk. They felt
special and happ y that their voices would be heard and their quotes would appear
in this paper.
The interviews were semi-structured, which means that the themes and
questions were decided in advance and were the same for everyone. However, the
order of questions changed with every interview in order to keep the flow of the
conversation and delve further into some topics that as a result became relevant
during the interview. The respondents were given the flexibility to express issues
of interest or concern as they came up during the interview process. Therefore the
interviews took place as normal conversations about fixed topics. The interview
guide and the respondents’ desire to talk in detail about their experiences
contributed to the ex tended nature of the interviews.
The topic list was built around general themes which consisted of general
information about their activit y as a graffiti writer, their feelings and reasons for
doing it, how graffiti writing influences their everyday lives, the role of
illegalit y, and finall y questions concerning group activities and sense of
belonging. Inside the general themes, they were of course questions that were
more central to m y main research question on identit y performance: territory,
time of dedication, who the audience is, the kind of message they want to
transmit, what kind of writing they do (whether tag, piece, or throw up), how
man y tags they use, what do they prefer to stain (whether street, trains, or
subways), and what gives them status. The topic list is set out in the Appendix 1.
3.4 The sample
The sample was comprised of 12 male illegal graffiti writers. This was a
multi-sited ethnograph y. Seven of them were Italian, four were Dutch, and one
was Swedish. Since this culture is a male dominated one, the focus of the stud y
was in investigating this male world and as a consequence the small minorit y of
women graffiti writers were excluded from this research. The age of the
participants ranged from 19 to 26 years old. As it will be shown later, age, plays a
major role in this subculture, being a determinant factor for entering the scene
and similarl y the amount of time dedicated to it. For this reason, I preferred the
respondents to be slightl y older than the beginners and thus more experienced, so
that they could describe feelings and experiences of the past from a retrospective
point of view and their current feelings and experiences in a conscious way.
However, as mentioned before, the participant observation and the many informal
conversations I was engaged in, involved a higher number of writers than the
official figure stated in the interviews.
Recruiting participants for this research was not an eas y task. This stud y
sought to access a hard-to-reach population because of the illegal aspect of the
activit y they are involved in. In fact, it was common for the respondents to
express suspicions or concerns about who I was, and what my intentions were and
wh y I was interested in them. They were sometimes afraid I was sent on behalf of
the government or law enforcement. As it had been shown already in previous
researches (Macdonald, 2001), graffiti subculture is all about recommendation.
Many of the participants I found through people I knew and who trusted me, other
respondents were friends of writers I had alread y interviewed. M y recruitment of
participants followed a snowball sample. Next to that, I also went in special bars
were graffiti writers usuall y hang around, and participated in the ‘street art’ event
called ‘Manifestazione sportiva e non Velletri: stazione fine corsa’ that took
place in a cit y next to Rome the 24 t h and 25 t h of Jul y 2009. However, the voice of
my existence and m y project started to spread around this small communit y. They
started to trust me and were willing to share their stories and show me places and
actions. Man y participants said that the reason wh y they agreed to be interviewed
was that they wanted to talk about the good parts of the scene and they hoped that
this study would provide a positive and genuine portrayal of the scene.
3.5 The role of the researcher
This research was conducted as an overt ethnograph y, which means that the
identit y of the researcher and the purpose of the study were clear to all the
respondents. M y young age was definitely an advantage for getting their trust and
their spontaneit y. Moreover, not being a graffiti writer and being a woman
investigating a male dominated subculture made me a double outsider. However, I
felt that being a woman was probabl y easier as I was in a non competitive
position. In this way I used the informed vision of an insider and combined it
with the advantages of being perceived as an outsider, given that in terms of
insight no one position is better than the other (Hammersley, 1990): ‘it is the
stranger who finds what is familiar to the group significantl y unfamiliar and so is
prompted to raise questions for inquiry less apt to be raised at all b y Insiders’
(Merton, 1972:33, cited in Macdonald, 2001).
3.6 Ethical considerations
In every stud y involving qualitative research, given the human nature of the
unit of anal ysis, it is fundamental to consider any possible ethical issues that may
emerge during the research and the publication of data. For the specific case of
this stud y, since the respondents are involved in illegal activities, ethical issues
needed to receive a special attention. As mentioned in the paragraph above I have
been open with the writers about the nature of this research, m y role, and m y
central focus on identit y performance. They were all aware that I was taking
pictures, field notes and recording the interviews. In this way both disclosure and
informed consent were respected.
Anon ymit y requires here a little more attention. All the real names of the
participants are confidential and the data cannot be traced back to the
respondents. However, since graffiti writers are using a secret identit y to perform
their illegal activit y, they all agreed to openl y appear in this paper with their
nicknames. Reaching fame is one of their main targets and they feel a sense of
flattery appearing in an academic paper.
3.7. Data analysis
As mentioned alread y, in this research I applied a grounded theory
approach, which is a systematic qualitative research methodology that emphasizes
generation of theory from the data in the process of conducting research. This
method may appear in contradiction with the scientific method, as the first step is
data collection and successivel y the theory is generated. From the data collected,
the key points are marked with a series of codes, which are extracted from the
text. The codes are grouped into similar concepts in order to make them more
workable. Concepts that pertain to the same phenomenon are grouped to form
categories, which are the basis for the creation of a theory (Strauss and Corbin,
1998). For the anal ysis of the data I emplo yed the software MaxQDA, a tool that
helped me to evaluate and interpret the qualitative data in a systematic manner. In
order to do so, I divided m y anal ysis into three phases, as suggested b y Strauss
and Corbin (1998). In the first phase, called open coding, I read all data (field
notes and interview transcripts) and built a code tree. I structured m y coding into
seven main coding categories: reasons, identit y performance, youth, subculture,
life outside graffiti, illegalit y, and cit y. Under these, many other categories were
found. In the second phase, called axial coding, I compared, related and ordered
the codes. I found patterns, similarities and deviant patterns, and several
categories were bounded or split. In the final phase of selective coding, I
anal yzed the concepts that have emerged and kept comparing codes and finding
relationships between them, so that the story line refined in the Results’ chapter
started to take a shape.
3.8 Quality of this research
In ethnograph y the basis of interpretation is in fact filtering observations
and inputs through theoretical and anal ytic frameworks. However, in order to be
as fair as possible, I attempted to follow the strategies for credibilit y and
verification described b y O’Leary (2004) during all the processes of this research.
According to her, the strategies for achieving credibilit y are techniques that can
be used to ensure thoroughness and rigor to the study. These are saturation,
representation. Saturation is obtained when additional data no longer adds
richness to understanding phenomena or aids in building theories. In fact I
realized I did not need more interviews when, during the last interview, I already
knew most of the answers the writer would give me, I was ending up nodding
without the same enthusiasm I had before, and sometimes I found m yself
suggesting the answers. So, it was without doubt, time for me to switch off the
recorder, collect my notes and start transcribing. Crystallization is given b y
seeing one single situation or phenomenon from different point of views in order
to obtain a rich and diverse understanding of it. For this reason I got insights
from a variet y of participants, coming from different countries and different
ethnic and social backgrounds. In addition, I also tried to participate in a
diversit y of activities so that I could see every phenomenon from a different
angle. Prolonged engagement is given with an investment of time sufficient to
learn a culture, understand context, and build trust and rapport. In order to
achieve that, especiall y trust because of the illegal nature of the subculture under
investigation, I have spent time with graffiti writers beside the main purpose of
interviewing them or following them during the processes of graffiti making. To
understand their world I needed to submerge m yself in their routines. Therefore, I
hung out with them in some pubs, on the beach, and was invited to home parties
and other activities. This gave me the opportunit y to create sympathetic rapports
with them and to gain trust. During these occasions, I was engaged in man y
informal conversations that helped me to deepl y understand this culture and the
relations that occur between writers. After these gatherings, I wrote field notes
and reflected on what I had seen and heard, so that the strategy of persistent
observation was also met. Lastl y, the representation has to be wide enough to
ensure that a cultural group or phenomenon can be spoken about confidentl y. The
wide representation of the participants has been outlined in the ‘Sample’
paragraph above.
After having described the strategies I applied in order to achieve
credibilit y, I will now introduce the ones I used to obtain validit y. O’Leary
considers triangulation, member checking and full explication of methods as the
main strategies to obtain it. I used all three recommended strategies to increase
the validit y of this stud y. Triangulation means using more than one source of data
to confirm the authenticit y of each source. I indeed used multiple methods to
explore the same phenomenon. By continuousl y asking the participants whether
my interpretation and understanding of the phenomenon was correct, I followed
the member checking strategy. Lastl y, the strategy of full explication of methods
is being used here in this chapter, so that m y study can be auditable and
4. Results
4.1 Introduction
In this chapter, I will describe what emerged from m y field notes, taken
during participant observation, and the interviews and informal conversations I
had with the graffiti writers. Since identit y performance is the focus of this
stud y, this section will illustrate how the process takes place in the graffiti
communit y. The process of identit y performance is grounded in three main
concepts: personal identit y, group identit y and belonging to the subculture.
During m y research, it emerged that identit y performance is also strongl y linked
to the respondents’ feelings, the use of spaces, and illegality. Moreover, when
exploring what people do, it seems necessary to consider their subjective
reasons for doing it. Consequentl y, it seems necessary that these topics are of
main consideration to this chapter. The three main concepts encompass the
additional ones mentioned above; however, instead of structuring the chapter
under three major sections, I organized the paragraphs in a more linear manner,
a manner that has been unconsciousl y dictated b y the writers themselves. The
structure of this chapter follows the mental maps of the participants involved in
my research; connections are made from their quotes and from the field. I
decided to stick with these associations of ideas in order not to distort their
Firstl y, it seems necessary to assert the tag as the externalization and the
affirmation of the writer’s identit y, since visibilit y is an issue of major concern
while affirming the self in this subculture. I will then illustrate the importance
of the territory and the role of the city as a space of identit y performance.
Territory plays a central role in the process of identit y affirmation and status
attainment in the graffiti communit y, with the cit y being the onl y place wherein
the identit y has reason to be performed. In this paragraph, I will also describe
the component of travelling and meeting writers coming from other places.
Meeting other writers is necessary in order to reinforce their sense of belonging,
but also to ‘play safer’ when going to paint in unknown places. Therefore, the
topics of belonging and illegalit y will also be introduced. Since graffiti writers
generall y belong to crews, their personal identit y affirmation often occurs in
accordance with being a member of a group. For that reason in the following
paragraph I will explain the relevance of the crew, both in terms of feelings and
performances. However, these relationships are framed within illegalit y which is
the main characteristic of this subculture, and often the onl y one perceived from
outsiders. I will elucidate the importance of it and how it influences the
performances. Connected to illegalit y, is the adrenaline rush that pushes man y
adolescents to write on the walls as one of the main reasons to do it. Therefore,
the next section will clarify the meaning of graffiti, the role of the audience and
the main reasons for the graffiti writers to get involved and to stay involved.
Last, but not least, identit y performance needs to be in line with subcultural
ideals. In fact, even though it is fundamental to show a certain degree of
personal innovation, this also has to reflect the range of tastes and common
norms that make the subculture what it is and why it is distinctive from outside
societ y. The commitment of sustaining the subculture will be illustrated in the
last paragraph.
4.2 I tag, therefore I am
The tag is the first choice a graffiti writer has to face. Without a tag, the
writer does not exist in the graffiti communit y:
Well… the thing is li ke that. Graffiti is the name. Advertising the name. A
kind of advertising that is done without spending money, but only with
guts. The more you risk, the more you have visibility and the stronger you
are. You are in the game. The tag is the fi rst step. The tag is the name,
without the name you are nothing, nobody. [ Mirics – 22, Rome]
The tag does not always have to be necessaril y a name; it can also be a
s ymbol such as a smiley face. After having developed their interest in graffiti,
writers must decide a tag or nickname to use in order to be visible and
recognized within his communit y. For instance, in the course of this research I
have heard stories about a graffiti writer that just writes a ‘cat print’, or
similarl y whilst walking along the streets of Amsterdam East every now and
then there is a coloured ‘fist’ drawn on the walls. Behind these apparentl y
meaningless marks are people that choose this specific ‘signature’ to present
themselves to others.
After having made it clear that the tag is the performed identit y of the
graffiti writer, in this paragraph I will clarify more extensively why that is, b y
delineating the characteristics related to it. The tag is characterized b y three
main aspects: it needs to be original, it reflects the feelings of the writer and it
is continuousl y reaffirmed and defended as the externalization of the self. The
tag has to be something that belongs only to you and searching for it stops onl y
when you start to feel that way:
Before I had other tags that I won’t tell you… But I found mine in the
summer’99. It was out of coincidence, while talking with some friends,
looking for a si gnature…it had beautiful letters. There isn’t a special
reason. I liked how it sounded… I looked for something original,
something that nobody had. And slowl y I felt it was mine. At the
beginning it looked as a not existing word, meaningless… Then slowl y, by
writing it all the ti me, it becomes something. [Renok – 26, Rome]
It is necessary for writers’ pride and self-esteem to feel comfortable with
the identit y they choose to present. Continuousl y writing one’s tag on walls,
trains and subways gives more strength to the narrative of self. Moreover, the
tag is the source of the writer’s fame. For this reason, writers generall y prefer to
wait until they are read y before marking the wall (see Image 1). In order to
avoid peer criticism and be satisfied with their performance, writers tend to
practice for long time on paper and closely examine magazine pictures and other
pieces on the streets. It is very important to be prepared in order to perform the
We grew up in the west side and across the street we had a bridge and
then we came down and we saw a wall full colour of wall, from MATT
that is our king. Matt put a piece there together with 3 New Yor k writers
and then we were thinking ‘ where are the drips? How can you spr ay these
fucking tags?’ The wall was so amazing, we j ust sit there three times a
week and study, study, study. Why this shit, why this background, why
these figures. Why, why, why, why. [Twice – 26, Amsterdam]
In the beginning I was a lot more st ylish, I always wanted to try a new
sketch or a new st yle ever y ti me. I sketched a lot at the beginning. I could
see myself for hours in the night j ust sketching. When I was satisfied with
something I wanted t o go out to do it. And someti mes I said ‘no’ to
friends ‘cause I had no sketch. I don’t want to go out and paint [Aso – 26,
Stockhol m]
Image 1. Renok’s sketch for a ‘whole car’ piece.
Once the tag is felt right, graffiti writers start to perceive it as the
externalization of their selves. For instance tagging a wall is a way of ’being
there’ even if not ph ysicall y, and when tagging trains there is the idea of
movement added to it. The feeling of identification with the tag also grows
according to the perception of other people, the audience. In fact, it often
happens that some people start to recognize the tag as not onl y a stain on the
wall, but as people that speak, fight and travel. For instance, I understood that I
was finall y entering into the culture, when this form of recognition started to
happen to me. Even nowadays, I often find m yself smiling at the wall when I see
a tag that I recognize:
When I get drunk I tr ansfor m from my ori ginal name to Twice. I become
Twice. In the scene I become Twice. [Twice – 25, Amsterdam]
There are many peopl e that don’t even know my real name. People get to
know me also if not physicall y. This is weir d, but gi ves me satisfaction. I
meet my friends on the streets. I wal k on the streets and I think “Oh nice,
there is Philo, Mirics, Deps”. [ Renok – 26, Rome]
When I paint a wall it is different, it’s always good feelings, but l ess then
a train. I reall y li ke to paint trains, because it’s me travelling, it’s me
moving, it’s beautiful. [Philo – 23, Rome]
Some respondents claimed that sometimes they use different tags, for
safet y reasons or just out for boredom: ‘Nowadays, I also write NOCASH,
because I have no cash. And it’s also a reall y nice name to write. I have a bunch
of names’ (Twice – 25, Amsterdam).
However, despite the many names
writer may have, on this occasion it is probabl y better to use the verb ‘write’,
for the tag cannot be considered an issue of multiple identities, as there is
always one that he will identify with the most and others in the know will still
perceive the different names as belonging to the same person. Therefore it is
one identit y with multiple performances:
Silvia: Did you always have the same tag?
Raw: No, I kept changing a lot. Up until today I think I have 4-5 names. I
kind of like to change in different period. But that’s what most guys are
doing…They j ust get t ired of their names, they’ ve done enough, you kind
of like to switch, because you li ke letters. Obviousl y it is more exciting if
you have been doing a certain name for a certain amount of ti me and then
you tr y to do different letters and then it is like you have a fresh book,
so.. I mean if you are known enough and you kind of start writing other
names, people will catch up really quickl y, t hey will recogni ze your style.
Graffiti culture is like a lot of gossiping. You know… If there is
somebody running on the city with a new name and he is doing qui te a lot.
Then all graffiti culture of that city will think “who a fuck is that?” and
somebody knows and tell somebody else li ke that, you know? And people
will recogni ze you… And you know there is another part when.. if you’ ve
done so many damage on the same train or subway.. It’s all gone into the
book or whatever the authority is wor king against you and if I get caught
when I am doing that name, they’ll put this book in front of me with all
these pictures and instead of paying for one car, you are paying for like
20 cars. And changing name ever y now and then keeps you away fr om that
also. Someti mes peopl e are j ust smashing things and j ust keep wri ting the
same name. And I am like “oh, man, you are going to get busted one day”.
In a way that’s stupid.
Silvia: So, would you say that you don’t really identif y with a name, but
mostl y with your st yle?
Raw: Yes, but it’s both. Because I still have one main name, that’s me.
And then I also write it more often. Also when you meet somebody who is
a writer, you present yourself or you get introduced through your friends
to another writer it is always the same name. [Raw – 26, Amsterdam]
Moreover, the way a tag is performed, in terms of its st yle and the places
chosen for tagging, represents the personalit y or the feelings of the writer in
that given moment:
By the style I can see how my piece looks like. If I make a piece when I
am broken, the piece looks different than when I have a very good
situation, feeling good. [Twice – 25, Amsterdam]
When you do it illegally you have a certain feeling, one ni ght you are
angr y and the piece will come out angr y. A common person won’t
understand it, but the letters, the lines that you do, they are from an angr y
person. If you are easy and quiet, you also can see it. You make softer
lines. Graffiti represents you, it represents your feelings. If you are
angr y, you can’t start fighting with people, you can’t hurt your gi rlfriend
or your parents, you can’t go robbing a bank. And so you go painting
because you have t his discomfort to t ake off your body…Graffiti
represents the life style of that particular moment for sure. How you think
reflects the way you do it, the actions you do, the spaces you take. [Renok
– 26, Rome]
To sum it up, the tag is not onl y the externalization of the writer’s
identit y, but in addition the onl y expression of their identit y that is presentable
in the graffiti world. Being someone in graffiti language is ‘making a name’.
Without the tag, the writer does not exist. Since it is strongl y believed that
identit y is something people create rather than what people are, the tag is the
identit y that writers create to introduce who they are to the world. This process
of performance will be outlined in the next paragraph.
4.3 Affirming the self
I want to say that I also exist. I exist ! I am here! I li ve! [Philo – 23, Rome]
Writing on the walls comes from a need to externalize oneself and to make
clear to the world one’s presence. Therefore, painting in visible spots is of
primary importance, since one’s identity is strengthened when other people
recognise it. Self affirmation is obtained b y the combination of visibilit y, fame,
and appropriation.
I am part of this worl d. This is the message I want to say. And, as I said
before, it is also about competition: ‘ I did two pieces more t han you’
means that I am in the street, at the station. […] I li ke to paint a train,
because the train is always moving, it gi ves me an idea of travelling.
People who travel, for eigners, they see my graffiti. It’s a way for me to be
there. [Philo – 23, Rome]
When a mark is made, what gives a unique kind of pleasure is seeing it
again. During m y fieldwork I once went with some writers to assist on a ‘whole
car’ piece (see Image 2). This is when the piece full y occupies one car of a
train. Both, while and after doing it, there were a great deal of positive feelings
that ranged from the rush of adrenaline to the final release of it. However, the
key issue was being able to see it again. It was mandatory for the writers to see
the train running with the piece on it, so,
the day after we went to the main
station of Rome looking for the painted car and took pictures when it finall y
passed b y. In order to be able to recognize the train quicker, it is common to tag
the head of the train. This action reinforces further the feeling of appropriation,
as if the whole train belongs to that crew (see Image 3). While we were waiting
for the train, Renok was indeed calling it ‘our train’. He explained to me that
for him, every time he sees it, there is an incredible emotion, because it is ‘your
work in motion’.
Image 2.Ipers’whole car just painted at night
Image 3. Head of the train painted by Ipers Rome
central station. The day after.
As will be shown later, different kinds of feelings emerge when painting
walls, trains or subways, however the process of seeing it again is one of the
main reasons for graffiti to be there, both for others and yourself (the writer).
And the beautiful thing is seeing it again. You put up your name and you
see it AGAIN. Ever y t ime you pass you see your own name.[…] but it’s fun
if other writers see it as well. So, the main thing I do this is for me and my
crew, and for my crew to see this. But of course it’s fun if other people see
this. Other writers gi ve me recognition. [Gear – 24, Amsterdam]
Seeing it again, b y some means, can be the reason for a writer to become
more a train or a street painter:
I did a lot of trains before, but now I slowed down, but I am doi ng a lot
on the streets. There is one big reason j ust that I am mostl y in the city. I
have friends that li ve on the other side of the city and they have t o travel
to Amsterdam […] and they write on trains a lot, j ust to see their stuff up
on the trains; whereas I am j ust biking around the cit y all day and I want
to see my shit up on the city, you know? [Raw – 26, Amsterdam]
Visibilit y is also the first source of fame for a graffiti writer. It brings
more respect than the qualit y of the piece or the st yle of the lines. In fact, as
Mirics says:
Beaut y is something very subj ective. There are some ver y well respected
people in Rome that draw things that if you see this, you woul d say ‘ I
can’t believe this’. But they are people that will never be crossed out. So,
an ugl y piece is not a piece that you rej ect. An ugl y piece made on the
hardest spot on earth i s the worthiest piece. So, beaut y is something that a
passer by can j udge, not us. [Mirics – 22, Rome]
Being recognized by others confers status to the graffiti writer. When a
writer makes a large number of tags around his neighbourhood, he can be given
the unofficiall y declared title of king. He can be the king of an area, of a cit y, or
of a train line. Rarely the title can concern his abilit y, but mostl y his presence.
Generall y writers claim to be the king b y putting the s ymbol of a crown on top of
their name. A king has to work consistently to ensure his/her name is more visible
than others, nevertheless, some writers claim themselves to be kings without the
approval of their peers, they add the crown just to reinforce their identit y or
probabl y to catch the attention of others. The majorit y of the writers I met have
done it at least once, always feeling like they earned it. Another indicator of
status, even if a lower one, is given b y adding ‘ONE’ at the end of the name. For
instance, if the tag name is ‘Philo’, he would write ‘Philone’ (See Image 4). It is
making a claim to be the first one to use that name. A shorter version of this, is
putting an ‘O’ on top of the name, it means exactl y the same thing. The misuse of
these s ymbols is usuall y proper of a toy, or a starter. Conversel y, this indicator is
also given b y others and it is added on a piece when it is of a poor qualit y or
shows characteristics of somebody that does not know enough.
Image 4. Philone with a circle on top of the tag.
Lastl y, besides visibilit y and fame, the process of affirmation of the self on
a surface generates a sense of appropriation. Once a piece is done, the writer
becomes connected with the surface and with the wall. On the one hand, he
affirms the self b y spreading his identity around, and on the other hand his
sense of identit y is reinforced b y the feeling of owning that piece of wall he just
wrote upon.
This piece that we ar e looking ri ght now is mine. The propert y is not
mi ne, but it is mine. There is my name wr itten there. It belongs to me.
Once I paint on it, it becomes a part of myself. If I have 100 pieces
around, it’s cool. [ Renok – 26, Rome]
With the train it is different because of the travelling and movement
components connected to it, in this way it feels like owning all the train line.
Trains are used b y the graffiti writers as a cultural baggage, like something to
collect and to be proud of in front of their friends. ‘Writers who travel around
and paint trains are the most respected’ (Aso – 26, Stockholm). From a
conversation with Aso it emerged that not all the trains are the same, but some
of them are more important than others.
Some trains are kind of worth more. When writers meet they talk about
different trains and different train yards where they’ ve been. When you
meet a new writer, you always have some places or trains to identify with
and talk around. Local trains are generall y more worth painti ng. For
example the old Dutch banana train (the yellow one floor train called
‘doggie’), the Spanish ‘mirror trains’, Berlin’s yellow subway, Southern
Sweden’s purple trains or Danish’s old red S-train. People used t o go to
Copenhagen j ust to paint that one. [Aso – 26, Stockhol m]
Thus, conscious of the fact that trains and subways have to be considered as
something a part from each other, where does this self affirmation take place?
Which walls are the favourite ones? In the next paragraph the role of the cit y
will be discussed.
4.4 Territory
I think that certain things go together. If you look at the buildings for
example, there are some paintings. It’s a bit messy, some stickers. I kind
of like this dirty. There is a soul. It shows t hat people live there. [Edge –
26, Amsterdam]
Writers do not go out and leave their marks everywhere they can. They
choose where to paint. It is not random. First of all, graffiti is an urban culture,
it develops within the cit y. It is in the city that many often invisible identities
are performed everyday. And, in the city itself there are some places where
graffiti seems more suitable than others, for instance the dirty and gray places
are often used more than clean ones.
In some places graffi ti look fucking stupid […] as soon as I am in the
country side or somewhere in the South of France I am not even thinking
about spray cans you know? It’s j ust totally ridiculous. And even when
you are going to do it, you take a picture, you can publish in on a
magazine so the kids in the city will see the magazine and they will see
the piece. So it is bringing back to the city again. So, it’s all about the
city. And if you are not doing graffiti or you feel offended by it and you
are living in the cit y...I am li ke ‘c’ mon, you want all the stuf f that is
going on in the city, you want the heart beats, you want this, you want
that...’[…] It’s a cit y culture, so I feel li ke when you are living in the city
you have to take into account that your kids they are going to get bored
with the surrounding, so they want to kick against somethi ng and
eventuall y they are going to take a spray can and go out, understand that
that culture exists and they are going to write on the walls. Some people
have al ways been writing on walls. Why wouldn’t I do it now? [Raw – 26,
Graffiti is perceived therefore as an integral part of the cit y: ‘Some
villages don’t seem urbanized to me if I don’t read the signatures around’ (Hero
– 26, Rome). There exists a mutual relationship between the two: there seems to
be no cit y without graffiti and no graffiti without cit y.
When you have some interviews with some hip guys or some stupid
magazines they often, so often, portray them in front of some garage with
some graffiti on it. Because it is in the city you know? ‘ Yeah this is
blablabla, he is like a creative desi gner, he does this and that... where are
you from? What are you doing?’ But these guys are standing there...and
this is a window and it supposed to be the representation of the city and at
the same ti me I am pretty sure that these people will disagree with you if
you make a piece next to them: ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ They will
call the cops. [Raw – 26, Amsterdam]
As Raw affirmed in one of the interviews, ‘you can make the comparison
to a dog that pisses everywhere, but then you want to be a big dog that pisses
around the whole city’(Raw – 26, Amsterdam). In fact, the wider the range of
territory where the name appears, the more respected the writer and his activit y
will be. ‘With the city you sort of claim something. You claim your space, and
the bond with the city becomes stronger’ (Edge – 26, Amsterdam). Even though
they recognize it as an illegal activit y, writers feel that they have the right to
paint on the walls of the cit y because they see it as a public space that belongs
to everyone. Nevertheless, all the writers I’ve met agreed on the fact that there
are some sort of unwritten rules or just common sense from which they avoid
writing on monuments or old buildings in the historical centre. This brings back
what has been alread y mentioned in the first paragraph of this section. What a
graffiti writer decides to stain suggests his personalit y. The space one takes
shows the lifest yle of the writer. For instance, some writers push the boundaries
of common sense, they paint wherever they want (which is basicall y the
significance of graffiti); this can be a wall that has been recentl y painted, or a
shop window. In this way the writer knows he is causing a serious discomfort
and b y doing it an yway, suggests a more arrogant personalit y.
I have some things that I don’t tag. Li ke private houses and monuments. I
also don’t think it fits ver y well some how. Especially in the cent re with
these old houses. It doesn’t look good in these 16 t h centur y houses. I think
there is a quite clear graffiti aesthetic almost. It sorts of fits in certain
places and not in other s. [Edge – 26, Amsterdam]
However, in a cit y sometimes it is difficult to distinguish what is a public
space and what is not: ‘It’s like I feel that the cit y is so dense, that public space
is hard to find, so for you to do something in that way you would have to go to
write on somebod y’s side of a house’ (Raw – 26, Amsterdam).
I consider the city as a thing which is all for us. Nobody owns it, so I can
destroy anything. You can buy a house, but the front of the house is
always on the street. And the street is of nobody and I want to put my tag
on the street. I don’t have any feelings for the owners of the house. Yet.
Maybe it will come, when I am 40 and I am thinking ‘oh, what have I
done?’ But I don’t thi nk it’s going to happen. [Twice – 25, Amsterdam]
The strong connection between the writers and the cit y is strengthened b y
the fact of often being alone in the middle of the night. It is then, whilst
walking around a city, that it shows a completel y different viewpoint. The cit y
completel y changes when it is looked from a graffiti perspective, street names
and monuments disappear. Writers know this map b y heart, an urban map that
changes continuously and cannot be found on Google maps now and never: ‘I
orient m yself in the cit y through graffiti’ (Hero - 26, Rome).
Just being in the centre of the city at 4-5 o’clock in the night in the
mi ddle of the week and there is nobody on the street. It’s kind of li ke
your kingdom. And thi s is all ver y childish, but still there is a consistence
in doing it and consistent in a way when you are outside out in the night
all alone and the cit y is yours… and you ki nd of put it in your hands […]
It’s a romantic feeling. But it doesn’t mean that it is less real you know?
It’s good and that’s mostly what gets me out. [Raw – 26, Amsterdam]
As mentioned alread y, the name of the writer should travel as far as
possible. This is wh y, besides the walls of the cities, means of transportation are
the most targeted ones. In Amsterdam for instance, where it is very common to
travel b y bike, man y of the bicycles’ baskets are tagged as well. However, it is
often not enough to make a nice piece on a train in order to get a name to travel,
graffiti writers travel themselves (See Image 5). Below, it will be shown what
happens when a graffiti writer gets out of his nest.
Image 5. Bicycle basket in Amsterdam
4.4.1 Over the borders
I will discuss here the component of travelling which is very important in
the graffiti subculture. Pushing the name as far as possible from one’s original
home is expanding the territory of one’s identit y performance. Every graffiti
writer travels for graffiti. I’ve heard great stories about trips in New York,
Barcelona, Berlin, Australia. However, two of the main aspects connected to
travel that emerged in this research were ‘feeling different when painting
abroad’ and ‘meeting local writers’.
The experience of painting abroad can be perceived b y the writers in
completel y different ways. Some writers feel the need to write more intensel y
because of the limited time of their holiday: ‘When I am in another cit y I want
to paint more than in m y own cit y, when I come to Amsterdam again it’s like
‘ah, now I can chill because I am in m y own cit y’. But when I am somewhere
else I have to paint 24/7’ (Twice – 25, Amsterdam). On the other hand, others
have the opposite reactions ‘It feels that it is not a waste, but it’s like ‘ok, I did
a piece’. When you do a piece in your own cit y it counts, but when it is in a
different cit y... Who would ever know?’(Edge – 26, Amsterdam). After an
informal conversation with Raw, it appeared that ‘Walking around in his own
cit y and seeing his own pieces on the walls, makes him feel more alive, makes
him feel like he exists. He doesn’t feel the same when he goes bombing in other
cities or in other countries, it does not give him the same kind of pleasure’
(Field notes).
Meeting local writers when painting abroad is one of the best and safest
ways to do it. Nowadays, this is facilitated b y the existence of the Internet and
the many blogs and forums surrounding graffiti. In this way local writers are
often known even before travelling to a certain place.
We have many kinds of holidays. There is the holiday with the girl friend,
the holiday with friends and the graffiti holidays. It means that you travel
j ust to paint. […] And you are hosted by them. There is a lot of
brotherhood. Even if you never met the person, you have the gr affiti in
common and that’s enough. [Mirics – 22, Rome]
Meeting local writers is sometimes necessary to avoid problems with the
police. Local writers know where it is safer to go and when: ‘I alread y knew two
other people before going. It’s reall y an exchange. Everything is much easier
when you have a connection there. And it is also a lot of fun. You know that it’s
safer’ (Edge – 26, Amsterdam). In some occasions it is taken as a chance to
learn from somebod y coming from a different culture, for instance ‘a French gu y
who comes to Rome can show you a different spray effect that we are not used
to do’ (Hero – 26, Rome). Nevertheless, there is always a feeling of communion
between writers coming from different places.
There are differences. There are always different kinds of writers. You
have the guys that only paint legal, onl y illegal, onl y walls, onl y trains.
Or guys li ke us that do all over. We li ke to paint the cities, doing truck
sides, but also the trains. It’s ver y difficult to meet somebody who is
doing ever ything. In ever y city there are guys like us. We meet t hem and
we are off. […] We share the same. One love: graffiti. [Twice – 25,
In this paragraph it has been shown how graffiti connects people. There is
a strong feeling of belonging to the same subculture, transcending the localit y.
However, within this big international scenario, there are man y little groups to
which almost every writer belongs. It is a culture where the affirmation of the
self is directl y related to the affirmation of the group, which in the graffiti
language is called ‘crew’.
4.5 The crew
I am li ving for the guys I meet. Drinking the beers, going out toget her and
doing this fucking shit! [ Gear – 24, Amsterdam]
Crew members are a group of individuals coming from different social
backgrounds and neighbourhoods whose main purpose is to go painting together.
a new
generall y it
a neighbourhood
orientation, and later it enlarges and gets new members from everywhere. Some
crews have members in another country (LD crew of Amsterdam has a member
from the US). And, in some cases, since graffiti is a street activit y, some of the
members may not be writers, but rappers or breakers, as it is in the IPERS crew
of Rome). Generall y members from the same crew are recognized for having the
same approach, a certain crew st yle that can vary from rough mass bombing to
more elaborate pieces. However, for a graffiti writer the crew is first of all a
gathering of friends that enjo y each others’ company: ‘a bunch of good people
to go out with’ (Aso – 26, Stockholm). Friendship occurs in various ways. A
group of friends may decide to get together and create a crew, or the
relationships between crew members can be strengthened and afterwards
eventuall y turn into friendship later.
It’s a bonding cultur e; you go through intensive experiences t ogether.
Most of my closest friends are graffiti wr iters, j ust because I’ ve been
hiding in the bushes with them, in the winter like for so many ni ghts. Just
coming together because it’s so cold and stuff. Running away or being in
j ail together you know? Those are all things you go through. Ever ybody
goes through things and experiences together, bonding things. [Raw – 26,
Besides painting together, they engage in several activities together, such
as trips, drinks, and clubbing: ‘We do whatever! We play mini-golf, go out
part ying, just hung out, it’s nice…it is reall y important to have good people in
the crew…that have nothing to do with the activit y. It’s just to have a good
relationship’ (Aso – 26, Stockholm). During m y field work, I’ve spent several
evenings with various crews to grasp the atmosphere between the members and
I’ve been told man y times that if I were not there, they would have hardl y talked
about graffiti:
They are people I know since I was 12. So.. it’s j ust nor mal friendship
and it happened to be that graffiti is also there. That’s something that we
j ust do, it’s not something we speak about the all time. [Edge – 26,
4.5.1 Group identity performance
We have our own tag and then we have the crew name that represents all of us
[Philo – 23, Rome].
When a crew is created, a common name is invented and the writers that
belong to it will start pushing that name as well. Crew names are generall y
represented with acron yms or abbreviations of the full names. Onl y a few know
what the initials stand for, and sometimes they can stand for more things,
according to internal jokes with the crew members. For instance the Amsterdam
crew LD stands for Lekker Drunken, but also Let’s Dance. However, it is the
abbreviation that is considered and recognized b y everybod y as the crew name.
Often, but not always, the crew name is written inside or next to the personal
piece. When more writers from the same crew go painting together, it is
generall y the crew name that is painted, while the personal tags are written
inside. On a few occasions the rest of the crew, even if they are not present, are
written down as a sort of dedication. However, disclosing publicl y the names of
the crew members happens more in Rome than in Amsterdam. According to what
I experienced and observed and furthermore some of the conversations I had
suggest the reason for this is probabl y related to greater police controls in the
Netherlands than in Ital y. In the Netherlands the police keeps records of graffiti
(mostl y the train ones) and a graffiti writer never wants to have the ‘Who is the
rest of your crew?’ question asked. Therefore, they try to avoid it, even if it
means writing different names sometimes. This will be explained further in the
‘Illegalit y’ section below.
Dedications are very common when making a piece. More often a piece is
dedicated to the rest of the crew (see Image 6), but also to their girlfriends or to
other crews.
Image 6. Dedication to the members of the crew.
Sometimes it happens that a graffiti writer belongs to more than one crew:
I am with IPERS since 2005. I also have t wo more crews, one i s called
SKM with whom I am painting since 2002 and the other one is GF Global
Force that is the most recent one. Ever ybody knows me as belonging to
SKM, because I am painting with them si nce many years. […] When I
paint alone I can write the crew that I want . But I always write SKM for
instance. It’s the long-lasting one for me. I write IPERS when I f eel like.
[Renok – 26, Rome]
Different crews can have different kinds of relationships that are reflected
in the st yles of the graffiti such as writing a crew name next to another one or
dedications to another crew or the opposite crossing out. Graffiti can reflect
both rivalries and alliances for instance some walls are called solidarit y walls.
The way the pieces are made and distributed, illustrates bonds among different
crews and these can be considered as an example of the function of graffiti as
marking social networks. The expression of alliance between different crews is
shown on more walls and on more occasions, as if to make clear the connection
to the whole of
the underground subculture (see Image 7). Several crews can
also come together and form a kind of ‘famil y’ like crew ‘47’of Rome (see
Image 8).
Image 7. Expression of solidarity between the
two cities Velletri and Nettuno (near Rome),
it stands for the connection between the crews
‘Ipers’ and ‘Criminals’.
Image 8. Family crew ‘47’, to which ‘RC’ belongs
On the contrary, man y crews are rivals. Often the names of the crews
instigate violence, dominance and victory. For instance the Milan crew FIA
stands for Fuck It All or the RC crew from Rome means Roman Core, but also
Riot Clan. However, there are occasions in which rivalries between two or more
crews have always existed, so their members start crossing each others out as a
priorit y. This can be a triggering event that touches off a ‘war’ between them.
In fact, some actions are seen as extremel y offensive and disrespectful so that
they are immediately interpreted and understood from both parties as a
declaration of war. For instance, there are some train yards that are known for
‘belonging’ to a particular crew, thus other crews should not go painting there
without asking or it will be seen as an arrogant act towards them. This sort of
‘war’ usuall y remains on the walls (this phenomenon is in fact referred to as
‘war of walls’ in
graffiti jargon) or can get ph ysical in some extreme
circumstances. Crossing out somebod y can be done b y painting an actual cross
over the alread y existing piece or just b y painting over it with the new piece. It
is the most powerful and explicit action to do in order to express antagonism.
However, there are softer ways as well to express contrast, such as repetition of
a name, size of it, or writing an ugl y piece next to a wall painted b y a popular
writer. All these kinds of actions can relate to a real conversation between the
writers, they are perceived b y the communit y as dialogues with negative
assertions or simpl y as turning up the volume in a discussion. A discussion
where each of the participants want to have the last word:
The reasons one time was j ust because a lot of people started to cross MY
staff. And then I paid back. Not ver y often t hough…I tr y to respect. There
are many writers picking down on younger people, but I think that’s
unnecessar y. [ Aso – 26, Stochol m]
Sometimes conflicts go beyond the walls, angers between crews can
transform into ph ysical fights.
However, this happens in extreme cases and it
depends on the attitude of the crews, in this way it tends to resemble gangs
instead of groups of friends enjo ying painting together.
CBS is the crew that started this shit. They cross us, but we know they
build their shit to do their shit. […] We met them a couple of ti mes, but
most of the time it is not good. You can sense when they are there. They
are not about the graffiti, they are about f ighting. If you are a graffiti
writer you have a crew. They are older, they have a crew, more history,
you can feel that shit if you enter their perimeter. You can feel their
kar ma. Their presence. When they were younger they were taught. We
respect that. If you ar e going to fuck with them, they are going to fuck
you up. So, if they are there, we sense it and we leave. [Gear – 24,
Even if I am 200% about graffiti, it is not t hat hard that I would shut or
kill a person. Never.[ Twice – 25, Amsterdam]
Why should I shut a guy for some paint ? And this is the difference
between us and them. We j ust do graffiti, we love the letters, we do the
graffiti for the end of the graffiti itself. They do it for the end of
fighting. But li ke he said…better not to compete with them, because they
fuck you up. [Gear – 24, Amsterdam]
As it has been shown in this paragraphs, graffiti subculture is framed
within illegalit y.
Experiences, relations between writers, feelings and
performances are to be understood within this context.
This is why it is very
important to understand the role of it in this subculture.
4.6 Illegality
Doing something that is not allowed makes you feel more alive [Raw – 26,
Illegalit y is the core aspect of graffiti. Graffiti is born as an illegal
activit y and the fact that it is not allowed brings the greatest feelings to the
writers. ‘The thrill is crucial. It is like an extreme sport. It’s about risk and
adrenaline’ (Hero – 26, Rome). As it will be shown later in this chapter, most
writers claim that doing graffiti is like empt ying themselves, releasing certain
emotions. The action of spraying per se gives an immediate sensation of
discharge which is given b y the action of liberating something and leaving it on
the wall: the colour. However, this is enhanced b y the fact of doing it illegall y.
In this way one builds up a lot of tension and adrenaline, so that the pleasure
when the graffiti is finall y made is at the maximum point. When walking at
night, preparing for the action, walking towards the spot to do it, the spray cans
are agitated and treated as real weapons read y to fight an invisible and
forbidden combat.
I see it more li ke a James Bond thing… Actuall y you go and do
something, and you get away with it with clean hands and it is j ust kind of
different. It is not j ust the aggression, but also intensifying reality. You
actually feel the adrenaline rushing into your body and you’re nervous
and your heart beats are like kicking. And t his is nice. It is the same li ke
with bunging-j umping. This is j ust socially not accepted, this is why it is
in a different book. But there are the same things playing there. [Raw –
26, Amsterdam]
Illegalit y also stands for respect, the bigger the chances to be caught and
the higher the respect that the writer will get from the rest of the communit y.
However, even if illegalit y is the main drive for the subculture to exist, it also
restricts and influences the way the graffiti is performed.
If you do it in a hard spot and you don’t want to be recognised and the
chances are ver y bi g to get caught, you write another name so I would not
write Twice. But if I put Gear next to my f ake name, they would know I
am Twice. So I put up a nickname for hi m. I would always dedicate, for
life. […] If I am getti ng caught, for the trai ns they are more prof essional
in keeping archi ves of who is writing with who and stuff like that. I don’t
want to sit for 30 days in the prison. So, I write another name, so if they
catch me I say ‘this is my name, do whatever you want with it’ and they
can never say who is the rest of the crew? I don’t want to have this
question. So, I avoid it. [Twice – 25, Amsterdam]
Paying attention to places, times and names does not always prevent a
writer from being caught. However, being caught is not seen as something to be
ashamed of, rather it improves the fame of the busted writer and it reinforces his
feeling of passion for graffiti. In fact, being arrested instead of slowing down
the activit y of the writer, often provokes the opposite reaction. ‘The more they
bust you, and the more you want to paint.’ (Mars – 22, Rome).
It influences you li ke for one week or t wo and again you are itchi ng and
you want to write and then fuck it. And someti mes you go back twice
harder. Just there and destroy. Whatever you want. [Twice – 25,
Generall y, graffiti is the onl y criminal behaviour in which the writers are
engaged. Stealing spray cans is also considered as a part of the game, it is a
kind of ‘rule’ to steal them when starting the activit y, however it seems to go
away once the writers grow older. Another thing that improves while growing up
is the feelings towards the police. Writers seem to understand better what the
role of everybod y is in societ y and there is no such a thing as ‘I hate the police’.
My feelings about the police officers and the all situation have changed
too. Li ke a 15 years old you wake up and you are all the ti me fucking
around with them. But now it’s like “no, they are j ust people doing their
j ob, they need that stuff. It’s j ust reality and if they catch you they are
doing a good j ob. It’ s different. You understand more what everybody is
doing. You get a complete picture when you are older. [Raw – 26,
4.6.1 Don’t tell me I can do it!
Graffiti is considered to be in man y towns as a real plague that disturbs
the urban order. Some actions are effectivel y considered a danger for the
econom y of a town or a nation, for instance trains and subway painting. Also,
residential houses can be seriousl y damaged from
graffiti painted on the side
walls of their walls. Moreover, it seems that graffiti encourages other criminal
behaviour in the affected areas. Therefore, as mentioned before, different towns
adopt different approaches, restrictions and securit y policies against the issue of
graffiti. Nonetheless, restrictions are not the only solution, in fact allowing
graffiti in certain areas was perceived at the beginning as a great way to control
the situation. Beside the fact of giving a vent for the needs of writers to paint, it
could also improve the outlook of certain gray urban areas. However this does
not seem to greatl y prevent or diminish the amount of illegal graffiti going on.
If they are allowed, it doesn’t feel like graffiti anymore, the adrenaline is gone,
so is the respect.
Legal graffiti is not graffiti, everybody can do that. It’s about adventure,
is not about how good I can draw. It’s about tagging ever ything whenever
you want. I get more ener gy from a drinks with my guys and then ‘oh
guys, let’s do a wall’. Ever y paint used in a legal wall is WASTE OF
PAINT. […] You can be that good, that fucking creati ve, but if you
cannot do this in an illegal environment you are not a graffiti writer to
me. You are j ust one of the rest. You can be a creative desi gner of a web
site. It is the same for me. It’s legal. But if you do it a ni ght and you do it
good you get a lot of respect. [Gear – 24, Amsterdam]
You should not write graffiti legal to get famous. NEVER. […] There are
a lot of guys doing that and I hate them. [Twice – 25, Amsterdam]
Some writers use it as an occasion to improve their st yle. When painting on
legal walls there is not the pressure of finishing because the police may be
chasing them. Nevertheless, besides the fact of having more time to try new
techniques, it is above all a nice way to spend time with the other gu ys of the
Someti mes I do it. Only to put up some ver y nice walls. If you are lucky
you do a barbecue, but it doesn’t matter. You j ust paint with the boys
from the crew. If it’s shit is ok. Doesn’t matter. It is j ust about the crew
coming together . [Gear – 24, Amsterdam]
Making graffiti legally is close to working for commission. Graffiti pieces
can be perceived as beautiful and can attract different kinds of people with the
way writers make use of colours and letters. In order to get some economical
reward out of this passion, man y writers will therefore accept to do some
assignments, which means, getting paid to paint something an emplo yer
requests. However, the real passion stays on the walls: ‘I am trying to get with
this compan y doing these legal things, projects, then you get cans and cans you
can use for illegal. Making money from it and getting cans for the real passion’
(Twice – 25, Amsterdam). All the participants in this research have affirmed
that they would never quit the illegal scene for a legal career:
No, I would never leave the illegal scene. It’s about freedom. If I am not
limiting your freedom, why are you li miting mine? I don’t underst and how
can they li mit colours? [Hero – 26, Rome]
I did it, but I don’t like it. When you do it as a j ob, you will always have
some constraints, somebody that will tell you ‘No, I don’t like it, do it like
that! So you are not free to do it like you want. I am a bit against. [Philo –
23, Rome]
I’ ve been doing that f or a year. I don’t like that. I put so much effort into
the all culture, I put so much effort into myself for being part of the
culture, why would I now sell it out and throw it all away. It doesn’t really
make sense to me, you know? It j ust throw your belief out the door. [Raw –
26, Amsterdam]
This dichotom y legal vs. illegal is parallel to the one graffiti vs. art. Man y
writers reject terms such as artist or street art. Legal graffiti is perceived b y
writers as something like art, and art has nothing to do with the rush and
impulse of graffiti: ‘Legal is different, you do something that looks more like
art of graphics. You loose your instinct’ (Renok).
A few of the writers I’ve met work in fields related to art, for instance they
graduated from the art academ y or they are graphic designers. However all of
them firml y point out that the two things are very distinct. Graffiti is not made
to be in the galleries, graffiti has to be on the street, it has to be done under
pressure and fear of being caught.
Graffiti is intensifying reality for me. And this is what I tr y to do in my art
and what I tr y to experience in graffiti. I tr y to visuali ze it in my art, and I
experience it in graffi ti […]But in ter ms of going out and tr ying to be a
street artist, and try to copy Banksy and get famous in the art world
through graffiti it’s just total sell out in a way you know? And you are
missing the all point. [Raw – 26, Amsterdam]
If graffiti is not art, what is it then?
4.7 The blank message of graffiti
If you want to have a message, then you should write a book! [ Raw – 26,
Graffiti, for it’s characteristic as an illegal activit y, from breaking rules
to changing the urban shape of a cit y, has the potential to be a subculture rich of
political and social significance. However, facing the question ‘Is there a
message you want to transmit?’ the answer is approximately similar to Hero’s
one: ‘With time I understood that the onl y efficient answer is that I do it for
myself’ (Hero – 26, Rome).
We have this guy ‘Laser’ who is doing messages around the city and people
really like it because they think there is content added to it, and j ust makes
me sick, because this is not what graffiti i s about. Graffiti is about plain
messages. It is not even messages, it is plain actions. This is what the
culture is. This is writing your name, using your name in a way that no one
else is doing it. And he is doing texts and staff and trying to be
philosophical, but really it doesn’t go anywhere. And now he has this book.
I am reall y disgusted f rom the graffiti point of view. If you have a message
you do something else. You either make art, you should write a book, but
don’t do graffiti. […] Graffiti is that empt y, but still is an underground
subculture. And this is what it should be, you know? [Raw – 26,
Graffiti has nothing to say and does not pretend the contrary, it is an empt y
practice based on colours and letterforms: ‘I just find it more useful to decorate
a wall than seeing a gray wall’ (Revs – 20, Rome). Therefore any other form of
inscription used for political purposes, or to transmit philosophical messages go
far beyond the original graffiti. Moreover, doing graffiti is not a statement
against someone: ‘you are not hitting someone or something. It is not the owner
of the building […]. It is not that if the train was late the day before I am going
to paint it’ (Renok – 26, Rome).
However, if not in the writing, there is a subtle meaning in the gesture of
doing it, even if it is completel y out of personal reasons:
It’s a bit against the common idea of how to behave along the nor ms of
the society. […] I mean the message is like that I want maybe people
thinking more what is possible. Maybe whatever you want to do, if you
don’t hurt anybody else. [Aso – 26, Stockhol m]
4.7.1 Audience
Who is looking at graffiti? Millions of people walk b y walls full of tags
every day, or enter on a train that has just been just painted the night before, but
are they reall y looking at them? To some, probabl y graffiti is an invisible part
of the urban landscape; however this study did not concentrate on this aspect.
The point of this research is focusing on the question who do the writers think is
their audience? To whom are they performing for? Who are the people receiving
their (blank or not so blank) messages? Once again, it seems that the writer
himself is the one receiving most of the benefits.. The biggest pleasure is given
b y seeing his own name up on the walls/trains, since the writer himself is in fact
his biggest fan.. Subsequentl y there are his friends and the rest of the crew to
which the piece is often dedicated.
First I always thought other writers. But now I don’t really care about
other writers anymore. I guess it is maybe more for myself and my friends,
but of course is also nice when I go to a different city and I always look
who is sort of UP. It is always connected to other people. But if I think of
it only one way, then I think that it is more for myself and for my friends.
[Edge – 26, Amsterdam]
Dedications to girlfriends play also an important role here. Writers tend to
write in the piece the name or nickname of the girlfriend of that moment. It is
like a gift to them, it is showing ’I think of you’. Below is a paragraph taken
from m y field notes highlighting the role of the girlfriend:
I spent an afternoon with Renok, looking for the train his crew painted the
night before. He brought many things to show me, such as old magazines
and articles. However, the most interesting thing it was his sketch book. It
is something generall y ver y secret. I was r eally honoured by the fact that
he has shown it to me. The most interesting part of it were the dedications
to girlfriends next or inside a letter. It was funny to read all these
different names: 10 years of relationships in front of my eyes. It can also
be a way to celebrat e an anni versar y or a special place j ust because
something romantic had happened there once […]. While walking along
the train cars we saw some pieces of our friend Philo and I noti ced that
there was always writ ten One Love inside each piece. He explai ned me
that this is for his girlfriend, she is a train writer as well, but she lives in
Milan and he lives in Rome. So, they both write One Love inside to
dedicate pieces to each others, sure that the other won’t miss it. [Field
notes] (See Image 9).
Image 9. ‘One Love’
Nevertheless, it is always a great feeling when people outside the culture
recognize them. So, in this sense everybody is the audience:
I li ke when the general public can see the staff. It can never motivat e
myself to paint in a spot that j ust other writers see. […] I definitely want
the public to see it. And definitely f or my cr ew (Aso – 26, Stockholm) .
However, although the public can see it, often the writing is unreadable.
Letters are drawn in a way that people outside the culture are not used to seeing
and identifying. It is much easer for writers to understand each other because
they are more used to playing with shapes and colours. There are also
conducting in closed coding, closed s ystems of communication (cross outs,
dedications) that are not identifiable to the general public.
If they depict it as a blank activit y, as something lacking in significance,
what is the drive for starting it? What pushes thousands of adolescents to write
all over their environments?
4.8 The beginnings
The reasons to start doing graffiti can vary a lot from writer to writer.
However, two of the most common drives are the need to communicate and the
fascination for the subculture. ‘I always liked it. M y eyes were onl y on graffiti
when I was young and then I became one of them’ (Mars – 22, Rome). Young
writers are attracted b y these amazing forms and colours of letters: on the street,
in a magazine, coming across a documentary on the TV or b y flipping through
the diary of a friend.
The Weber was a magazine. It was a yout h magazine. And it published
like graffiti. There was a graffiti magazine in one section. We saw these
graffiti and we were li ke ‘ wow this is so fucking beautiful’. And he [older
friend of ours] said ‘oh I know this. It is called tagging.’ And we knew all
the words from the magazine. Li ke what is tagging, what is piecing, what
is a throw up. What is a whole car. It told us everything that we needed to
know about graffiti. So, than we did it. [ Gear – 25, Amsterdam]
When I was a child, experiences were only told by my parents, in the
family unit I was growing up. So I wanted to externalize somet hing, I
always li ked to communicate, also if not verbally. So, an i mage was for
me a good way to expr ess myself. [ Hero – 26, Rome]
Generall y, writers start to get interested in graffiti around the age of 1214. Youth plays a very important part in the process of becoming a writer. It is a
transitional period in life in which the identit y starts to be shaped and wants to
be expressed. Some of the writers I researched were alread y involved in some
other street activities, such as skateboarding.
I was into skateboarding and I guess it is also really close to something
like graffiti. And it j ust has to do with posit ion yourself somewhere. What
I like about graffiti, what I li ke about skateboarding. What I like about
punk, hip-hop.. all these youth cultures…is that they are existing on itself.
They are not ruled by certain grown up groups, or massi ve corporations.
Now they are obviously, but when they started out, when they developed,
it’s like a youth culture and as soon as grown up people get involved they
usually fuck ever ything up. But I li ke t hat, it’s something like reall y
creative can get into such a level of quality and the development goes to
youth, goes to children you know? And I think it’s kind of unique. And I
guess I wanted to take part in that. I was i nto skate boarding…and at one
point I stopped doing skateboarding as I star ted doing graffiti. I j ust didn’t
have the ti me anymore. I j ust thought I woul d be skateboarding for the rest
of my life. I j ust don’t get that skateboard off ever anymore. [Raw – 26,
Adolescents are eager to express their creativit y, to achieve a certain
position and status: ‘You could just put it there and then suddenl y you made this
mark in your environment’ (Edge – 26, Amsterdam). Moreover, the graffiti
communit y is relativel y small and if someone is regular and passionate, it will
not be difficult for him to get noticed. Graffiti magazines show a carefree world
and a beautiful kind of fame that comes out of colouring: ‘I wanted to be good
at something. Like mastering something. Especiall y when I got to know the
magazine, I was thinking ‘How the hell do they do it’ […] and you want to make
something that looks like it.’(Edge – 26, Amsterdam).
At the beginning it is a need to emer ge. This is the crucial point. We all
try to emer ge in some how. And when you are young, this is more
difficult because they don’t gi ve you enough spaces. You are treated as
somebody that still needs to create himself. So, the beautiful thing about
graffiti is the arrogance of taking credit for what you do. […] I wanted to
find something in which I was really GOOD and become the best in it.
[Mirics – 22, Rome]
Furthermore, adolescence is a period of rebellion, doing something that
goes against the rules creates a feeling of power: ‘You are anti-establishment
and you don’t want an ybod y to tell you what to do and all these things in the
societ y, all these rules.
And you try to find a way out of it’ (Raw – 26,
Amsterdam). ‘It is rebellion about the societ y, about your parents, about man y
things. Everybod y finds his own way’ (Mirics – 22, Rome).
4.8.1 Keep it going
At the beginning it was a need for expression. Then it became an habit,
then a vice, then a dependency (Mars – 22, Rome)
There are countless young people that start writing during the first years
of high school, the majorit y of them do it as a game, just to try it and then quit
after a few months. Nevertheless, some of them keep on doing it and this is
when the identit y of the writer starts to mélange with the graffiti subculture
with no way of return.
We were young boys; we saw those things t hat caught our attentions li ke
that, by chance. When you are 16 you ki nd of absorb ever yt hing. If
something sti mulates you, you’ll do it. And you also have the
unconsciousness of doing it as it comes out. Then later you keep doing it,
because it belongs to you. [Renok – 26, Rome]
It is very difficult for a writer that has been painting for over 10 years to
stop thinking about it. It is a dependency that is brought about b y all the intense
feelings that the action gives you: ‘Nowadays I am more like for the action and
the atmosphere. It’s more about the action feeling right now’ (Aso – 26,
Stockholm). Feelings can also vary a lot however, the first of all is the
adrenaline rush and the release that one feels once the piece is done: ‘It’s pure
pleasure. Almost an orgasm’ (Philo – 23, Rome).
I can say excited on one hand, but on the other hand relieved. Doing
finally the thing I wanted to do and it feels like ‘ah, finall y’. [Twi ce – 25,
Graffiti writing becomes with time a way of releasing a certain state of
mind: ‘If I am mad or happ y I go to do it and it becomes a product of m y soul’
(Hero – 26, Amsterdam). For some writers it is related to releasing a discomfort
that comes from the surrounding environment. The stronger the bad feeling for a
certain place or a situation and the greater the need to release this anger and to
leave it there, on the wall.
It’s a sort of
or when you
you’ ve done
this account’
feeling of empt ying yourself, when you’ ve done a whole line
do a lot of tags, or doing really a nice piece on a place, and
all the work and you finished it, it’s this feeling of ‘I made
or something. [Edge – 26, Amsterdam]
I kind of feel free, you know? It is one moment of your day where you kind
of like don’t have to answer any questions you know? It’s still something
you are doing when you are believing you know? You spit it out there and
you are not expecting anything back from it you know? Other than getting
a reaction from within the subculture. [ Raw – 26, Amsterdam]
To sum it up, it is mostl y personal reasons that keep the graffiti activit y
going, while all t ypes of youth rebellion disappear. It is about dealing with
one’s own anger and discomfort. And then it becomes normal to solve it b y
doing graffiti. However, after man y years of devoting one’s life to graffiti, the
love for the culture also takes over: ‘I think I am so dedicated to this… and
after some years it feels like you are a part of this. You have to carry on in some
way’ (Aso – 26, Stockholm).
4.9 Commitment
Having the love for a culture, you know? Living it and not trying t o
define it further… Just loving something and wanted to do it. Someti mes
you don’t have that answer [Raw – 26, Amst erdam]
Writers feel committed to the graffiti subculture, they love it and they let
it completel y dominate their lives so that it is hard to decide whether it is more
a passion or an addiction. More often than not, it influences other life choices
and many other aspects of the life (See Image 10). For many of the respondents
it is a passion that will never die: ‘I was thinking about quitting when I was 20.
I said I would quit when I was 24. Now I am 27 and I am writing even more than
before. So, I don’t think quitting is an option. It’s there for life’ (Twice – 25,
You can stop writing graffiti and 30 years later you are still looking at
tags. And this is nice because the culture keeps on growing, it doesn’t go
away, it doesn’t slip away. And it’s growing, it’s crazy. People keep
coming up, people keep starting writing and you would expect something
to die out and it is not. […] I don’t think it can go away. Wri ting on
walls, how can it go away? [Raw – 26, Amsterdam]
I’ ve been thinking of that many ti mes. But I never did it. If you think
back on how many hours you put into some kind of activit y...then I can’t
imagi ne j ust quitting t otally. It’s j ust terrible. [Aso – 26, Stockhol m]
Image 10. This is the numberplate of a writer’s car. He has a
graffiti sign next to it showing commitment.
It is the time that they spend on the activit y that makes it so important for
them. For man y of them, in effect, graffiti can completel y dominate the writers’
lives. In fact, even if the actual painting takes place once or twice a week,
graffiti is always there and the writers are: constantl y thinking about it,
sketching on papers, examining at their work
while biking, walking or
travelling b y train around the cit y. ‘Sketching is always there. It doesn’t go
away. Once you are reall y caught b y the fever then you can never let it go’ (Raw
– 26, Amsterdam).
My all life is dedicated to graffiti. It’s li ke a life style. I go off fr om wor k
and then I go doing some painting. And when I am at wor k, I am t hinking
about graffiti, of doing graffiti. […] Ask to our girlfriends, it is 24/7
about graffiti. And they are always li ke ‘aaaaaaaah!’ [Twice – 25,
Since they started at a very young age, and the activit y requires so much
time, on the one hand graffiti may have had influenced their school results
negativel y, but on the other hand it stimulates writers’ creativit y and interest
towards art disciplines. In fact, being involved in graffiti influences important
life choices without a doubt: choosing a particular kind of high school or
universit y for instance. Man y of m y respondents did art at high school or went
to an academ y or addressed themselves towards urban related subjects at
universit y.
I wonder if I would go to the art school.. Even though what I do there is
really different, anything that is related to graffiti, but still definitely […]
if I didn’t started with graffiti, maybe I would have studied something
else. (Edge – 26, Amsterdam]
This minorit y is engaged in completel y different societal activities. A
funn y story was told me b y one of the writers who used to work in a popular TV
series. He told me that sometimes, b y knowing where the shoot would take
place, he would place some graffiti on some of the walls around the shoot so
that the piece could also get a part in the scene. This shows that graffiti still
remains the prime thought throughout. It is both a passion and an addiction:
It’s a passion because you are always doing it and you feel so much about
it and an addiction because when you don’t do it for two weeks your
hands are getting itchy, they really want to do something. [Twice – 25,
Image 11. How the back of a writer’s car looks like.
Since graffiti is an illegal activit y, taking place mostl y at night in often
dangerous places, it certainl y causes some problems between the kids and the
parents, mostl y at the beginning, especiall y when parents start receiving letters
or phone calls from the police. Generall y, parents do not approve it, it is
wasting time on something that not onl y does not give any economical rewards,
but too often causes problems with the law enforcements. However, in some
cases, resigned and conscious of the fact that it is a passion that takes a lot of
energy and that it gives a different kind of reward, a more personal one, some
parents appear to see the positive value in it:
They always knew. I would come home when I was 15, 16 or 17… all these
years I came home really late and they wer e going to wor k and I was like
knocking the door to go to sleep. They didn’t like it all the time, but they
recogni zed the fact that I was actually tr ying to achieve something. I think
this is good for parents to do. And it is true…I support their decision in
their way I learned to wor k I think from it. [ Raw – 26, Amsterdam]
However, most of the writers try to keep the graffiti life hidden from the
people they know. This is generall y because of obvious reasons of securit y, but
also because it is an underground world that needs to be kept that way to qualify
for that definition. There is a romantic feeling connected to the fact of doing
something that outsiders do not see and often do not approve.
Some people j ust from wor k go to home and they think ‘this is mi ne’ and
you never can enter my fucking world. And graffiti is mine, this is me and
Twice and Raw doing shit I li ke and you can never enter my fucking world.
NEVER [Twice – 25, Amsterdam]
4.10 Conclusive thoughts
Graffiti subculture is all about performing identities. Identities that are
rehearsed, negotiated and portrayed both in fixed and mobile spaces. The cit y
plays an integral role inside this communit y as graffiti does not exist in rural
areas. The need to tag is in fact generated b y a discomfort given b y the chaos of
the cit y. This causes a feeling of alienation, mostl y within the youth as they still
have to position themselves somewhere in the society. The need to emerge and
to affirm one’s identit y is so strong that it pushes thousands of adolescents to
take spray cans and claim their identities all over their environment. Moreover,
these identities are portrayed with a beautiful use of letters and colours that,
this in combination with the relativel y eas y fame that comes with the constant
engagement, and the given small number of subcultural members, are the main
sources of fascination for it. Furthermore, the illegalit y of the activit y adds a
special appeal to it. Even though writers claim to be against nobody and to carry
an empt y message, the gesture of making graffiti goes against the rules imposed
b y societ y; it is about claiming a right over the cit y. Therefore, it is not the
right to be heard that is claimed here, but the sole right to be there. Illegalit y
involves risk and bravery, thus if on the one hand it brings hostilit y from many,
it also brings respect from peers. No writer would ever give up illegal graffiti
for an ything else. Writing on legal walls or for a commission is seen as
something more art related, and the impulse and adrenaline that comes with
graffiti disappears. If they are told what and where to do it, the value of graffiti
is gone. However, being good requires time, energy, courage and dedication so
that the majorit y of the lives of the graffiti writers are to a higher or lower
degree affected b y it. Their lives are committed to the subculture, which is felt
b y every writer as something to carefully safeguard. t is a passion that never
5. Conclusions
5.1 Introduction
The research outlined in this thesis aimed at discovering the internal
d ynamics of an illegal youth culture of which I was a complete outsider. I did not
know anyone from the graffiti world, and I have sometimes been sceptical of what
I could have reall y seen and discovered. In order to do so, I needed to get to know
these inhabitants of the night that move like ghosts around the cities, leaving
their visible marks on the walls with their invisible hands. Man y things could
have gone wrong; I could have ended up spending one night in jail or being in the
middle of some crew fight; however, surprisingl y everything worked out
smoothl y: I took m y field notes, took pictures, conducted interviews and got man y
insights from this world that remained unknown to me until one year ago. In this
conclusive chapter I will first give an elaborate answer to my research question,
and secondl y, I will illustrate the implications of the theory that gave the basis
for this stud y before the actual immersion of it. Thirdl y, I will draw a
methodological reflection on m y work, and lastl y I will give m y suggestions for
further studies in this field.
The central research question for this stud y was: How do graffiti writers
perform their identity in European cities? Graffiti writers in Europe perform
their identit y b y illegall y spraying walls, trains and subways of the cit y. Writing
on the wall means ‘I exist’, an affirmation that is generated by a desire to emerge
and to belong to a communit y. The illegalit y of the actions reinforces the feeling
of freedom, of breaking the rules, but mostl y it gives them power and respect.
Making a name involves risks and dangers: the greater the danger, the greater the
respect. Recognition from peers gives them personal rewards and augments their
personal enrichment. Graffiti is a self advertisement done within the cit y with no
use of money, but with adrenaline instead. However, insistentl y affirming one’s
identit y within the cit y does not involve resistance against a dominant culture, as
there are not external political goals that want to be achieved; rather it is just
about the narcissistic will of freedom and domination of the writer.
5.2 An extensive answer: combining theory and results
In the theory it was taken for granted that the self is something that you do,
rather than what you are (Duits, 2008), however what graffiti writers write on the
walls is both what they do and what they are in their communit y. Graffiti is
claiming ‘I exist’. In the graffiti subculture the affirmation of the self is not done
b y modifying one’s personal aspect in order to emerge within the societ y, like it
happens in subcultures such as punks (Hebdige, 1979), Goths (Hodkinson, 2002) ,
etc. In the graffiti subculture, it is not b y dressing up in an unusual way or b y
carrying a different hair st yle that the members of this subculture claim their
right to be different. It is not about communicating a substantial difference with
the mainstream (Hebdige, 1979), but about creating another identit y presented
through an innovative and often incomprehensible s ystem of communication. This
new identit y is reduced to the sole name, a chosen name, written on the walls of
the cit y, trains and subways. Making a name in the graffiti language means in fact
being someone. The name works as the writer’s ‘mask’, which he performs
through st yle (Maffesoli, 1988). The new identities are in fact performed through
the use of letters, colours and shapes, which together replace all sort of aesthetic
accessories and attitudes of the real persona. These attributes constitute the st yle
of a specific writer. The real identit y completel y looses importance, there could
be an y skin colour, position or educational background behind the tag and it does
not matter. I would indeed argue that it is a ‘mask’ with a missing body. Graffiti
writers, through their tags, establish new identities, literall y holding them in their
own hands. The way the tag is performed could be approached through Goffman’s
theory of the ‘presentation of the self’ (1959): the ‘backstage’ is the writer
sketching on papers, the ‘personal front of appearance’ is the final piece on the
wall, and the ‘theatrical spaces’ are the surfaces used b y the writers to present
themselves. However, Goffman was talking about individuals performing different
roles all the time, while graffiti writers have a strong awareness of the one self
they want to present to others and, even if rarel y they adopt different names, they
work insistentl y for one coherent identit y that is recognizable through their st yle.
Instead, the new established identit y reflects Giddens’ theory of the
narrative of the self in man y ways (Giddens, 1991). Writers continuousl y work on
their self-identities to make sense of themselves. Indeed, they rehearse for long
time on papers before leaving their marks on the walls. The writers’ sketch book
often looks like a diary, insofar as it is the story of the writer growing up as a
writer: insecure at the beginning, trying out names, slowl y getting a firmer hand,
trying out different st yles, getting a name, belonging to crews, and forming
relationships. However, while the sketch book is for the writer, the street is for
everybod y, an open diary. Seeing his pieces around helps the writer to construct
the narrative of what he is, with the cit y being the canvas where the story line is
written, but also read, reworked, and modified. Walls tell stories of identities, of
friendships and animosities. However, what is performed there is not only
personal identit y, but also group identit y and commitment to the subculture,
confirming Hetherington’s view of identit y as something more than selfreflection,
communication (Hetherington, 1998). In line with Hetherington, in fact, a graffiti
identit y is achieved through performative repertoires that are expressive and
embodied. The performance of the writer’s identit y is made in such a way that it
keeps both individual identit y and collective identification without loosing sight
of either. Indeed, the identit y of the graffiti writer onl y exists when performed, it
often involves identification with one crew and with the subculture in general,
and it communicates fellowship and dominance.
Friendship and support between members of the same crew and fraternit y
between all members of the subculture are necessary to reinforce the feeling of
identit y
identification with a crew and belonging to the subculture are seen as means of
developing individual identit y. Individual innovation is always framed in the
context of a general display of commitment to the range of tastes which
s ymbolize the graffiti scene. Following the patterns of the subculture enhances
personal identit y as the value of the writer is recognized within a certain set of
shared values. By behaving in a certain way dictated b y the subculture, graffiti
writers conduct a specific lifest yle t yp ical to a minor or major degree to all
members of the subculture: going out in the middle of the night, sketching on
papers for big parts of the day, hanging out at stations and train yards to take
pictures and look at graffiti. These life choices give writers’ personal narratives
an identifiable shape and link together people that have made similar choices
(Giddens, 1991). In fact, members of the same crew form strong and intense
relationships among themselves b y sharing the same experiences, and b y giving
importance to the same things. Their current sense of affiliation is based
primaril y on sharing subcultural capital: more than where they are from, it
matters what the graffiti writers are into.
Subcultural capital, as it was described b y Thornton (1995), is the key
player of an alternative hierarchy in which the axes of age, gender, sexualit y and
race are all emplo yed in order to keep the determinations of class, income and
occupation at bay. Nevertheless, for the graffiti subculture gender and age play an
important role when joining the subculture in the first place; however, they loose
importance once the writer is on the wall. Graffiti writers tend to classify and
judge others b y means of a conscious and mutuall y agreed upon set of standards:
the quantit y of tags around the cit y; the crew of belonging and the respect
attributed to the other members; the choice of an original, catch y and control
expressing name; the abilit y to use letters and colours with st yle; the kind of
trains or subways he painted; the danger associated with the spots he painted on;
the cities in which he has been seen; his enemies; and even whether or not he has
been busted. The degree of status-inducing that one holds is therefore related to
the particular tastes or values of a given subcultural grouping. The level of
commitment to the subculture confers status to its owner in the eyes of the
relevant beholder (ibid.). However, in the graffiti subculture it is the writer
himself that claims to be at the head of this alternative hierarch y b y drawing a
crown on top of his name, while newcomers are called ‘toys’ as they don’t carry
enough subcultural capital. This s ystem of classification induces considerable
encouragement for individuals to collect, learn about and exhibit examples of
established subcultural st yle and behaviour (ibid.).
Graffiti writers are adolescents that want to be good at something and want
to express their creativit y in our modern societ y, where just very few people are
reall y noticed. Graffiti gives them the tools to become this successful person that
they may not be elsewhere. Following Epstein (1998), quest for identit y is greater
at a young age, where the need to be someone is greater, and popularit y among
peers is fundamental. According to the classification of Matza (1961), graffiti
could be situated between ‘delinquent youth’ and ‘bohemianism’, because they
seek expressive goals concerned with immediate gratification that they cannot
find elsewhere, however they use aggressive aesthetic pursuits of hedonism as
they act within illegalit y. Graffiti subculture includes a very restricted number of
members, so that with enough dedication everybod y can climb the hierarch y and
be as much known as their own heroes. According to Brake (1980), adolescents
join graffiti subculture as they feel a discomfort that comes b y a need to prevail
on others. However, graffiti writers find the subculture attractive well beyond
their youth, because it can be seen as acting as a buffer against social ageing. In
line with Thornton (1995), in fact, members of subcultures do not go against the
fear of getting older, but of resigning themselves to one position in the societ y.
The material conditions of youth’s investment in subcultural capital results from
the fact that youth, from many class backgrounds, enjo y a momentary reprieve
from necessit y (ibid.). Since popular culture is concerned with pleasures and
identit y rather than efficiency (Fiske, 1989), commitment for the culture comes
before any financial rewards. The financial rewards are therefore translated into
subcultural capital repayments, such as popularit y, friendship and recognition
within the culture. Being noticed from the outsiders does not matter; the
recognition has to come from peers (Thornton, 1995).
In fact, in contradiction to what has been said b y the Birmingham scholars,
writing on the walls is not meant to solve class struggles and to achieve
recognition within the dominant culture. Graffiti writers devote their lives to
graffiti not because of class frustration, but because of their own discomfort and
narcissistic need to emerge as themselves. Adolescents struggle to have their own
spaces of performance. As stated b y Hetherington (1998), making space for
oneself is a major source of affirmation of the self. The cit y becomes a space for
expressions of identities, rather than a territory for battles. Graffiti writers need
spaces to exhibit themselves, not to express ideals. The onl y ideals that are
expressed on the walls of the cit y concern the character and survival of the group
as such (Maffesoli 1996). The cit y becomes detached from its function as a cit y,
cit y walls and trains become what is called b y Foucault an ‘heterotopic space’ or
a space that stands apart from the rest of the societ y (1967). Public space is used
b y graffiti writers to manifest firstly their own selfish will of fame and
domination and secondl y their silent conversations and internal fights.
Within the illegality of graffiti it is possible to find the revolt that the
fathers of cultural studies, Hebdige above all, were insistently looking for. It is a
rebellion against behaving properl y in the societ y, not against the societ y itself. It
is about taking spaces otherwise forbidden. However, they are spaces that are
available and accessible because they belong to the cit y, and the cit y is perceived
b y the writers as the territory of everyb od y, where walls are there for all to be
used. Hebdige recognized in fact that subcultures interrupt the process of
‘normalization’, against behaving in the way imposed b y the societ y. Graffiti
writers attempt to negotiate a space within the dominant ideology: a space where
alternative identit y could be discovered and expressed (Hebdige, 1979). Societ y
imposes the idea that we do not write on the walls. So, they do it, breaking rules.
Members of the graffiti subculture, in fact, steal, appropriate and redefine
s ymbols and objects of the everyday world as a form of resistance (Hebdige,
1979; Fiske, 1989). They claim their right over the cit y. They appropriate the
walls, the trains, the subways. As Fiske affirms , members of subcultures occup y
the places that powerful people construct to exercise their powers, making them
their own. The cit y and whatever travels within it or between cities become
propert y of the writers that use surfaces as canvas to promote their names. They
subvert the conventional uses of commodities b y creating new ones. The walls
stop being the architectural elements that give shape to houses, becoming places
for exhibiting existence, friendships, love and hate. In this sense, it is appropriate
to say that graffiti is, in Hebdige’s terms, a ‘spectacular subculture’, that through
st yle offends the majorit y firstl y b y writing on their walls, or on train windows,
and secondl y b y keeping them completely extraneous to it.
Nevertheless, the most important function of illegalit y is to be found at the
personal level. Illegalit y brings above all personal rewards; it enhances the
feeling of self worth and self affirmation. It gives adventure, excitement, release,
and respect. It follows the impulse of disruption and affirmation of the self that
man y adolescents, mostl y male, feel while growing up (Brake, 1980). If graffiti
was onl y about doing something artistic and creative, they would take a more
legal approach, but b y doing so the adrenaline thrills and risks would be lost. In
opposition to what has been said about graffiti subculture in earlier works
(Macdonalds, 2001), illegal graffiti is not a preparation for a future legal graffiti,
as man y would expect. Legal works are seen as ways to reinforce group spirit,
train the st yle, but above all they are used for illegal purposes. The fact that they
use spray cans in a way so that there is still some for real illegal actions has been
explained b y Fiske (1989) as tricking the system. And this is what happens during
works on commission or other attempts from the art world to absorb graffiti for
their own financial purposes. As it was explained by one of the writers, the great
thing about subcultures is that they belong to youth, and it is onl y thanks to them
if those subcultures reached such a level of quality so that the ‘adult world’ got
interested in them. However, this interest is not seen positively b y the writers, but
is instead perceived as something that ruins the core value of the graffiti
subculture, which is doing what they want, how they want, where they want.
Graffiti writers like to stay detached through it, and rewards given b y the
mainstream culture will never count as much as the subcultural ones framed and
obtained within illegalit y. The graffiti subculture encourages people to do their
own thing, free from the kinds of social pressures which characterize mainstream
societ y. The silent conversations on the walls are not meant to be understood b y
outsiders, as the walls speak a foreign language spoken in every country in the
same way.
5.3 Theoretical implications
The main area of research of this study is identit y performance in the
graffiti subculture; therefore, it aimed at contributing to two streams of literature:
firstl y, the one related to subcultural studies, and secondly the one related to
issues of identit y. Overall, this study detaches itself from traditional approaches
on subcultures, namely the work of the CCCS group, in favour of post-subcultural
studies such as that of Thornton (1995) and Hetherington (1998): the theme of
resistance broke into the one of identit y.
The CCCS group described subcultures as groups of working class
adolescents against a dominant culture. Subcultures are considered b y the CCCS
researchers as expressive forms of tension between those in power and those
condemned to subordinate positions and second-class lives (Hebdige, 1979).
According to this stud y, it does not seem that subcultures are against a dominant
wider culture, rather it appears that the societ y is fragmented in separate groups,
with each expressing their own values, st yles and ways of life. Traditional
subcultural demographics are of little or no importance in the graffiti subculture:
class, race and ethnicit y do not play any role in entering the subculture.
Therefore, the theme of resistance does not appear to be suitable an ymore to
describe the situation of subcultural members; rather, the engine of subcultures is
the quest for personal identit y through illegalit y. Graffiti writers ‘transgress the
laws of man’s second nature’ (Hebdige:1979: 102) b y using illegalit y as a means
to achieve fame and recognition. This stud y confirms Brake’s view (1985) of
illegal subcultures as tools that help adolescents to achieve individual identities,
however Brake still considers them as solutions to collectivel y experienced
problems of working class adolescents. Instead, this research showed that crime is
the main strategy for achieving masculinit y and power as it was affirmed b y
Merrerschmidt (1993). Class completely looses importance, leaving youth and
masculinit y as the two main factors for joining a subculture, with illegalit y being
the main instrument for achieving self worth and personal rewards.
In order to investigate issues of identit y performance, I combined the works
of Giddens, Hetherington, Maffesoli and Thornton. The outcomes of the stud y
foreground the connection between the self as a reflexive project, identification
with others, fellowship and peers’ recognition. Based on Giddens’ view of selfidentit y as a reflexive project (Giddens, 1991), this stud y showed that reflexivit y,
which is articulated through the process of ‘rehearsing’ and ‘seeing it again’, is
essential to build a consciousness of the self. However, it is not sufficient. There
is a strong relationship between the perception of the self, the perception of the
self as a member of a group, and the perception of the self from the other
members of the group of belonging. I therefore propose to incorporate elements of
group identit y (Hetherigton, 1998)), fellowship (Maffesoli, 1988)) and subcultural
capital (Thornton, 1995)) into Giddens (1991) notion of self-reflection. According
to Maffesoli (1988), a communit y is characterized by the emotional impulses of
its members connected to their context of belonging. However, Maffesoli was
talking about territorial, environmental, or natural contexts as major contributors
to a fellowship spirit. Subcultures, instead, transcend localit y in favour of
onl y
Subcultural capital is responsible for both a sense of belonging and a sense of
dominance, given mainl y b y recognition and respect from peers. Therefore,
subcultural capital is believed to be the central element to the process of identit y
affirmation and performance.
5.4 Methodological reflections
As this stud y was conducted through ethnographic research, I would like to
unfold some inevitable issues raised b y this methodological approach. First of all,
the selection of the participants for this stud y was random and depended mainl y
on the network of people that I alread y knew or that I got to know during this
stud y. Since access to this subculture was limited b y the fact that it is an illegal
activit y, I was not picky in choosing m y participants. This stud y involved graffiti
writers in Rome and Amsterdam, however the selection of participants is not to be
considered representative of the graffiti scene in the two cities or of the European
scene in general. I must admit that I was firstl y disappointed b y the fact of not
having had the opportunit y to interview an y female graffiti writers, as I was
hoping to get some great insights from a female in a male dominated world.
However, having one or more girls in this study would have twisted the attention
on gender related issues, while I wanted this study to be centred on issues of
identit y performance. In fact, I ended up considering masculinit y as a prior
concept, rather than a topic of investigation.
One of the most difficult parts of this research was the one of feeling their
fear and their distrust. Being a girl contributed to create a feeling of ‘alienation’,
but as I alread y mentioned, I still feel that this played in m y favour both to get in
contact with the writers and to help them disclose themselves, as I was not seen in
a competitive role. Some things may have been omitted from their descriptions,
but I feel that m y questions were always answered in a way that was satisfying for
my study. In Amsterdam I also encountered the language problem; in fact, both I
and the interviewed had to communicate in a second language, so that some things
may have not been expressed as deepl y as it would have been in a mother tongue
Certainl y, the research and the interpretation of the results were influenced
b y m y cultural and academic background. However, on many occasions I found
myself forgetting my role as a researcher and started to see the world from their
eyes. In writing this paper, I was sometimes afraid that the empathy I felt for the
writers I have met would not transpire from these pages. I wanted to write this
paper from the writers’ perspectives, I wanted to give justice to their voices, but I
also needed to be ‘academic’ and objective, so that sometimes I encountered some
difficulties combining the two.
5.5 Future research
This stud y aimed at filling the academic gap about graffiti identit y
performance in Europe. It contributed to the field of subcultural studies b y
investigating issues such as youth, identit y, illegalit y, territory, and group
belonging. However, the graffiti subculture offers man y possibilities for further
studies. Firstl y, since I consider it to be the major limitations of this study, I
would propose a stud y which aims at exploring reasons and attitudes of female
graffiti writers. I consider it to be very important to investigate a minor female
presence in a male dominated culture and whether their rewards are the same as
male graffiti writers.
Moreover, since this stud y showed that resistance does not play a role in
this subculture, I consider it appropriate to make a distinction between reason for
a subculture to be created and reasons for joining a subculture afterwards. It may
be interesting to conduct a comparative study between the reasons of the first
founders of the subculture in New York and the kids that nowadays join it. Also a
comparative research between contemporary American and European graffiti
could be of great value.
Lastl y, more and more aspects of the culture are becoming inseparable from
communications technologies. The possibilit y of spreading pictures on the web is
certainl y having a great impact on some aspects of graffiti such as fame and
recognition. Does it reall y matter anymore to see the train running with the piece
on it as long as the picture is on the web? I would therefore encourage further
research on the importance of the Internet for a culture that is so firml y situated
in the ‘open air’.
Previous research on graffiti in New York for instance (Macdonalds, 2001) claim that graffiti is still very much
connected to the hip hop culture, something that did not appear in my study.
Active: A writer who currentl y paints.
Bomb: To tag.
Bomber: Someone that onl y tags.
Crew: A group of affiliated writers.
Cross out: To put a line over another tag or crew’s name.
Family: Affiliation of several crews.
Fill-in: The painted interior of a piece, through up, flop.
Flop: A quick outline of a name with black, white or no painted interior. Often it
is just the first two letters of a tag (in Italy, for the Netherlands see Throwup).
Go over: To write over another tag.
Hall of fame: A legal or semi-legal wall.
King: A respected and prolific writer.
Line: A line on the subway.
Mission: An illegal painting action.
Old school: Older generation of writers.
Piece: A more elaborate painting.
Retire: To abandon painting graffiti on a regular basis.
Safe: Something without risk.
Sell out: A writer that works for money.
Solidarity wall: A wall that reflects alliances between crews.
Tag: Writer’s name.
Tagging: Writing one’s name.
Throwup: A quick outline of a name with black, white or no painted interior.
Toy: An inexperienced or incompetent writer.
Up: A productive writer.
Whole car: A piece covering the entire surface of a train carriage.
Whole train: A piece covering the entire length of a train.
Writer: Someone who writes graffiti.
Yard: A place where trains are berthed. A train depot.
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Appendix 1
Topic List for Semi-structured interviews
General Information:
How did you start?
Are you an active writer?
Since how long do you make graffiti?
How old are you?
What do you think was the reason for you to start? (friends doing it
alread y, boredom, feeling of wanting to become someone, fascination for
other existing graffiti or artists).
What changed with the years?
What does it mean for you?
How do you feel while doing it?
What is the thing that makes you feel good the most about it?
What is the message you want to transmit?
Are you always satisfied?
Would you say that your practice is for yourself, for the others, to beautify
the cit y, for whom mainl y do you do it?
How did you choose your tag?
Did you always have the same one? How man y tags do you use?
How did it develop during the years?
How much time did you or you still dedicate to it? (Does it occup y all your
How often do you bomb? When (day, night)
What do you generally do? Tags or pieces?
Do you have your own signature or piece that you always reproduce or
sometimes you write messages? If yes, what kind of?
Where do you generall y paint? (trains, buildings, metro, private or public
What is your public? (Other writers, members of other crew, general public,
Is it comprehensible?
Graffiti and normal life
Do you think it influenced other possible life choices?
Do you let the ‘graffiti identit y’ to interfere with your normal identit y?
Do your friends sometimes call you b y your tag name?
Does everybody know what you do? (famil y, friends…)
What do you do beside it?
Some people refer to graffiti as vandalisms; do you find yourself agreeing
with this connotation?
Man y things have been written about graffiti being against the s ystem, or
the people that own the power of the cit y? Do you think that your practice
is against something or someone?
What is the feeling you have for the cit y? (is it yours, are you against
urban control?)
Is this the onl y criminal behaviour you have?
What role does the fact of that is an illegal activit y plays in it?
What do you feel about all the restrictions and legal measures that man y
cities appl y to prevent graffiti writing?
Have you ever been caught? Somebody you know?
What did it mean for you?
Did it influence in an y how your activit y or your feelings for it?
Do you ever think of quitting? If yes, for what?
Would you (or you already do) legal graffiti and would you leave for ever
the illegal scene?
Crews and travels:
Do you belong to any crew?
What shows that you belong to that crew?
How do you relate to your crew? What do you do for the other members?
Do you often gather together? Certain rituals.
What do you generally do when you are together? (also music or drugs)
Do you stay in your area or do you go in other cities?
Do you know other graffiti writers in other parts of Europe?
Are you in contact with them? Have you ever bombed together?
What do you share with them?
Does something change when you write in other cities than yours?
So, do you think this subculture is local? Does it have boundaries?