Power; The Role Of Graffiti In Reclaiming Identity

By Jo Phillips

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Photo by Mali Maeder CC0 1.0 Graffiti on a wall

I remember when I was at school and I would scribble my name over and over again in the margins of my workbooks, as if developing my own style ‘tag’ and writing it 100 times would somehow help me to gain a sense of identity. Aside from the margins of paper, and maybe the hidden rims of the odd table, this was the closest I ever came to graffiti. Yet without any notion of the kind of street wisdom that the other kids talked of, I had arrived here at the same place… I liked to pen my name into things in order to feel alive.

You can take a lot of different views on graffiti. It’s kind of like a spectrum of opinions. At the one end, you could say that every piece of graffiti is an act of mindless vandalism. On the opposite end of the scale, you could say that graffiti is always okay and that we should all be able to paint whatever we please.

I don’t really care for extremes. Sometimes the artwork makes me go “wow!” and sometimes it makes me want to free a nice bridge from the black smudge that is has been subjected to. But the debate isn’t really about my personal opinion on how good the art is.

Graffiti is an expression, isn’t it? It exists in the world for a reason, regardless of how ignorant of that reason myself or anyone else can be. The artist feels something and then they make it more real. What exactly do they feel? If graffiti does serve as a way to identify with and express subcultures, ideas, and bubbling emotions, then the question to ask is where do these compulsions come from?

In a study on youths’ motivations for painting graffiti, the researchers found that ‘taggers’ (non-gang related painters) get a “rush” from putting their tag up. The study also found that the individuals studied were easily able to justify their actions, by saying that nobody gets hurt, and in some cases that tagging has given them a less extreme emotional outlet than may otherwise have been the case. The study also notes that graffiti can be an act of recognition, similar to posting on social media.

An informative (if slightly biased) article on Psychology Today titled “Tattooing Buildings” points out that graffiti is often a more frequent activity in areas where people are struggling. Employment is precarious, not only because of cuts but also now due to the rise of automation. Money can be difficult to come by. Authority can be perceived as a threat. All of this creates a sense of powerlessness, giving rise to a need to assert one’s self. Tagging, in this case, is an act of assertion.

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  Photo by Eamon Curry  This article is fake news anyway…

The rebellion itself highlights the insecurity of the area. If there was more authority on hand to stop the act, then there would be less graffiti, and so there is likely to be more graffiti in areas where this kind of authority is not present. There is a power vacuum so to speak, and it can be filled with paint. In this respect, graffiti serves a socio-political purpose. By its existence, social deprivation is implied. The art conveys this message, regardless even of content and the individual messages illustrated by the artists.

Graffiti then, whether highly esteemed public-pop art from Keith Haring, or a simple tag from ‘John Ov Denver’, carries with it complex psychology based on identity and personal power. We all want to be able to actualise and find our own meaning and purpose, and if conditions prevent us from doing so then we lash out, in this case with paint and art.

I want to finish by taking you back to 13 year old me, sitting bored in class, institutionalised on a sunny day. When I wrote my name in my style in the margins and on the backs of folders, that was me saying in my own little way, “I’m here!”, “I exist!”, and “This is who I am!”. Different conditions, different motivations, but the same psychology.

I don’t condone graffiti in public spaces. I’m not allowed to. But what I can do is try to understand what makes people tick. In this case, self-identity and power play a big part. So, there are my 2 cents. Any graffiti artists on hand to set me straight?





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