Graffiti as dialogue with the city

Graffiti has been in the news here in Charlottetown this week. Inscription: marking our place on architecture, from on site, offers a different perspective on the issue. Sarah Zollinger writes, in part:

When we become lost in the cities we live in, we rediscover our place by responding to the stories that architects tell with our own marks — words and images that tell stories in the cities we inhabit. Writing one’s name on a building claims space and makes place: it makes that building surface ours. Design cannot be spontaneous, but graffiti needs to be. Architecture may be hard and solid and slow, but writers move quickly. Writing names and identities onto the city is how we engage the slowness of architecture and put ourselves into the stories of the places we live.

It’s a compelling point of view and one that suggests that, if graffiti is seen as a civic scourge, the solution might require a far broader reexamination of how the city is planned, designed and developed.

The response of the business community has been to launch a Taking Action Against Graffiti program, at the heart of which is:

By cleaning up graffiti, no matter how long it’s been there, we are showing that we are “taking back” that area.

Framing the issue as a battle between the business and graffitists, where each tries to “take the territory” of the other, is an approach doomed to fail: to understand graffiti you need to understand and respond to what gives rise to it. Zollinger says at the conclusion of her essay:

In this, buildings, the collection of stories told by architects, become the backdrop. The anonymous walls of anonymous buildings become canvases where the average person comes in contact with the city and meets the moment when our lives can inscribe the rigid world that we live in. This is where the people that walk the streets make architecture human: flexible, changeable and where we urban dwellers, who live our lives in the shadows of buildings, push back at an unyielding architecture.

Might it me that “unyielding architecture,” and “develop or die” impulse that gives rise to it, creates an environment where graffiti is an inevitable response? Perhaps rather than trying to stamp out graffiti it would be better to try to listen to it, to attempt to parse what it tells us about our community and how we construct it.


Dan James's picture
Dan James on May 7, 2009 - 15:13 Permalink

I enjoy thoughtful, artistic, and smart graffiti in a city. There are a few of these around Charlottetown. Unfortunately I think the majority of graffiti around the city is of poor quality. Maybe we need a few blank walls that are repainted every few days for up-and-coming artist to practice on before letting them lose on the city proper.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on May 7, 2009 - 15:38 Permalink

A lot of the architecture around the city is of poor quality too.

Dan James's picture
Dan James on May 7, 2009 - 16:02 Permalink

True. Maybe we should have places for architects to practice building nice looking buildings before we let them loose on the city too.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on May 7, 2009 - 16:26 Permalink

Maybe the graffitists and the architects should get together?

Nathan's picture
Nathan on May 7, 2009 - 16:32 Permalink

Is it still graffiti if it’s not antiestablishment?

Rob Lantz's picture
Rob Lantz on May 7, 2009 - 16:41 Permalink

I started a conversation with a “graffitist” about a month ago, and I can tell you, his motivations do not sound nearly as lofty as Ms. Zollinger suggests. It is interesting though; I pointed out that two architects had been his target (wHy condos and N46 building). His response was that architects “make buildings” and he therefore equates them with a “corporate headquarters”, or it was no big deal because it was only the “landlord’s property”.
Our conversation seems to have settled into a pattern of me punching holes in his “code” that exists in theory, but apparently not in practice, and him making excuses for each violation of the code (eg. Salvation Army). It’s not a hostile discussion. He assures me a legal wall would help alleviate the problem and I’ve committed to pursue it through City Hall.

Johnny's picture
Johnny on May 7, 2009 - 16:57 Permalink

I’m sorry but this post is bullshit. I found “bitch” painted on my fence as I walked out to my driveway to take my daughter to daycare. As we go for a walk we see “douche” painted on the fence around the corner. I tried “listening” to the graffiti and “parsing” it, and decided that I would rather it was just gone. This is not the kind of dialogue that I want to engage in.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on May 7, 2009 - 18:10 Permalink

You may not want to listen, but you will have to suffer the bitch/douche treatment in perpetuity if you don’t.

I’m not suggesting that graffitists can establish complicated philosophical rationale for their work, that their work is always brilliant or artistic, nor even that I support them in it: I’m saying they do it for a reason, and without understanding the reason and just trying to stamp it out through a combination of police enforcement and moral indignation isn’t going to be practically effective.

You may just “rather it was just gone,” but that’s not going to happen with the status quo.

Johnny's picture
Johnny on May 7, 2009 - 18:59 Permalink

I think graffiti is a complicated problem that requires creative solutions, but the bottom line is I don’t think its right to paint on a public or private space that doesn’t belong to you for your own satisfaction, no matter what the reason. Its rude and selfish.

I also think there are more constructive ways to push back at an unyielding architecture, and that legitimizing graffiti by discussing it in flowery pseudo-intellectual jargon is not helpful.

Dan James's picture
Dan James on May 7, 2009 - 19:09 Permalink

I’d like to think that I live in a city where there are repressed graffiti artists who are using their medium to express meaningful things to society. Unfortunately I think I live in a city where some teenagers think it’s fun to smash shit up, write misspelled bad-words on buildings, and generally are trying to be a nuisance. Visit the gazebo/picnic table between the farmers market and Kent on the confederation trail to see what I mean.

As much as I’d like it to be, I don’t think this is a graffiti artist vs architect debate. It may very well be in other cities, but here I think it’s the classic issue of teenager angst/mischievousness.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on May 7, 2009 - 19:39 Permalink

Let’s say I agree with you, and that our local graffitists are just mischievousness teenagers “up to no good.”

They’re still up to no good for a reason and I guarantee you that neither the “crackdown with extra police” approach nor the “convince them that they are bad people” approach is going to have any long-term success.

Graffiti is a symptom of larger social issues; if we don’t address the larger social issues, it will just continue.

Dan James's picture
Dan James on May 7, 2009 - 19:58 Permalink

I totally agree — cracking down is never the issue, for graffiti, terrorism, or any reaction based issue. It will definitely only aggravate the issue. The city should be looking at the root causes of why teens do those things, then see if they can do anything to help that. I guess my point is that I would wager quite a bit that the root causes are not related to architecture and might not even be related to the city.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on May 7, 2009 - 20:02 Permalink

If you define “architecture” as “the built resources in a city that are in service to the public good,” then I think architecture is part of the issue.

Dan James's picture
Dan James on May 7, 2009 - 20:23 Permalink

True. So what should the city do?

Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on May 7, 2009 - 20:52 Permalink


Nathan's picture
Nathan on May 7, 2009 - 20:55 Permalink

Scared to look?

John Boylan's picture
John Boylan on May 7, 2009 - 22:46 Permalink

I’ve got a great photograph of the time someone spray-painted “God is a Drug” on the side of my house. I guess they didn’t have time to write “Religion is the opiate of the masses”.

Marian's picture
Marian on May 8, 2009 - 13:18 Permalink

Might it me that “unyielding architecture,” and “develop or die” impulse that gives rise to it, creates an environment where graffiti is an inevitable response?”

There was graffiti everywhere in Budapest when I lived there. People would write on buildings that were centuries old. I agree that defacing some concrete monstrosity may be an inevitable response (though not necessarily justifiable), but what about defacing a five hundred year old Turkish mosque? On the other hand, I’m glad to hear that social causes are back in vogue. That is, punishing people blindly without knowing anything about the reasons for their actions doesn’t usually work, I think (it’s a bit like trying to solve climate change without knowing what causes it). Here’s hoping that trend continues, eh?

oliver's picture
oliver on May 9, 2009 - 16:26 Permalink

Maybe the “God is a Drug” graffitist meant “Being on opium is to be one with the Creator.” They can’t all be atheists or anti-drug. As for what it means to mark things in general, I think no answer can be better than a rule of thumb, and that there are bound to be several that apply. For policy making, a rule of thumb is nothing to sniff at. On the other hand, it’s hard to know you have one without field observations and statistics.

Jane's picture
Jane on May 12, 2009 - 00:42 Permalink

My toddler’s dialogue earlier this evening with graffiti on a private home’s fence across the street:

Child: Daddy, there is painting on the fence.
Dad: Yes.
Child: That’s not very nice.
Dad: No, it’s not.
Child: (Pause.) But I like the colours.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on May 12, 2009 - 00:48 Permalink

My son’s dialogue after I was asked for money (for a coffee) by a man on the way to school and I attempted to explain poverty:

Me: Some persons don’t have enough money to live.

Child: Oh.

Me: What do you think we could do about that?

Child: Get them money.

Josh's picture
Josh on May 12, 2009 - 15:54 Permalink

Given the last two ‘child-adult’ responses it would seem to me, taken in context, that we should be asking the children what to do about the graffiti problem. I presume that the majority of graffiti in the city is the result of the actions of the 12-24 crowd. If engaging that crowd in a meaningful discussion on why graffiti happens and how graffiti impacts them would reduce the amount of graffiti then I, for one, would be willing push for it.

Remembering my youth (not so long ago that I can’t remember, but getting farther away every day) brings feelings of marginalization and disdain from adults. If we marginalize our youth, relegating them to some sort of background noise, then, I assure you, there will come a day when they are no longer background noise and the problem has become more than just “innocent” graffiti and anger against the establishment. Graffiti can quickly escalate to etching and other more nefarious and damaging acts. It is better to mediate now than to try and compensate later.

Apart from Rob Lantz (who I think is being sold up the river by his source, my two cents), has anyone else tried to engage these youth?

Josh's picture
Josh on May 15, 2009 - 19:20 Permalink

Interesting discussion on the CBC article about Rob Lantz and his mysterious graffiti artist. I concur — there is a difference between graffiti artists and taggers.…

Non-grafitti's picture
Non-grafitti on June 3, 2009 - 23:11 Permalink

When a graffiti artist gets caught have them forced to scrub their graffiti clean with a toothbrush until it looks like new. Also put them in jail for a reasonable sentence and pay a victim of crime surcharge. Make the penalty stiff enough they will think twice before trying it again.