Graffiti, Deviance and Public Art

Graffiti exists in a grey area between art and crime, with some forms considered legal and others considered to be illegal and against the best interests of society. But how do we draw the distinction between public art and destructive deviance? Can illegal graffiti play a legitimate role in a functional society or does the mere practice of unsolicited “street art” constitute a threat to social order? This essay will explore the conflicting sociological notion of graffiti as a form of criminal deviance and its role in art, youth subculture and informal communication. Deviance is defined as “…norm or rule-breaking behaviour that is usually subject to negative social sanctions” (Van Krieken 2013), whilst graffiti is defined as “… a form of expression which appears on public or private spaces…” (Arcioni 2003). This definition of graffiti does not place the activity exclusively within the realm of illegal activity, however it can be easily argued that graffiti is a form of social deviance, albeit one that has a limited negative impact on social order.

One of the key driving forces of graffiti is cited as being a sense of alienation and dissociation from the environment and community. As Bandaranaike 2003 found in the demographic study of areas that experience high levels of graffiti, the incidents of tagging and graffiti were more prevalent in areas with high youth populations nearby and low home ownership rates. There is also a strong emphasis on communication and sending a message through graffiti as part of a subculture; “…Kids (and others) employ particular forms of graffiti as a means of resisting particular constellations of legal, political, and religious authority.” (Ferrell 1995). Whilst the hip-hop subculture is not the only one that is associated with graffiti, it is the subculture with the most obvious a frequent links to the use of graffiti as a form of communication. The appeal of graffiti for many young people and those in other age demographics who may feel ignored or marginalized, Graffiti is an easily accessible subversive communication method that bypasses social controls. Due to the huge variety of materials that can be used in graffiti and the potentially prominent and visible locations that the graffiti can be created in, the appeal of graffiti as a means for sending a message of anger or disconnect to the rest of society is consistent and easy to fathom. If the graffiti ‘artist’ does not feel a sense of connection or ownership to their local urban environment and those who may own the property or control it’s use then graffiti is a powerful tool in expressing this disillusionment and disconnect. This is perhaps why those who feel that they have no control over the social environment and community that they exist within, such as the youth of an area, may be irresistibly drawn to graffiti as a mode of expression.

With the current data available in Australia with a focus on Townsville the more likely perpetrators of graffiti are cited to be males aged 12-18 years from one parent families who live in rented dwellings (Bandaranaike 2003). This demographic trend is largely agreed upon by national and international studies. Comparing the prevalence of graffiti in an area with other demographic factors can tell us a lot about what kind of urban landscape graffiti can occur in. Common factors for graffiti prone areas include a higher dropout rate of youth from schools, high rate of youth unemployment, and the availability of parental guidance and supervision (Bandaranaike 2003). These factors are also common to areas where parents may have to work longer to make ends meet and were poverty, or lower socio-economic standards prevail. This goes some way to explaining why graffiti seems to be more common in poor urban areas. The limited mobility of the youth population also correlates to the proximity of graffiti to youth areas like skate parks, public transportation locales such as train stations and bus stops and locations near schools and other areas of high youth traffic.

Though one of the main criticisms of graffiti is that it is antisocial behaviour this is not widely agreed upon. In fact Ferrell 1995 asserts the exact opposite; “The writing of graffiti is an inherently collective activity. Although writers tag and piece against the controls of the city, they also tag and piece for one another, and in so doing build alternative structures of meaning and status. Tagging goes on as a collective conversation among writers, a process of symbolic interaction by which writers challenge, cajole, and surprise one another.” This social interaction usually exists outside the greater societal norms of the local community with taboos and segregation often being broken within these subculture groups; “Significantly, the alternative communities that writers create often violate the city’s everyday ethnic segregation by incorporating kids of various ethnic backgrounds” (Ferrell 1995). Could it be that the groups that practice graffiti have a much more cohesive and inclusive group social structure? This seems to be entirely possible in some cases, whilst not universal or true of all groups, it is certainly not accurate to dismiss these groups as wholly antisocial.

When defining graffiti as a criminal act or public artwork it is often questioned as to whether the graffiti is seen to be of value. Social evaluation of public artwork takes into account factors that include determining if; “the artwork relates to the community, its demographic, cultural aspirations and identity, the artwork relates to the history and heritage of the local area, the artwork helps build community capacity or what has been termed social capital, the work is valued by the local community and visiting communities.”. Some of the illegal graffiti we can find in most urban environments meets much of this criteria, however local governments still spend millions of dollars in graffiti clean ups rather than retaining graffiti that conforms to the public arts evaluation framework outlined in Frost 2003; “The framework evaluates public art from the four key areas of 1. Social, 2. Environmental, 3. Economic, 4. Aesthetic values”. At the risk of constricting the graffiti artist right to freedom of speech, the legal system actively prosecutes offenders and protects property owners. Damage to property is a legitimate concern but legal action is often pursued against these often nonviolent offenders can result in creating a further disconnect between them and the wider community; “The prevalence of graffiti hotspots in our urban landscape clearly denotes there is a ‘message’ to the rest of society, irrespective of its mode of articulation. Youth need to express themselves as much as any other member in our society. Stifling their activity without providing an alternative will lead to dissention and more aggressive behaviour” (Bandaranaike, 2003)

Whilst the permission of the property owner is also a major factor in the legality of street art it is important to note that the actual damage to property is not cited as the only concern for the wider community. Perceived damage to the community is the belief in the wider community “that the mere existence of the graffiti increases the level of crime in the area and makes the area less safe.” (Arcioni 2003). These perceptions have real and lasting consequences with actual losses being incurred by the inhabitants of the local area   including a “…fall in the desirability of the area as a place within which to live or conduct business and therefore a fall in property prices, despite a lack of empirical evidence to support those views.” (Arcioni 2003). If graffiti is a permanent and somewhat essential part of the urban landscape as stipulated in Bandaranaike, 2003 then it is in the best interests of the community and the greater social order to find an acceptable arena or medium for this communication to take place. This should not just require compromise on the part of the graffiti artists themselves but it should also be an opportunity for the greater community to be informed and educated on the origins of street art and how it relates to contemporary society.

Whilst there is a heavy emphasis on the reduction and regulation of graffiti across the urban landscape many sources do not link graffiti to an increased level of criminal activity in an area: “Graffiti does not necessarily, nor logically, nor automatically, equate with criminality” (White 2001). In fact there is a push to outline and define the very clear differences between graffiti and violent crime. From a Marxist perspective the limitation of graffiti or uncommissioned street art could be seen as the bourgeoisie attempting exercise social control and censorship to protect their own interests and property against the ideas of the proletariat or working classes. While it has been asserted that graffiti can be undertaken by people from any socio economic group the high rate of incidents within young people who often have very little power, money or control over their situation would suggest that graffiti as a crime is one committed by the poor against the rich. From this perspective graffiti can be seen as essential part of class struggle, with elaborate political and socially significant murals and graffiti forms having a high prevalence in areas of extreme poverty, subjugation or political strife. The high rate of graffiti in places of violence and civil unrest seems to be a subculture response to what they see around them, a form of social commentary, trying to analyse and communicate a message with the only medium and methods available to them. This follows that rather than treating graffiti as the cause or root of the problems of an area that needs to be eliminated or covered up, perhaps we should be viewing graffiti as a symptom of a greater problem that exists or is brewing in the area. For instance if, in an area of housing crisis and high levels of homelessness, the government housing offices, or nearby more privileged areas may be targets for graffiti as a way for the perpetrators to express frustration and powerlessness to do anything to effectively improve their situation, or create change through official means.

Graffiti by nature will never truly conform to the societal norms but the negative social connotations can be managed. Whilst there is so many issues of social order, social control and deviance to at play when it comes to graffiti, and the topic is deserving of a more thorough investigation the research I have cited shows that the value of Graffiti as part of the diagnosis of social problems should not be undervalued. Graffiti, while it is definitely a form of deviance is an important means of communication for many who do not agree with the current social order and who wish to send a message to the greater community via a method that bypasses the normal social controls and censorship. This subversive communication practice and form of non-administered public art may not be legal in many cases and is condemned by greater society as it challenges the current social order by defying the regulation of the urban landscape, a factor that in my opinion does not lessen, but in fact increases its value to the community, providing the voiceless with a voice.



  • Arcioni, Elisa, GRAFFITI, REGULATION, FREEDOM, Graffiti and Disorder Conference, Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Local Government Association, Brisbane, 18-19 August 2003
  • Bandaranaike, Suniti, GRAFFITI HOTSPOTS : PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT OR HUMAN DIMENSION?, Graffiti and Disorder Conference, Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Local Government Association, Brisbane, 18-19 August 2003
  • Ferrell, Jeff. “Urban Graffiti Crime, Control, and Resistance.” Youth & Society 27, no. 1 (1995): 73-92.
  • Frost, Ashley, GRAFFITI AND PUBLIC ART, Graffiti and Disorder Conference, Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Local Government Association, Brisbane, 18-19 August 2003
  • Marshall, Sophie, Beyond the Paint: Graffiti’s Value in Contemporary Society, Santa Sabina College (2010)
  • Payne, Malcolm, 1991, Radical and Marxist Approaches in Modern Social Work Theory: A Critical Introduction, pp. 201-223, London: MacMillan
  • Van Krieken, Robert et al, Sociology, 5th edition, Pearson Australia (2013)
  • White, R. (2001) Graffiti, Crime Prevention and Cultural Space. Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 12(3): 253-268


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