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Our Desires Are Ungovernable: Writing Graffiti in Urban Space

NCJ Number
Theoretical Criminology Volume: 10 Issue: 3 Dated: August 2006 Pages: 275-306
Mark Halsey; Alison Young
Date Published
August 2006
32 pages
Drawing on interviews with graffiti writers in Melbourne, Australia, this study focused on motivations for graffiti writing; thresholds that divide "art" from "vandalism;" writers' reactions to a "blank" surface; and the relationship of graffiti writing to other types of crime.
The authors conclude that the dynamic and invigorating sensations experienced by graffiti writers in the course of their work precludes ever being able to eliminate it. Further, the authors argue that graffiti is desirable in the sense that it can be an urban subculture's expression of art, feelings, and thoughts that grab the attention of the viewer in ways not possible with "blank" walls. Interviewees overwhelmingly indicated that their initial involvement in graffiti writing stemmed from a combination of its visual appeal for them and a desire to be part of a society of graffiti writers. Sensations experienced when they created and viewed their graffiti were pride, pleasure, the enjoyment derived from sharing an activity with friends, and recognition from the graffiti community. Most viewed their work as "art" rather than "vandalism," based on their intent, the skill required to produce it, and the aesthetic outcome. Regarding interviewees' reactions to "blank" walls in urban areas, they are viewed as spaces without interest or aesthetics that could be visually improved and achieve a stimulating presence by their graffiti. Regarding the relationship of graffiti writing, which is itself illegal, to other crimes, most of the interviewees were part of social groups ("crews") that were accustomed to violence and some drug use, mostly marijuana. 3 figures, 31 notes, and 43 references