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Graffiti subculture does not share its stories. This master thesis tells that what was written on the walls would reveal something about the lives and relationships of those who wrote them The graffiti subculture is being explored in this master thesis about what was going on in the minds of the people standing behind those tags & goes into the field and experience of these things that were only theoretically described and by this master thesis to give a voice to the graffiti writers

Graffiti subculture does not share its stories. This master thesis tells that what was written on the walls would reveal something about the lives and relationships of those who wrote them The graffiti subculture is being explored in this master thesis about what was going on in the minds of the people standing behind those tags & goes into the field and experience of these things that were only theoretically described and by this master thesis to give a voice to the graffiti writers

BEHIND THE TAG: A journey with the graffiti writers of European walls By Silvia Pietrosanti Graphic design (on own initiative) by

www.nothingfancy.nl_2011 Master Thesis MSc European Communication Studies Graduate School of Communication Supervisor: Linda Duits Amsterdam, 7th of June 2010 University of Amsterdam

BEHIND THE TAG A journey with the graffiti writers of european walls

Table of contents Preface


1. 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5

Introduction Research Topic Problem Formulation An introduction to the graffiti subculture Societal and academic relevance Chapter outline

8 9 9 10 13 15

2. 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.5.1 2.6

Theoretical framework: Behind subcultures Introduction Subcultures Subcultures as a form of protest Youth and masculinity as main actors in subcultures Subcultures as a pursuit of identity and identification Belonging and performance Subcultural capital as a means for achieving identity affirmation

17 18 18 19 22 25 28 31

3. 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8

Methods Research Design Participant Observation In-depth semi-structured interviews The sample The role of the researcher Ethical considerations Data analysis Quality of this research

34 35 37 38 39 40 41 41 42

4. 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.4.1 4.5 4.5.1 4.6 4.6.1 4.7 4.7.1 4.8 4.8.1 4.9 4.10

Results Introduction I tag, therefore I am Affirming the self Territory Over the borders The crew Group identity performance Illegality Don’t tell me I can do it! The blank message of graffiti Audience The beginnings Keep it going Commitment Conclusive thoughts

45 46 47 52 55 59 61 62 66 68 70 72 73 76 77 80

5. 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5

Conclusions Introduction An extensive answer: combining theory and results Theoretical implications Methodological reflections Future research

82 83 84 91 93 94

Glossary Bibliography

96 98

Appendix 1: Topic list for semi-structured




Preface I’ve been always fascinated by graffiti on the streets. I come from a town close to Rome, and I have often travelled by train to follow classes for my previous studies. The railings were so intense with writings that I could not stop wondering what was behind these written names, what they actually 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 my mind again last year, during a class named ‘Subcultures and Lifestyles’ 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, my interest for that subculture grew extensively, and I was eager to know more and find out about areas that were left undressed by previous studies. What I really wanted to do was go into that field and experience these things that were only theoretically described and write my 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 by the job done by Nancy Macdonalds in London and New York (2001), I decided to explore the graffiti scenes in Rome and Amsterdam.


1. Introduction



Research Topic Hero, Raw, Twice, Renok. These and countless other names are written repeatedly by invisible hands on walls, subways, trains, trucks, bike baskets, & roofs all over every city. It is almost impossible to catch a graffiti writer painting a piece, however new marks of colour appear each morning in incredibly 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 everybody notices it. In fact, most people seem to be indifferent to the phenomenon, considering it to be an integral part of the city 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 rarely registered [‌] We are unaware that the city 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.


Problem formulation This research, based on the assumption that graffiti is essentially a communication medium, revolves around the theme of identity performance. Namely, it is the identity performance that takes place on the walls, through the sole use of forms of colours. Consequently, marking the territory will be understood as construction and affirmation of the self. As it will be explained below, the phenomenon of graffiti as 9

a subculture developed in the United States and successfully sprung up in Europe as a result of the media, especially 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 study 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 identity performance is intended as the presentation of both personal and group identity, 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 constantly related to the community one belongs to or feels a sense of belonging. Therefore, investigating the identity 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 study will verify whether this occurs in the graffiti subculture as well and whether this subculture transcends its locality. 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 (OthenPrice, 2006). Rediscovering this antique practice,


sub-cultural graffiti originally comes from New York about 40 years ago as a neighbourhood based activity. According to Powers (1996), an article that appeared in the New York Times on July 21, 1971 made ‘tagging’ a competitive activity. This article was about an anonymous Manhattan teenager nicknamed ‘Taki 183’ who was described as the ‘king’ of a train line. Many kids understood that graffiti could help them obtain recognition and respect among their peers, and therefore the number of graffiti writers that secretly enrolled in the ‘king of the street or of a train line’ contest (invisible to the majority 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 synergistically with hip hop dance and music cultures (Macdonald, 2001). Soon graffiti became the element within the New York City hiphop subculture that attracted the most media attention because of its steady growth in popularity among youth and the high cost for its removal (Alonso, 1998). This cultural activity eventually spread westward, as Hip Hop was exported from New York City to major cities across the United States and the world during the hip hop popular culture explosion in the early 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 types of graffiti. Several authors have tried to make a distinction between them in order to be able to study the phenomenon from different angles. Following Grant (1996), modern graffiti generally falls into one of three categories: ‘junk’ graffiti, ‘gang’ graffiti, 11

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, many studies, such as the one conducted by Feiner and Klein (1982, cited in Alonso, 1998), proved that heavy drug use is almost nonexistent among serious graffiti writers, and activities involved with writing graffiti appear to be their only 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 generally less violent than gang crews. Conversely, gang members are mostly found in lower classes and predominantly belong to the same ethnic group and have a more pronounced neighbourhood orientation. For instance, competitions between tagging crews usually 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 why their writings are generally 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 highly efficient way of reaching a desired audience. Major themes for political graffiti are associated with labour conditions, freedom, political power, unemployment, religious thought, and civil rights. They are often connected to critical social events and are generally made where the marginalized have no other ways to let their voices be heard. On the other 12

hand, ‘existential’ graffiti are the ones that can be consistently 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 stylized signature that a writer marks on the urban environment: walls, buses, and trains. The focus of this study will be on ‘tagging’ graffiti. It is the most broadly spread and often, when people refer to graffiti, they generally mean ‘tagging’ graffiti. People that produce it are called ‘graffiti writers’, more simply ‘writers’. Tagging graffiti offers the opportunity to explore how the concepts of place, culture, hegemony and identity are interwoven not through messages or personal comments, which are explicit affirmations of the self, but simply 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 property 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 ‘dirty, obscene, and disease like’ (Grant, 1996). Therefore, the societal relevance of studying graffiti is given by the constant ongoing debate on what it really is: while it is seen by some as a problem that requires an appropriate response, it is seen by 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 quickly degrade once low-crime areas (ibid.). Slahor states 13

that the apparently minor offence of graffiti can have demoralizing consequences for a community (Slahor, 1994). Allowing graffiti in an area encourages other offenders to degrade the community 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, intentionally and unintentionally confound the boundaries between the different types 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 by a hodgepodge of impoverished art school dropouts and unschooled graffiti writers, but by 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 study is to understand this subculture by giving voices to the artists themselves. In addition, graffiti are inscribed by youth (Macdonald, 2002; Othen-Price, 2006). Therefore, this study will contribute to the understanding of how contemporary youth subcultures establish their cultural autonomy and express their identity through public space. Studying youth is significant as youth is a complex, shifting, and contradictory category, which is rarely 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 simply restricted from speaking in those spheres where public conversation shapes social policy (Giroux, 1998). Their voices generally emerge on the margins of society, in underground magazines, alternative music spheres, computer hacker clubs, and other 14

subcultural sites. While lauded as a symbol of hope for the future, they are often associated with rebellion and resistance. From a scientific point of view, graffiti as an object of research has been of interest to several disciplines: linguistics, cultural studies, history, psychology, 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 symbols, rather than talking to the people. Consequently, this study will contribute to the existing literature on subcultures and on youth identity performance, thus offering an empirical approach. This thesis will provide a contemporary account on the graffiti subculture in Europe that is dictated by 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 by the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) and argue that the notion of class is not the only factor playing a role in subcultures. Issues of age, gender and quest for identity must be intertwined into the theoretical picture as well. Chapter 3 explains the methods I used and asserts the quality of the study. I also reflect on my role as a young female researcher investigating a male dominated illegal subculture. Chapter 4 focuses on the field. I describe my journey into the graffiti world using the writers’ own narrative accounts. 15

Identity performance is informed by the three main concepts: personal identity, group identity 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’ identity performance combining theory with results. I also find the theoretical implications of this study and recommend areas for further research.


2. Theoretical framework: Behind subcultures




This chapter unfolds the theoretical framework of this study, which focuses on the concept of identity 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 by 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 by 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 study is certainly influenced by 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 youth and masculinity to the one of class. This paragraph introduces the importance of identity 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 community; and in addition it highlights the reasons why identity and identification cannot be approached separately. The chapter ends, in section 2.6, with an introduction of the work made by Sarah Thornton and her suggested theory of ‘subcultural capital’, drawn on the earlier works of Bourdieu and in contrast to the CCCS’ ideas. 2.2


Alternative lifestyles and communities have existed for a long time, from the religious and utopian 18

communities of the earlier times, to the Bohemian and Romantic identities of the nineteenth century. However, it is mostly in the 1960s that countercultures, alternative life-styles and new social movements started to develop against the mainstream culture and ideology of that time. They have helped to shape the variety of identity and lifestyle examples that still exist today (Hetherington, 1998). Following the definition of Curley (2003), the term subculture can be defined as ‘a cultural subgroup differentiated by status, ethnic background, residence, religion, or other factors that functionally unify the group and act collectively on each member’ (cited in Williamson & Roberts, 2004: xi). In a way everybody 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 by 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 ‘reality’ 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 by a tradition associated with the 1970’s work of the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), University of Birmingham, England (Thornton, 1995). The CCCS group draws on Marxist understandings of social relations, which sees society divided in terms of power and control of forces of production. The working class 19

is seen as a crowd of repressed powerless individuals. Since the relationship between the two social groups is regularly 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 ‘instance’, or occurrence, represents a ‘solution’ to a specific set of circumstances in which the subculture finds a reason to exist (Hebdige, 1979). However, these solutions are often hard to understand by outsiders from that culture, in fact subcultures tend to express forbidden contents (given by consciousness of class, of difference) in forbidden forms (often involving law breaking). 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 certainly the book to start with when engaging on studying 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 by individuals only 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 society because they are traced along the lines drawn by 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 20

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 hegemony 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 style of clothing to a specific style 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 majority’, which challenges the principle of unity 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’, namely what is considered standard behaviour by 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 identity 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 by the dominant culture can be used and abused. The kind of methodology that Marxists use is semiotics, which involves examining relations between signs and symbols 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 style, and to understand the contradictions they are designed to hide or resolve. In short a researcher has to determine what specifically a certain subcultural 21

style signifies to the members of the subculture themselves (Hebdige, 1979). Hebdige looks at how members ‘steal’, ‘appropriate’, and ‘redefine’ symbols 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 vitality 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 system 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’ occupy them and make those places their ‘own’. If the dominant culture aims at efficiency, popular culture is ‘concerned with meanings, pleasures and identity rather than efficiency’ (Fiske, 1989: 1). However, these pleasures only exist in its practices, contexts and moments of production (Ibid.: 50). Following later researchers (Macdonald, 2001; Thorton, 1995; 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, 22

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 easily 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 purely ‘leisure’ goals sedulously fostered by 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, creativity and spontaneity. They are mainly 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 expressivity 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 masculinity in subcultures. Subcultures are seen as forms of exploration of masculinity, while young girls: escape into romance and marriage, or drift into sexual misbehaviour, such as prostitution. ‘If subcultures are solutions to collectively experienced problems, 23

then traditionally these have been the problems experienced by 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 identity from which an individual identity can be achieved outside that ascribed by 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 masculinity. Crime is seen to be a valid and attainable means of accomplishing a masculine identity. He relates the high percentage of crime committed by 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’ occupy 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 hardly be the only reason for many adolescents to engage in specific and sometimes dangerous subcultural activities. There must be something more personally 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 by which youth imagine their own and other social groups, assert their distinctive character and affirm that they are not anonymous members of an undifferentiated mass (Thornton, 1995). Youth is a complex, shifting, and contradictory category that has grasped the attention of many researchers. Already at the end of the previous millennium, the task of defining what it means to be a young person 24

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 likely 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 ‘identity’ is one of the most widely used concepts in social sciences and humanities (Duits, 2008). Hetherington (1998), states that the academic contemporary interest in identity developed out of earlier studies of youth subcultures and alternative lifestyles in the 1970s (Hall and Jefferson, 1976; Hebdige, 1979, Thornton, 1995). Everybody 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 identity construction, such as ‘What to do and who to be’ are focal for every young adult living in the period of late modernity. In modern societies self-identity becomes an unavoidable issue. The self is not something people are born with, but it is reflexively constructed by 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 collectively 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 25

changed when people start to ignore them, replace them or reproduce them differently (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-identity becomes a reflexive project that we continuously 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 by the individual’s confidence in connection with the integrity and value of the narrative of self-identity. 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 creatively and continuously maintained. Following Foucault (1988), in order to become the person we want to be, we think and act by applying 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 individuals 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 themselves , modify themselves 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, 26

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 lifestyle: choice and style. Coming back to Giddens (1991), lifestyle choices can give people’s personal narratives an identifiable shape, linking together people that have made similar choices. A lifestyle can be considered as a container for identity or, in other words, the visible expression of a certain narrative of self-identity. However an individual might have more than one lifestyle, each one reserved for certain stories or contexts, that is what Giddens calls ‘lifestyle sectors’ (cited in Gauntlett, 2008). Nevertheless, in order to become accustomed with the lifestyle of a certain social group, initially individuals may require some time to adjust. However, identity seems to be more than self-reflection. It also involves issues of belonging, performance, identification and communication to others. Accordingly, this study is based on the definition of identity given by Hetherington (1998): Identity is about both similarity and difference. It is about how subjects see themselves 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 dissimilarity. Principally, identity is articulated through the relat ionship between belonging, recognition or identification and difference. (Hetherington, 1998: 15) Following this definition, identity is strictly 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 ‘identity’. The relation between them functions as the major feature of the quest for identity in modern societies: ‘identity is not only about self-reflection and the development of a life-project, but it is 27

mainly 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 identity formation. However Hetherington rather than focusing on the individual when discussing issues of identity, 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 identity rather than its dissolution into some vaguely 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 ‘community’ is strongly related to the one of ‘identity’ and it is hard to consider them separately. In fact, the questions ‘who I am’ and ‘from which community I am a part’ cannot be approached independently (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 identity is based on an awareness that is persistent through time. However, Benhabib differentiates the narrative of the ‘self’ from group or collective identity, which she claims to be constructed out of a synchronic network of affiliations and sentiments. Collective identity expresses the individuals’ sense of belonging within a society or a community, but it also implies the existence of other groups, usually either ‘outside’ or ‘alongside’ the perimeters of the community. 28

In fact group identity functions by 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 identity 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 likeminded people. According to Maffesoli (1996), this sense of belonging is derived mainly from fellowship or communion and it is the impetus behind collective lifestyle identifications. Lifestyle linkages provide a form of affectual solidarity that, through the creation of distinctive symbols and forms of communication, creates a process of identity formation that seeks to develop difference and resistance. The chosen identity takes place through a series of performances in which identity processes are played out. In fact identity 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 identity and collective identification without loosing sight of either. […] The expressive, in the form of shared feeling, emotion, loyalty, belonging and ritual processes of transformation, is of central importance to this understanding of identity’ (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’ claimsthat individuals play roles or ‘performances’ all the time. Society is characterised by the ‘setting’, the ‘personal front of 29

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). Everybody performs a ‘persona’ or ‘mask’ through style. Hetherington (1998:56) argues that a persona can be defined as ‘a combination of bodily dispositions, situated performances and identification with others that use stylistic effects’. Individuals in fact create their own biographies through performances in certain spaces, which are called by Goffman (1959) ‘theatrical spaces’. Identity…is something one performs and reflexively monitors by 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 situationally located. Both performance and sense of community 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 spatiality of performance in the process of identity formation. However, it is not always about adopting spaces that are already established, but also creating symbolic ones. That symbolism is given by the link that is created between particular identifications and their modes of expression in these chosen spaces. These kinds of places are called by Foucault (in Hetherington, 1998) ‘heterotopic’, which means that they stand apart from 30

the rest of the society 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 identity 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 by the chosen lifestyles 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 authority and presume the inferiority of others (Thornton, 1995). Thronton draws on the work of Bourdieu (1984), namely on the concepts of cultural capital and social capital. One of the many advantages of Bourdieu’s schema is that it moves away from rigidly vertical models of the social structure (Thornton, 1995). Bourdieu locates social groups in a highly 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 by those one doesn’t 31

know (ibid.) well known people are worthy 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 styles’ (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 any one-to-one way with the levels of youthful subcultural capital. In fact, class becomes obfuscated by 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 systematically is gender (Thornton, 1995). While girls invest more of their time and identity in doing well at schools, boys tend to spend more time with leisure activities and establish their identity elsewhere. However, girls are not completely excluded in the economy of subculture capital. Popular distinctions become means by 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 only 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 closely associated groups (Thornton, 1995). For instance members of the same subculture constantly 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 32

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 generally happy 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 systems 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



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 dynamics of an illegal subculture, more precisely the one of identity performance, which includes personal identity, group identity 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 by 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 and/or informal conversations being the main data gathering methods (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 rely on survey processes on a limited number of group members to understand attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and behaviours of a certain culture. Conversely, an ethnographic approach goes beyond the simply 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. Ethnography can be reasonably powerful in understanding the world from the perspective of the participants as it involves prolonged and participative cultural engagement. 35

A qualitative study 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 by 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 ethnography is not only 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 simply emerge from data, because any observation will always be guided by existing images, concepts and theories (Henwood & Pidgeon, 1994). I started to explore the subculture of graffiti with an open mind, but not an empty one. I had questions I wanted to answer, certain dynamics I wanted to discover, a theory to confirm or contradict, and analytic gaps I wanted to fill. For this study, 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. My 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 study have been participant observation and in-depth semistructured interviewing.



Participant Observation

Participant observations for this study took place sporadically from mid- July 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 city or train stations guided by 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 my role can be perceived by some as ‘a partner in crime’ in this illegal activity. I was aware I was crossing a line and walking in places forbidden by 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 extremely 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 opportunity 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 my 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 my meetings with them were happening at irregular intervals provided me some breaks to elaborate my notes and reflect on them between one meeting and the other one. 37


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 mid- July until November. First in Italy 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 individually to every question. An average interview lasted 45 minutes. They have been all audio taped and fully transcribed. In front of the audiorecorder the respondents were of course less spontaneous than during informal conversation, however they seemed to enjoy it and were eager to talk. They felt special and happy 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 extended nature of the interviews. The topic list was built around general themes which consisted of general information about their activity as a graffiti writer, their feelings and reasons for doing it, how graffiti writing influences their everyday lives, the role of illegality, and finally questions concerning 38

group activities and sense of belonging. Inside the general themes, they were of course questions that were more central to my main research question on identity 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 many 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 ethnography. Seven of them were Italian, four were Dutch, and one was Swedish. Since this culture is a male dominated one, the focus of the study was in investigating this male world and as a consequence the small minority 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 similarly the amount of time dedicated to it. For this reason, I preferred the respondents to be slightly 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 easy task. This study sought to access a hard-to-reach population because of the illegal aspect of the activity 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 why I was interested in them. 39

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 already interviewed. My recruitment of participants followed a snowball sample. Next to that, I also went in special bars were graffiti writers usually hang around, and participated in the ‘street art’ event called ‘Manifestazione sportiva e non Velletri: stazione fine corsa’ that took place in a city next to Rome the 24t h and 25t h of July 2009. However, the voice of my existence and my project started to spread around this small community. They started to trust me and were willing to share their stories and show me places and actions. Many participants said that the reason why 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 ethnography, which means that the identity of the researcher and the purpose of the study were clear to all the respondents. My young age was definitely an advantage for getting their trust and their spontaneity. 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 probably 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 significantly unfamiliar and so is prompted to raise questions for inquiry less apt to be raised at all by Insiders’ (Merton, 1972:33, cited in Macdonald, 2001) 40


Ethical considerations

In every study involving qualitative research, given the human nature of the unit of analysis, 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 study, 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, my role, and my central focus on identity 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. Anonymity 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 identity to perform their illegal activity, they all agreed to openly 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 already, 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 successively 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). 41

For the analysis of the data I employed 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 my analysis into three phases, as suggested by 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 my coding into seven main coding categories: reasons, identity performance, youth, subculture, life outside graffiti, illegality, and city. 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 analyzed 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 ethnography the basis of interpretation is in fact filtering observations and inputs through theoretical and analytic frameworks. However, in order to be as fair as possible, I attempted to follow the strategies for credibility and verification described by O’Leary (2004) during all the processes of this research. According to her, the strategies for achieving credibility are techniques that can be used to ensure thoroughness and rigor to the study. These are saturation, crystallization, prolonged engagement, persistent observation and broad 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 myself suggesting 42

the answers. So, it was without doubt, time for me to switch off the recorder, collect my notes and start transcribing. Crystallization is given by 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 variety of participants, coming from different countries and different ethnic and social backgrounds. In addition, I also tried to participate in a diversity 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, especially 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 myself 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 opportunity to create sympathetic rapports with them and to gain trust. During these occasions, I was engaged in many informal conversations that helped me to deeply 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. Lastly, the representation has to be wide enough to ensure that a cultural group or phenomenon can be spoken about confidently. 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 credibility, I will now introduce the ones I used to obtain validity. 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 validity of this study. Triangulation 43

means using more than one source of data to confirm the authenticity of each source. I indeed used multiple methods to explore the same phenomenon. By continuously asking the participants whether my interpretation and understanding of the phenomenon was correct, I followed the member checking strategy. Lastly, the strategy of full explication of methods is being used here in this chapter, so that my study can be auditable and reproducible.


4. Results



Introduction In this chapter, I will describe what emerged from my field notes, taken during participant observation, and the interviews and informal conversations I had with the graffiti writers. Since identity performance is the focus of this study, this section will illustrate how the process takes place in the graffiti community. The process of identity performance is grounded in three main concepts: personal identity, group identity and belonging to the subculture. During my research, it emerged that identity performance is also strongly 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. Consequently, 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 unconsciously dictated by 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 perceptions. Firstly, it seems necessary to assert the tag as the externalization and the affirmation of the writer’s identity, since visibility 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 identity performance. Territory plays a central role in the process of identity affirmation and status attainment in the graffiti community, with the city being the only place wherein the identity 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 illegality will also be introduced. Since graffiti writers generally belong to crews, their personal identity 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 illegality which is the main characteristic of this subculture, and often the only one perceived from outsiders. I will elucidate the importance of it and how it influences the performances. Connected to illegality, is the adrenaline rush that pushes many 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, identity 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 society. 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 community: Well … the thing is like 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 first step. The tag is the name, without the name you are nothing, nobody. [Mirics – 22, Rome] 47

The tag does not always have to be necessarily a name; it can also be a symbol 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 community. For instance, in the course of this research I have heard stories about a graffiti writer that just writes a ‘cat print’, or similarly whilst walking along the streets of Amsterdam East every now and then there is a coloured ‘fist’ drawn on the walls. Behind these apparently 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 identity of the graffiti writer, in this paragraph I will clarify more extensively why that is, by delineating the characteristics related to it. The tag is characterized by three main aspects: it needs to be original, it reflects the feelings of the writer and it is continuously 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 only 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 signature…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 slowly I felt it was mine. At the beginning it looked as a not existing word, meaningless… Then slowly, by writing it all the time, it becomes something. [Renok – 26, Rome] It is necessary for writers’ pride and self-esteem to feel comfortable with the identity they choose to present. Continuously 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 generally prefer to wait until they are ready before marking the wall. In order to avoid peer criticism and be satisfied with their performance, writers tend to practice for long time 48

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 best: 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 York writers and then we were thinking ‘where are the drips? How can you spray these fucking tags?’ The wall was so amazing, we just 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 stylish, I always wanted to try a new sketch or a new style every time. I sketched a lot at the beginning. I could see myself for hours in the night just sketching. When I was satisfied with something I wanted to go out to do it. And sometimes I said ‘no’ to friends ‘cause I had no sketch. I don’t want to go out and paint [Aso – 26, Stockholm] 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 physically, 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 only a stain on the wall, but as people that speak, fight and travel. For instance, I understood that I was finally entering into the culture, when this form of recognition started to happen to me. Even nowadays, I often find myself smiling at the wall when I see a tag that I recognize: When I get drunk I transform from my original name to Twice. I become Twice. In the scene I become Twice.[Twice – 25, Amsterdam] There are many people that don’t even know my real name. People get to know me also if not physically. 49

This is weird, but gives me satisfaction. I meet my friends on the streets. I walk 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 less then a train. I really like 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, forsafety reasons or just out for boredom: ‘Nowadays, I also write NOCASH, because I have no cash. And it’s also a really nice name to write. I have a bunch of names’ (Twice – 25, Amsterdam). However, despite the many names a writer may have, on this occasion it is probably 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 identity 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 just get t ired of their names, they’ve done enough, you kind of like to switch, because you like letters. Obviously it is more exciting if you have been doing a certain name for a certain amount of time and then you try 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 quickly, they will recognize 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 like that, you know? And people will recognize you… And you know there is another 50

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 working 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 ins tead of paying for one car, you are paying for like 20 cars. And changing name every now and then keeps you away from that also. Sometimes people are just smashing things and just 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 identify with a name, but mostly with your style? 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 style and the places chosen for tagging, represents the personality 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 night you are angry and the piece will come out angry. A common person won’t understand it, but the letters, the lines that you do, they are from an angry 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 angry, you can’t start fighting with people, you can’t hurt your girlfriend or your parents, you can’t go robbing a bank. And so you go painting because you have this discomfort to take 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] 51

To sum it up, the tag is not only the externalization of the writer’s identity, but in addition the only expression of their identity 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 strongly believed that identity is something people create rather than what people are, the tag is the identity 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 live! [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 by the combination of visibility, fame, and appropriation. I am part of this world. This is the message I want to say. And, as I said before, it is also about competition: ‘ I did two pieces more than you’ means that I am in the street, at the station. […] I like to paint a train, because the train is always moving, it gives me an idea of travelling. People who travel, foreigners, 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 my fieldwork I once went with some writers to assist on a ‘whole car’ piece. This is when the piece fully 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 52

main station of Rome looking for the painted car and took pictures when it finally passed by. 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. 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’. 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. Every 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 give me recognition. [Gear – 24, Amsterdam] Seeing it again, by 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 doing a lot on the streets. There is one big reason just that I am mostly in the city. I have friends that live on the other side of the city and they have to travel to Amsterdam […] and they write on trains a lot, just to see their stuff up on the trains; whereas I am just biking around the city all day and I want to see my shit up on the city, you know? [Raw – 26, Amsterdam] Visibility is also the first source of fame for a graffiti writer. It brings more respect than the quality of the piece or the style of the lines. In fact, as Mirics says: Beauty is something very subjective. There are some very well respected people in Rome that draw things that if you see this, you would say ‘ I can’t believe this’. But they are people that will never be crossed 53

out. So, an ugly piece is not a piece that you reject. An ugly piece made on the hardest spot on earth is the worthiest piece. So, beauty is something that a passer by can judge, 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 unofficially declared title of king. He can be the king of an area, of a city, or of a train line. Rarely the title can concern his ability, but mostly his presence. Generally writers claim to be the king by putting the symbol 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 identity or probably to catch the attention of others. The majority 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 by adding ‘ONE’ at the end of the name. For instance, if the tag name is ‘Philo’, he would write ‘Philone’. 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 exactly the same thing. The misuse of these symbols is usually proper of a toy, or a starter. Conversely, this indicator is also given by others and it is added on a piece when it is of a poor quality or shows characteristics of somebody that does not know enough. Lastly, besides visibility 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 by spreading his identity around, and on the other hand his sense of identity is reinforced by the feeling of owning that piece of wall he just wrote upon. This piece that we are looking right now is mine. The property is not mine, but it is mine. There is my 54

name written 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 by 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 generally more worth painting. 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 to go to Copenhagen just to paint that one. [Aso – 26, Stockholm] 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 city will be discussed. 4.4


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 that people live there. [Edge – 26, Amsterdam] Writers do not go out and leave their marks everywhere they can. They choose where to paint. It 55

is not random. First of all, graffiti is an urban culture, it develops within the city. 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 just 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 city...I am like ‘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 city culture, so I feel like 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 something and eventually 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 always been writing on walls. Why wouldn’t I do it now? [Raw – 26, Amsterdam]. Graffiti is perceived therefore as an integral part of the city: ‘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 city without graffiti and no graffiti without city. 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 designer, he does this and that... where are 56

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 time 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 activity 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 activity, writers feel that they have the right to paint on the walls of the city 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 already mentioned in the first paragraph of this section. What a graffiti writer decides to stain suggests his personality. The space one takes shows the lifestyle of the writer. For instance, some writers push the boundaries of common sense, they paint wherever they want (which is basically the significance of graffiti); this can be a wall that has been recently painted, or a shop window. In this way the writer knows he is causing a serious discomfort and by doing it anyway, suggests a more arrogant personality. I have some things that I don’t tag. Like private houses and monuments. I also don’t think it fits very well some how. Especially in the centre with these old houses. It doesn’t look good in these 16th century houses . I think there is a quite clear graffiti aesthetic almost. It sorts of fits in certain places and not in 57

others. [Edge – 26, Amsterdam] However, in a city sometimes it is difficult to distinguish what is a public space and what is not: ‘It’s like I feel that the city 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 somebody’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 think it’s going to happen. [Twice – 25, Amsterdam] The strong connection between the writers and the city is strengthened by the fact of often being alone in the middle of the night. It is then, whilst walking around a city, that it shows a completely different viewpoint. The city completely changes when it is looked from a graffiti perspective, street names and monuments disappear. Writers know this map by heart, an urban map that changes continuously and cannot be found on Google maps now and never: ‘I orient myself in the city through graffiti’. (Hero - 26, Rome) Just being in the centre of the city at 4-5 o’clock in the night in the middle of the week and there is nobody on the street. It’s kind of like your kingdom. And thi s is all very childish, but still there is a consistence in doing it and consis tent in a way when you are outside out in the night all alone and the city is yours… and you kind 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 already, the name of the writer should travel as far as possible. This is why, besides the walls of the cities, means of transportation are the most 58

targeted ones. In Amsterdam for instance, where it is very common to travel by bike, many 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. 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 identity 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 by the writers in completely different ways. Some writers feel the need to write more intensely because of the limited time of their holiday: ‘When I am in another city I want to paint more than in my own city, when I come to Amsterdam again it’s like ‘ah, now I can chill because I am in my own city’. 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 city it counts, but when it is in a different city... Who would ever know?’ (Edge – 26, Amsterdam). After an informal conversation with Raw, it appeared that ‘Walking around in his own city 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 59

safest ways to do it. Nowadays, this is facilitated by 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 just to paint. […] And you are hosted by them. There is a lot of brotherhood. Even if you never met the person, you have the graffiti 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 already knew two other people before going. It’s really 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 somebody coming from a different culture, for instance ‘a French guy 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, only illegal, only walls, only trains. Or guys like us that do all over. We like to paint the cities, doing truck sides, but also the trains. It’s very difficult to meet somebody who is doing everything. In every city there are guys like us. We meet them and we are off. […] We share the same. One love: graffiti. [Twice – 25, Amsterdam] In this paragraph it has been shown how graffiti connects people. There is a strong feeling of belonging to the same subculture, transcending the locality. However, within this big international scenario, there are many little groups to which almost every writer 60

belongs. It is a culture where the affirmation of the self is directly related to the affirmation of the group, which in the graffiti language is called ‘crew’. 4.5

The crew

I am living for the guys I meet. Drinking the beers, going out together 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. When a new crew is created, generally it represents 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 activity, some of the members may not be writers, but rappers or breakers, as it is in the IPERS crew of Rome). Generally members from the same crew are recognized for having the same approach, a certain crew style 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 enjoy 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 eventually turn into friendship later. It’s a bonding culture; you go through intensive experiences together. Most of my closest friends are graffiti writers, just because I’ve been hiding in the bushes with them, in the winter like for so many nights. Just coming together because it’s so cold and stuff. Running away or being in jail together you know? Those are all things you go through. Everybody goes through things and experiences 61

together, bonding things. [Raw – 26, Amsterdam] Besides painting together, they engage in several activities together, such as trips, drinks, and clubbing: ‘We do whatever! We play mini-golf, go out partying, just hung out, it’s nice…it is really important to have good people in the crew…that have nothing to do with the activity. It’s just to have a good relationship’. (Aso – 26, Stockholm) During my field work, I’ve spent several evenings with various crews to grasp the atmosphere between the members and I’ve been told many times that if I were not there, they would have hardly talked about graffiti: They are people I know since I was 12. So.. it’s just normal friendship and it happened to be that graffiti is also there. That’s something that we just do, it’s not something we speak about the all time. [Edge – 26, Amsterdam] 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 generally represented with acronyms or abbreviations of the full names. Only 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 by everybody 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 generally 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, 62

are written down as a sort of dedication. However, disclosing publicly 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 probably related to greater police controls in the Netherlands than in Italy. In the Netherlands the police keeps records of graffiti (mostly 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 ‘Illegality’ section below. Dedications are very common when making a piece. More often a piece is dedicated to the rest of the crew, but also to their girlfriends or to other crews. 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 two 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 mos t recent one. Everybody knows me as belonging to SKM, because I am painting with them since 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 feel like. [Renok – 26, Rome] Different crews can have different kinds of relationships that are reflected in the styles 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 solidarity 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 63

whole of the underground subculture. Several crews can also come together and form a kind of ‘family’ like crew ‘47’of Rome two cities Velletri and Nettuno (near Rome), it stands for the connection between the crews ‘Ipers’ and ‘Criminals’. On the contrary, many 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 priority. This can be a triggering event that touches off a ‘war’ between them. In fact, some actions are seen as extremely 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’ usually remains on the walls (this phenomenon is in fact referred to as ‘war of walls’ in graffiti jargon) or can get physical in some extreme circumstances. Crossing out somebody can be done by painting an actual cross over the already existing piece or just by 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 ugly piece next to a wall painted by a popular writer. All these kinds of actions can relate to a real conversation between the writers, they are perceived by the community as dialogues with negative assertions or simply 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 just because a lot of people started to cross MY staff. And then I paid back. Not very often though…I try to respect. There 64

are many writers picking down on younger people, but I think that’s unnecessary. [Aso – 26, Stocholm] Sometimes conflicts go beyond the walls, angers between crews can transform into physical 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 enjoying 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 times, 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 fighting. 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 karma. Their presence. When they were younger they were taught. We respect that. If you are 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, Amsterdam] Even if I am 200% about graffiti, it is not that 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 just 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 like 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 illegality. 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.




Doing something that is not allowed makes you feel more alive [Raw – 26, Amsterdam] Illegality is the core aspect of graffiti. Graffiti is born as an illegal activity 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 emptying themselves, releasing certain emotions. The action of spraying per se gives an immediate sensation of discharge which is given by the action of liberating something and leaving it on the wall: the colour. However, this is enhanced by the fact of doing it illegally. In this way one builds up a lot of tension and adrenaline, so that the pleasure when the graffiti is finally 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 ready to fight an invisible and forbidden combat. I see it more like a James Bond thing… Actually you go and do something, and you get away with it with clean hands and it is just kind of different. It is not just 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 this is nice. It is the same like with bunging-jumping. This is just socially not accepted, this is why it is in a different book. But there are the same things playing there. [Raw – 26, Amsterdam] Illegality 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 community. However, even if illegality 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 very big to get 66

caught, you write another name so I would not write Twice. But if I put Gear next to my fake name, they would know I am Twice. So I put up a nickname for him. I would always dedicate, for life. […] If I am getting caught, for the trains they are more professional in keeping archives 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 activity 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 like for one week or two and again you are itching and you want to write and then fuck it. And sometimes you go back twice harder. Just there and destroy. Whatever you want. [Twice – 25, Amsterdam] Generally, graffiti is the only 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 activity, 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 everybody is in society 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. Like a 15 years old you wake up and you are all the time fucking around with them. But now it’s like “no, they are just people 67

doing their job, they need that stuff. It’s just reality and if they catch you they are doing a good job. It’ s different. You understand more what everybody is doing. You get a complete picture when you are older. [Raw – 26, Amsterdam] 4.6.1

Don’t tell me I can do it!

Graffiti is considered to be in many towns as a real plague that disturbs the urban order. Some actions are effectively considered a danger for the economy of a town or a nation, for instance trains and subway painting. Also, residential houses can be seriously 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 security 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 greatly 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 everything whenever you want. I get more energy from a drinks with my guys and then ‘oh guys, let’s do a wall’. Every paint used in a legal wall is WASTE OF PAINT. […] You can be that good, that fucking creative, but if you cannot do this in an illegal environment you are not a graffiti writer to me. You are just one of the rest. You can be a creative designer of a web site. It is the same for me. It’s legal. But if you do it a night and you do it good you get a lot of respect. [Gear – 24, Amsterdam] 68

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 style. When painting on legal walls there is not the pressure of finishing because the police may bechasing 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 guys of the crew. Sometimes I do it. Only to put up some very nice walls. If you are lucky you do a barbecue, but it doesn’t matter. You just paint with the boys from the crew. If it’s shit is ok. Doesn’t matter. It is just 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, many writers will therefore accept to do some assignments, which means, getting paid to paint something an employer requests. However, the real passion stays on the walls: ‘I am trying to get with this company 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 limiting mine? I don’t understand how can they limit colours? [Hero – 26, Rome] I did it, but I don’t like it. When you do it as a job, 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 for 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 just throw your belief out the door. [Raw – 26, Amsterdam] This dichotomy legal vs. illegal is parallel to the one graffiti vs. art. Many writers reject terms such as artist or street art. Legal graffiti is perceived by 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 academy or they are graphic designers. However all of them firmly 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 try to do in my art and what I try to experience in graffiti. I try to visualize it in my art, and I experience it in graffiti […]But in terms of going out and trying 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, Amsterdam] Graffiti, for it’s characteristic as an illegal activity, from breaking rules to changing the urban shape of a city, has the potential to be a subculture rich of political and social significance. However, facing the 70

question ‘Is there a message you want to transmit?’ the answer is approximately similar to Hero’s one: ‘With time I understood that the only 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 just 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 really disgusted from 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 empty, but still is an underground subculture. And this is what it should be, you know? [Raw – 26, Amsterdam] Graffiti has nothing to say and does not pretend the contrary, it is an empty 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 completely out of personal reasons: It’s a bit against the common idea of how to behave along the norms 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, Stockholm] 71



Who is looking at graffiti? Millions of people walk by walls full of tags every day, or enter on a train that has just been just painted the night before, but are they really looking at them? To some, probably 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 by seeing his own name up on the walls/trains, since the writer himself is in fact his biggest fan.. Subsequently 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 my 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 generally very secret. I was really 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: 72

10 years of relationships in front of my eyes . It can also be a way to celebrate an anniversary or a special place just because something romantic had happened there once […]. While walking along the train cars we saw some pieces of our friend Philo and I noticed that there was always written One Love inside each piece. He explained 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]. Nevertheless, it is always a great feeling when people outside the culture recognize them. So, in this sense everybody is the audience: I like when the general public can see the staff. It can never motivate myself to paint in a spot that just other writers see. […] I definitely want the public to see it. And definitely for my crew (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 systems of communication (cross outs, dedications) that are not identifiable to the general public. If they depict it as a blank activity, 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. My eyes were only on graffiti when I was young and then I became one of them’ (Mars – 22, Rome). 73

Young writers are attracted by these amazing forms and colours of letters: on the street, in a magazine, coming across a documentary on the TV or by flipping through the diary of a friend. The Weber was a magazine. It was a youth magazine. And it published like graffiti. There was a graffiti magazine in one section. We saw these graffiti and we were like ‘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. Like 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 something, I always liked to communicate, also if not verbally. So, an image was for me a good way to express myself. [Hero – 26, Rome] Generally, writers start to get interested in graffiti around the age of 12- 14. Youth plays a very important part in the process of becoming a writer. It is a transitional period in life in which the identity starts to be shaped and wants to be expressed. Some of the writers I researched were already 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 just has to do with posit ion yourself somewhere. What I like about graffiti, what I like 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 massive corporations. Now they are obvious ly, 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 everything up. But I like that, it’s something like really creative can get into such a level of quality and the development goes to youth, goes to 74

children you know? And I think it’s kind of unique. And I guess I wanted to take part in that. I was into skate boarding…and at one point I stopped doing skateboarding as I star ted doing graffiti. I just didn’t have the time anymore. I just thought I would be skateboarding for the rest of my life. I just don’t get that skateboard off ever anymore. [Raw – 26, Amsterdam] Adolescents are eager to express their creativity, to achieve a certain position and status: ‘You could just put it there and then suddenly you made this mark in your environment’ (Edge – 26, Amsterdam). Moreover, the graffiti community is relatively 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. Especially 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 emerge. This is the crucial point. We all try to emerge in some how. And when you are young, this is more difficult because they don’t give 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 anybody to tell you what to do and all these things in the society, all these rules. And you try to find a way out of it’ (Raw – 26, Amsterdam). ‘It is rebellion about the society, about your parents, about many things. Everybody finds his own way’ (Mirics – 22, Rome). 75


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 majority 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 identity of the writer starts to mélange with the graffiti subculture with no way of return. We were young boys; we saw those things that caught our attentions like that, by chance. When you are 16 you kind of absorb everything. If something stimulates 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 by 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, finally’. [Twice – 25, Amsterdam] Graffiti writing becomes with time a way of releasing a certain state of mind: ‘If I am mad or happy I go to do it and it becomes a product of my 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 76

situation and the greater the need to release this anger and to leave it there, on the wall. It’s a sort of feeling of emptying yourself, when you’ve done a whole line or when you do a lot of tags, or doing really a nice piece on a place, and you’ve done all the work and you finished it, it’s this feeling of ‘I made this account’ 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 mostly personal reasons that keep the graffiti activity going, while all types of youth rebellion disappear. It is about dealing with one’s own anger and discomfort. And then it becomes normal to solve it by doing graffiti. However, after many 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


Having the love for a culture, you know? Living it and not trying to define it further… Just loving something and wanted to do it. Sometimes you don’t have that answer [Raw – 26, Amsterdam] Writers feel committed to the graffiti subculture, they love it and they let it completely 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. 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 77

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, Amsterdam). 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 times. But I never did it. If you think back on how many hours you put into some kind of activity...then I can’t imagine just quitting totally. It’s just terrible. [Aso – 26, Stockholm] It is the time that they spend on the activity that makes it so important for them. For many of them, in effect, graffiti can completely 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: constantly thinking about it, sketching on papers, examining at their work while biking, walking or travelling by train around the city. ‘Sketching is always there. It doesn’t go away. Once you are really caught by the fever then you can never let it go’ (Raw – 26, Amsterdam). My all life is dedicated to graffiti. It’s like a life style. I go off from work and then I go doing some painting. And when I am at work, I am thinking about graffiti, of doing graffiti. […] Ask to our girlfriends, it is 24/7 about graffiti. And they are always like ‘aaaaaaaah!’ [Twice – 25, Amsterdam] Since they started at a very young age, and the activity requires so much time, on the one hand graffiti may have had influenced their school results negatively, but on the other hand it stimulates writers’ creativity 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 university for instance. Many of my respondents 78

did art at high school or went to an academy or addressed themselves towards urban related subjects at university. 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 minority is engaged in completely different societal activities. A funny story was told me by one of the writers who used to work in a popular TV series. He told me that sometimes, by 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, Amsterdam] Since graffiti is an illegal activity, taking place mostly at night in often dangerous places, it certainly causes some problems between the kids and the parents, mostly at the beginning, especially when parents start receiving letters or phone calls from the police. Generally, parents do not approve it, it is wasting time on something that not only 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 were going to work and I was like knocking the door to go to sleep. They didn’t like it all the time, but they recognized the fact that I was actually 79

trying 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 work 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 generally because of obvious reasons of security, 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 just from work go to home and they think ‘this is mine’ and you never can enter my fucking world. And graffiti is mine, this is me and Twice and Raw doing shit I like 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 city plays an integral role inside this community as graffiti does not exist in rural areas. The need to tag is in fact generated by a discomfort given by the chaos of the city. This causes a feeling of alienation, mostly within the youth as they still have to position themselves somewhere in the society. The need to emerge and to affirm one’s identity 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 relatively easy 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 illegality of the activity adds a special appeal to it. Even though writers claim to be against nobody 80

and to carry an empty message, the gesture of making graffiti goes against the rules imposed by society; it is about claiming a right over the city. Therefore, it is not the right to be heard that is claimed here, but the sole right to be there. Illegality involves risk and bravery, thus if on the one hand it brings hostility from many, it also brings respect from peers. No writer would ever give up illegal graffiti for anything 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 majority of the lives of the graffiti writers are to a higher or lower degree affected by it. Their lives are committed to the subculture, which is felt by every writer as something to carefully safeguard. It is a passion that never goes.


5. Conclusions




The research outlined in this thesis aimed at discovering the internal dynamics 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 really 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. Many 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, surprisingly everything worked out smoothly: I took my field notes, took pictures, conducted interviews and got many 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 secondly, I will illustrate the implications of the theory that gave the basis for this study before the actual immersion of it. Thirdly, I will draw a methodological reflection on my work, and lastly I will give my suggestions for further studies in this field. The central research question for this study was: How do graffiti writers perform their identity in European cities? Graffiti writers in Europe perform their identity by illegally spraying walls, trains and subways of the city. Writing on the wall means ‘I exist’, an affirmation that is generated by a desire to emerge and to belong to a community. The illegality of the actions reinforces the feeling of freedom, of breaking the rules, but mostly 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 city with no use of money, but with adrenaline instead. However, insistently affirming one’s identity 83

within the city does not involve resistance against a dominant culture, asthere 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 community. Graffiti is claiming ‘I exist’. In the graffiti subculture the affirmation of the self is not done by modifying one’s personal aspect in order to emerge within the society, like it happens in subcultures such as punks (Hebdige, 1979), Goths (Hodkinson, 2002) , etc. In the graffiti subculture, it is not by dressing up in an unusual way or by carrying a different hair style 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 identity presented through an innovative and often incomprehensible system of communication. This new identity is reduced to the sole name, a chosen name, written on the walls of the city, 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 style (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 style of a specific writer. The real identity completely looses importance, there could be any skin colour, position or educational 84

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, literally 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 by 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 rarely they adopt different names, they work insistently for one coherent identity that is recognizable through their style. Instead, the new established identity reflects Giddens’ theory of the narrative of the self in many ways (Giddens, 1991). Writers continuously 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, slowly getting a firmer hand, trying out different styles, getting a name, belonging to crews, and forming relationships. However, while the sketch book is for the writer, the street is for everybody, an open diary. Seeing his pieces around helps the writer to construct the narrative of what he is, with the city 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 identity, but also group identity and commitment to the subculture, confirming Hetherington’s view of identity as something more than selfreflection, but as a relation between performance, identification, and communication (Hetherington, 1998). In line with 85

Hetherington, in fact, a graffiti identity is achieved through performative repertoires that are expressive and embodied. The performance of the writer’s identity is made in such a way that it keeps both individual identity and collective identification without loosing sight of either. Indeed, the identity of the graffiti writer only 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 fraternity between all members of the subculture are necessary to reinforce the feeling of identity formation. As it was explained by Maffesoli (1988), collective identification with a crew and belonging to the subculture are seen as means of developing individual identity. Individual innovation is always framed in the context of a general display of commitment to the range of tastes which symbolize the graffiti scene. Following the patterns of the subculture enhances personal identity as the value of the writer is recognized within a certain set of shared values. By behaving in a certain way dictated by the subculture, graffiti writers conduct a specific lifestyle typical 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 by sharing the same experiences, and by giving importance to the same things. Their current sense of affiliation is based primarily on sharing subcultural capital: more than where they are from, it matters what the graffiti writers are into. Subcultural capital, as it was described by Thornton (1995), is the key player of an alternative hierarchy in which the axes of age, gender, sexuality and race are all 86

employed 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 by means of a conscious and mutually agreed upon set of standards: the quantity of tags around the city; the crew of belonging and the respect attributed to the other members; the choice of an original, catchy and control expressing name; the ability to use letters and colours with style; 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 hierarchy by drawing a crown on top of his name, while newcomers are called ‘toys’ as they don’t carry enough subcultural capital. This system of classification induces considerable encouragement for individuals to collect, learn about and exhibit examples of established subcultural style and behaviour (ibid.). Graffiti writers are adolescents that want to be good at something and want to express their creativity in our modern society, where just very few people are really noticed. Graffiti gives them the tools to become this successful person that they may not be elsewhere. Following Epstein (1998), quest for identity is greater at a young age, where the need to be someone is greater, and popularity 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 87

cannot find elsewhere, however they use aggressive aesthetic pursuits of hedonism as they act within illegality. Graffiti subculture includes a very restricted number of members, so that with enough dedication everybody can climb the hierarchy and be as much known as their own heroes. According to Brake (1980), adolescents join graffiti subculture as they feel a discomfort that comes by 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 society. The material conditions of youth’s investment in subcultural capital results from the fact that youth, from many class backgrounds, enjoy a momentary reprieve from necessity (ibid.). Since popular culture is concerned with pleasures and identity 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 popularity, 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 by 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 by Hetherington (1998), making space for oneself is a major source of affirmation of the self. The city 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 only ideals that are expressed on the walls of the city 88

concern the character and survival of the group as such (Maffesoli 1996). The city becomes detached from its function as a city, city walls and trains become what is called by Foucault an ‘heterotopic space’ or a space that stands apart from the rest of the society (1967). Public space is used by graffiti writers to manifest firstly their own selfish will of fame and domination and secondly 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 properly in the society, not against the society itself. It is about taking spaces otherwise forbidden. However, they are spaces that are available and accessible because they belong to the city, and the city is perceived by the writers as the territory of everybody, 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 by the society. Graffiti writers attempt to negotiate a space within the dominant ideology: a space where alternative identity could be discovered and expressed (Hebdige, 1979). Society 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 symbols and objects of the everyday world as a form of resistance (Hebdige, 1979; Fiske, 1989). They claim their right over the city. They appropriate the walls, the trains, the subways. As Fiske affirms , members of subcultures occupy the places that powerful people construct to exercise their powers, making them their own. The city and whatever travels within it or between cities become property of the writers that use surfaces as canvas to promote their names. They subvert the conventional uses of commodities by 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 89

appropriate to say that graffiti is, in Hebdige’s terms, a ‘spectacular subculture’, that through style offends the majority firstly by writing on their walls, or on train windows, and secondly by keeping them completely extraneous to it. Nevertheless, the most important function of illegality is to be found at the personal level. Illegality 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 many adolescents, mostly male, feel while growing up (Brake, 1980). If graffiti was only about doing something artistic and creative, they would take a more legal approach, but by 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 many would expect. Legal works are seen as ways to reinforce group spirit, train the style, 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 by 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 only 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 by 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 by the mainstream culture will never count as much as the subcultural ones framed and obtained within illegality. The graffiti subculture encourages people to do their own thing, free from the kinds of 90

social pressures which characterize mainstream society. The silent conversations on the walls are not meant to be understood by 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 identity performance in the graffiti subculture; therefore, it aimed at contributing to two streams of literature: firstly, the one related to subcultural studies, and secondly the one related to issues of identity. 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 identity. The CCCS group described subcultures as groups of working class adolescents against a dominant culture. Subcultures are considered by 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 study, it does not seem that subcultures are against a dominant wider culture, rather it appears that the society is fragmented in separate groups, with each expressing their own values, styles and ways of life. Traditional subcultural demographics are of little or no importance in the graffiti subculture: class, race and ethnicity do not play any role in entering the subculture. Therefore, the theme of resistance does not appear to be suitable anymore to describe the situation of subcultural members; rather, the engine of subcultures is the quest for personal identity through illegality. Graffiti writers ‘transgress the laws of man’s second nature’ (Hebdige:1979: 102) by using illegality as a means to achieve fame and recognition. This study confirms Brake’s view (1985) of illegal subcultures as tools that help adolescents 91

to achieve individual identities, however Brake still considers them as solutions to collectively experienced problems of working class adolescents. Instead, this research showed that crime is the main strategy for achieving masculinity and power as it was affirmed by Merrerschmidt (1993). Class completely looses importance, leaving youth and masculinity as the two main factors for joining a subculture, with illegality being the main instrument for achieving self worth and personal rewards. In order to investigate issues of identity performance, I combined the works of Giddens, Hetherington, Maffesoli and Thornton. The outcomes of the study foreground the connection between the self as a reflexive project, identification with others, fellowship and peers’ recognition. Based on Giddens’ view of selfidentity as a reflexive project (Giddens, 1991), this study showed that reflexivity, 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 identity (Hetherigton, 1998)), fellowship (Maffesoli, 1988)) and subcultural capital (Thornton, 1995)) into Giddens (1991) notion of self-reflection. According to Maffesoli (1988), a community 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 locality in favour of subcultural capital as the only contributor to fraternity and fellowship. Subcultural capital is responsible for both a sense of belonging and a sense of dominance, given mainly by recognition and respect from peers. Therefore, subcultural capital is believed to be the central element to the process of identity affirmation and performance. 92


Methodological reflections

As this study was conducted through ethnographic research, I would like to unfold some inevitable issues raised by this methodological approach. First of all, the selection of the participants for this study was random and depended mainly on the network of people that I already knew or that I got to know during this study. Since access to this subculture was limited by the fact that it is an illegal activity, I was not picky in choosing my participants. This study 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 firstly disappointed by the fact of not having had the opportunity to interview any 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 identity performance. In fact, I ended up considering masculinity 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 already mentioned, I still feel that this played in my 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 my 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 deeply as it would have been in a mother tongue conversation. Certainly, the research and the interpretation of the results were influenced 93

by my 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 study aimed at filling the academic gap about graffiti identity performance in Europe. It contributed to the field of subcultural studies by investigating issues such as youth, identity, illegality, territory, and group belonging. However, the graffiti subculture offers many possibilities for further studies. Firstly, since I consider it to be the major limitations of this study, I would propose a study 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 study 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 value1. Lastly, more and more aspects of the culture are becoming inseparable from communications technologies. The possibility of spreading pictures on the web is certainly having a great impact on some aspects of graffiti such as fame and recognition. Does it really matter anymore to see 94

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 firmly 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 currently paints Bomb: To tag Bomber: Someone that only 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 Dutch 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 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?

Feelings: - What do you think was the reason for you to start? (friends doing it already, 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 city, for whom mainly do you do it?

Bombing - How did you choose your tag? - Did you always have the same one? How many tags do you use? - How did it develop during the years? - How much time did you or you still dedicate to it? (Does it occupy all your time?) - 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 generally paint? (trains, buildings, metro, private or public walls?) - What is your public? (Other writers, members of other crew, general public, elites?) - Is it comprehensible?

Graffiti and normal life - Do you think it influenced other possible life choices? - Do you let the ‘graffiti identity’ to interfere with your normal identity? - Do your friends sometimes call you by your tag name? - Does everybody know what you do? (family, friends…) - What do you do beside it?


Illegality - Some people refer to graffiti as vandalisms; do you find yourself agreeing with this connotation? - Many things have been written about graffiti being against the system, or the people that own the power of the city? Do you think that your practice is against something or someone? - What is the feeling you have for the city? (is it yours, are you against urban control?) - Is this the only criminal behaviour you have? - What role does the fact of that is an illegal activity plays in it? - What do you feel about all the restrictions and legal measures that many cities apply to prevent graffiti writing? - Have you ever been caught? Somebody you know? - What did it mean for you? - Did it influence in any how your activity 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? (Dedications?) - 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?


Acknowledgments Big thanks goes to all the writers that shared their secret stories and took you in their world. They are: Renok, Hero, Philo, Raw, Edge, Luther, Hirock, Mirics, Mars, Twice, Gear, Some, Revs, Aso.


Graffiti is ‘a background scenery, an urban white noise which is recognized but rarely registered […] We are unaware that the city 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)

Behind the tag  

Graffiti subculture does not share its stories. This master thesis tells that what was written on the walls would reveal something about the...