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Graffiti: an Art of Vandalism Or Dreams

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“The Future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams” (O’Leary & Spring, 2008). An expression of the untrained masses, Graffiti is also known, as street art is an expressive art form that is a reflection of people’s sociological issues of the past, present and near future. A hand of self-expression, such an art is usually in scripted on public surfaces, subways, staircases and areas. The Grove’s Dictionary of Art states that ‘Graffiti’ is derived from a Greek word ‘Graphein’ which means, “to write”. Overtime there has been a constant debate on the artistic merit of graffiti drawings when comparing modern day graffiti to ancient pieces of graffiti art such as ‘Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux’ (Welsch, 1993: 32).

Most ancient graffiti inscriptions were found on early pilgrimage and trade routes, as a result to inspire traders, merchants and the common man who travelled this route to follow a particular religion, believe in an ideology or join a movement to fight a cause. The passage that connects Palestine and the Catherine Monastery at the Sinai Peninsula is a clear example of a historic trail that has inscriptions in Latin, Greek and Nabatean (Bartholome, 2004: 87). Graffiti was dated back to the sixth century B.C originating from a small town called Abu Simbel in the country of the Great Pyramids, Egypt. Hieroglyphics, the language of the Egyptians can also be considered as an expression of graffiti; communicating ritualistic practices that took place during that era. Till now the carvings on tombs, walls and stones are being analyzed by archaeologists and historians to dig deeper into the world of the unknown pharaohs that reigned a few thousand decades ago. Through analyzing the undertones of these inscriptions, the themes associated within this field of work includes expression of one’s community’s emotions, reaction to personal loss and devastation and response to national and climatic disasters. The message left behind is an urge to leave a mark of change on the world. Thus, ancient periods dating back to B.C have placed a significant amount of value on the need of human’s to claim ones existence.

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Societies over time have held a mixed bag of feelings towards the art of graffiti. The Romantic era, an artistic and intellectual movement with its roots in Europe in the 1980’s stirred up deep interests in the long forgotten art forms. Graffiti only gained importance by the masses after the French Revolution took place in the year 1830. Victor Hugo, a French poet and novelist hinted his intrigue for graffiti through his wood carvings.. In the year 1833 as well, Balzac expressed his interest for graffiti on the walls of the Rue Pagevin. At this time, media as well began to recognize graffiti as a form of political speech. In the year 1833, two children were punished to commit an act of parody of King Louis Philippe with pear-faces on a wall (Sheon, 1976: 16). When this caught the media’s attention, regardless of the punishment it gained major attention. It thus recognized graffiti as an art and this was the start of graffiti being used as a socio-political mean.

The characteristic of graffiti has transcended over time, with the rise of “Graffiti languages” (The Economist, 2004). The infamous graffiti writings in gender-neutral washrooms of the eighteenth century in the city of Paris reflected comments regarding social and political issues. Similar to our very own Facebook and Instagram feeds, only difference here was they had to physically draw hearts or comment to like or agree with a person’s statement or question on the wall. Men were seen as hostile as per the structure and wording of their comments while women explored the romantic side of such ideas. Its popularity has also transcended to the hierarchy of class. Before education for the masses expanded, society considered the word ‘luxury’ reserved to the elite. However with the growth of widespread literacy, graffiti now continues to prevail among all classes on a global basis. (The Economist, 2004)

The era of Romanticism, evoked an exploration of hidden art forms, and in this context street art became an eye of appeal because of its ability to appear in its original and naïve form, where the assumption of its attractive nature can be defied. Not only being restricted to Europe, the art of writing in public spaces has stretched to all continents. It can be seen as an intrinsic need for us to leave our mark behind in this world. The most common present day form of graffiti was in the spotlight from the 1960’s. Mirroring anti-war protests, political movement upheavals and major civil right movements graffiti again regained its importance and became a tool for self-expression. (Welsh, 1993: 30). Though academics have argued on the birthplace of modern graffiti to be Philadelphia, the art has also been given recognition through its appearance on local subway walls in New York. (Phillips, 1999).

Susan A. Phillips, a university professor at Pitzer College argued to that graffiti should be categorized into two distinct groups: Popular graffiti and Community-based graffiti. Popular graffiti including symbols, remarks, drawings while Community-based graffiti being considered as a modern phenomenon including incorporating hip-hop, gangs, unions and political elements. Hence what we consider graffiti today is hip-hop subculture rooted through the inner cities of the United States.

The first theory to explain Graffiti crime is the ‘Broken Windows Theory’. Broken Windows proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling is a metaphor for disorder and disrupt in neighborhoods’. This theory is considered to be a criminological theory which states that visible signs of criminal behavior, anti-social behavior can create an environment which further encourages crime and disorder to take place, not only restricting it to one community or area of society. It links incivility and disorder within a neighborhood to future crime occurrences. Serious crime is the ultimate result of a serious of chain of events, which theorized that the root cause for crime occurrence was from a disorder and if this disorder were to be eliminated, and then serious crimes would not occur (Mckee, 2018). Hence, this theory feeds itself. The expansion of graffiti in major cities of America has influenced Canadian cities and culture especially Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary and Toronto. In effect, this widespread effect has grown to cause a serious concern to everyday citizens as they no longer feel safe in their neighborhood and try their best to avoid such areas. It is now perceived as a threat to the life of the community since taxpayers pay millions of dollars every year for its removal. </p><p>The University of British Columbia itself, spent “$145,000 cleaning up vandalism” (Postmedia News, 2013) in the year 2013 and the Vancouver School Board spends over $150,000 every year to remove graffiti. This resulted in the formation of a Vancouver Anti-Graffiti Task Force being created to pit forward measures to prevent such vandalism. One of such measure included a fine of $500 for those who are found guilty of this act. All buildings in the city of Vancouver also hold the right to remove graffiti marks from their walls within ten days of its creation or it can result in them being faced with a minimum fine starting at $100. Through the eyes of the city inspectors and local patrol, graffiti is linked to teenage delinquency as well. It has overtime become an illegal offence as it implies the ‘act of damaging property without authorized permission’. Another few reasons it can be considered as an act of deviance is because it detracts the beauty from neighborhoods, the value of property decreases upon it being ruined and affects the tourism industry. It gives a visual impression of an uncaring society; and when a city fails to remove graffiti, it creates an “environment where more serious crimes flourish” (Grant, 1996

The second theory explaining graffiti crime is Labelling theory. Graffiti also includes imaging; it has to do with tagging / labeling the area with one’s name to claim this specific place as their own. In West Virginia a group of soldiers in a town called Harpers Ferry covered the walls of a small with graffiti drawings (Pritchard, 1: 1967). In their defense they wanted to leave a mark of remembrance by using charcoal and lead pieces. Hence the need to write for commorations publicly has been on going from before. However, such an act was only considered to vandalize the community as it was “labeled” deviant by others. The Labelling theory introduced Howard Becker in 1935 states

“Deviancy is not a quality of the cat a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender. Deviant behavior that people so label” (Becker, 1935). “Many see graffiti as a gang related and merit-less, while others hail graffiti as a legitimate art form of the utmost importance (Sartwell, 2003)”. The most basic form of graffiti is simple markings or simple words. Following this a tag name is included stating that ‘I was here’ marking one’s territory. Simple tags are rooted in graffiti’s history, but with the advent of acrylic paints and spray paints large multicolored tags have begun to be seen. A change from the style of writing; bubble letters to 3D lettering was witnessed. Thus the goal of the artist was to create unique stylistic pieces across their town to gain popularity and raise their voice self-expression.

Genetic theories on the other hand, argue that there is a direct casual relation between a person’s genetic make up and predisposition toward their behavior, which are likely to be considered as deviant by society. Eyesenck devised the third theory, which is a non-sociological theory. Hans Eyesenck, renowned psychologist based his theory on genetic influences by which an individual’s temperaments are controlled. A theory based on biological factors, which argues that individuals inherit a certain elements of their parents’ nervous system that affect their ability to adapt to new environments and socially adjust with others. For example, he proposed that there is a casual connection between criminal behavior and extrovert personalities. Theorists state that such overt and bold personality types do not cause criminal behavior however predispose an individual to behave in particular ways that lay them open towards criminal acts. However, when we think about a person’s particular behavior we must consider 3 main factors; the social situation, the people they are interacting with and the perception of norms in the social setting. The social setting – the social class and status of people living around them, the environment they live in; is the community poor and unkept. The second factor is the people with which the individual iinteract with; are they prone to criminal behaviours because of similar mindsets and upbringing? And the final factor is the perception of social norms and conformity; does this community follow and accept such acts of deviance, what is the response of the public.

All 3 factors influence and guide an individual to commit a social crime.

In regard to graffiti, an individual who pursues this crime regardless of it being a criminal act of justice, gains their popularity through visibility. Graffiti can simply be a relfection of merriment, rivalry or simply gainig public fame and attention. Most graffitists do not consider themsesleves as vandals, instead throught his they gain the confidence and “satisfaction from indulging in an unlawful pursuit in beating the system. Some are stimulated by the spice of danger” (1992: 5). Extrovert personalities involve an element called genetic imperative, which includes “risk taking” behavior by going after a particular desire that may be harmful to the moral and legal conduct of the state. From his theory we can conclude, the social environment plays a greater role in the creation of deviants.

In my defense, I believe that the Broken Windows Theory is an ideal theory which provides a complete sociological perspective in understanding the sequence of events and causes that lead upto commiting this unlawful act. Since the 19th century, Kelling’s and Wilsons ideas have provided a sense of motivation towards “zero tolerance” policing (Klinenberg, 2018) where offciers monitor the smallest of smallest crimes that offend members of society. Such crimes not only include graffiti but also panhandling, loitering etc. “If you take care of the little things, then you can prevent a lot of big things”. Similarly, this theory states a chain of events causes a serious crime which makes the community neighborhoods unsafe, resulting in people moving away from such areas and shifting to higher and respectable areas where peace and order is followed.

A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.

This captivating piece written by the author himself elicits to the fact that if a window is broke, and no reparations and maintence is taken care of it will result in the remaining windows to be soon damanged and broken as well. One unrepaired window is a sign of no care hence breaking more windows in the future would cost no harm to others as perceived by the criminal. At this point, residents of the area will begin to think that violent crime is on the rise and ultimately begin to modify their behavior; they might not talk certain routes to walk on, move with averted eyes and hurried steps. The statement above suggest that a sequence of events, one broken window to the next broken window results in property being abandoned; the value of the property decreases as spoken earlier when discussing the theories. This results ina change of command by one;s aprents, children take on “rowdy” behavior ultimately influencing their own peers to take part and support the crime. “Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse” suggest that stubbornness is seen in an individual;s character because of their peers support. Their refusal leads to chaos and ccrime, resulting in more broken windows. “People start drinking infront of grocery stores” is also indicating that one crime leads to another (a series of continuous crime events).

Graffiti By law no. 7343 is a by-law printed under the authority of the Council of the city of Vancouver. “A By-law to prevent unsightliness of property by prohibiting the placement of graffiti and requiring that property be kept free of graffiti”. To summarize the implications of this law: No person is allowed to place or create graffiti at any structure, property or vegetation that is adjacent to public places and streets. No owner of real property is allowed to permit graffiti, if there is a sight of an accumulation of graffiti then the owner must remove it within the duration of 10 days.

To sum up this law, a “person who commits an offence against a provision of this By-law is liable to a fine and penalty of not less than $250.00 for any offence under this By-law, except for an offence under sections 3, 4, or 5 in respect of which the fine and penalty will be not less than $500.00, and not more than $10,000.00 for each offence” (Vancouver, ‘Graffiti Bylaw 7343’)

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