Graffiti can be witty and sometimes pretty. It has a long
history as a political campaigning tool – for those who
can’t afford to hire a billboard or a meeting hall, it might
be the only way of making a point. But most of the graffiti that
surrounds us falls into none of these categories, and is usually
experienced by those exposed to it as vandalism – an ugly
nuisance. And as usual, it’s the poor who suffer most. In a
2002 government survey, 10 per cent of people living in deprived
areas said that they considered graffiti to be a serious problem
compared with 3 per cent of those living elsewhere.
This sort of graffiti is unpleasant and demoralising for the
people who live in communities that are badly affected. But it
doesn’t just look ugly. Often it comes along with other
antisocial behaviour such as fly tipping, litter and abandoned
vehicles. The overall effect is that these areas feel less safe.
And it has been suggested that “illegal graffiti is the visual
impression of an uncaring and indifferent society where small
crimes can lead to bigger crimes”.(1)
This is an example of the “broken windows theory” of community
degradation. The theory proposes that when a broken window in a
building is not repaired, more windows are soon broken because it
seems that nobody cares. With more broken windows, people in the
community start to suspect that crime is on the increase and so
avoid the area surrounding the broken windows. With fewer people
out and about, the area does indeed become more vulnerable to
Most graffiti is carried out by young people, particularly boys.
It used to be assumed that graffiti writers came largely from
socially disadvantaged backgrounds,(2) but this view is changing as
it appears that young people from better off families are also
There are various theories about why young people write
graffiti. It can be a way to get yourself noticed by making your
mark or “tag”, and a way of rebelling against authority. It can
gain respect from peers and communicate with people who may not
otherwise listen. One study found that young people mainly write
graffiti because there are not enough “legitimate” activities for
them to immerse themselves in. Most are introduced to graffiti
through friends and once they start most continue. Some get a
particular thrill out of leaving their tag in dangerous or
The consequences of being caught depend on the cost of the clean
up. Under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, young people aged 12 to 17
who are convicted of causing more than £5,000 worth of damage
can face a detention and training order of up to 24 months.
Over-18s can go to prison for up to 10 years.
Since March, the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 has allowed
lesser graffiti offences to be dealt with by penalty notices for
anyone aged 10 or over. Offenders have 14 days to pay the £50
penalty fine before a prosecution can be initiated.
More effort is also going into catching graffiti writers. A year
ago the government launched poster campaigns in London, Liverpool
and Manchester offering £500 rewards for information leading
to the conviction of prolific taggers, and the British Transport
Police is trying to set up a national database of “tags”.
Many suspect that young people would not be so inclined to write
graffiti if they had other means of self-expression .
Other suggestions for reducing graffiti include better lighting
in areas that are susceptible and the demolition of derelict
buildings. Evidence suggests that removing graffiti rapidly can
help prevent its reappearance, so an efficient graffiti removal
service – and anti-graffiti paint – is useful. Councils
can now serve a graffiti removal notice on the owners of street
furniture (phone booths etc), public transport providers and
educational institutions whose property is defaced with graffiti.
If the owner does not remove the graffiti within a set time, the
council can go in and clean it and reclaim their costs from the
owner. Some retailers have signed up to voluntary codes of practice
to stop children from being able to buy paint sprays.
In some areas graffiti has been declared a “locally prevalent
offence” by the police and council, with a first offence now
resulting in a referral to a youth offending team. Councils have
also included clauses banning graffiti in tenancy agreements, so
eviction proceedings can be taken against the families of
Whether this battery of sanctions will make a real impact is
unclear. For graffiti, the writing may indeed be on the wall.
- (1) Vandalism, Graffiti and Environmental Nuisance –
literature review, Department for Transport
- (2) Graffiti in London, Report of the London Assembly Graffiti
Investigative Committee, May 2002
What Graffitti Writers Say.
“At home I got no attention, like, you know, no praise for
whatever I did, everything I did was criticised… Through this
connection with graffiti I found a new family on the street…
I found a new form of recognition”
“When I stand back and look at a piece I feel proud of
myself… ’cos I put a lot of hard work into it
and… same as my mates, they feel proud of themselves”
“I think it’s really for lack of other stuff to do. People
are like, you know, ‘try this, this is cool, it’s
something a bit different’.”
“It’s just getting to have your name well known all around
Source: M Halsey, A Young, Graffiti Culture Research
A CREATIVE ALTERNATIVE
The Signal Project works with young people on graffiti-based
initiatives such as wall murals, in an effort to involve them in
their communities. The project aims to work with young people
involved in graffiti and other excluded and at-risk young people
“to channel creativity and give ownership in areas where they have
previously had little or no say in what goes on”.
The mural is an example of a project which aimed to encourage
young people to develop a sense of ownership of their community
environment. The mural sits outside the youth club on an estate in
Bermondsey, south east London.
Young people attending the youth centre took part in a series of
art workshops, working with a graffiti artist, to come up with
ideas for the mural. During these sessions they were encouraged to
do their own artwork, using spray paints to make up boards
depicting their names.
“It opens up dialogue with the youth workers so that they can
talk about issues. Some of these kids will not have concentrated
for more than 20 minutes in the past,” says Sonia Blair, managing
director of the Signal Project, which is funded by charities and
Donna Wallace was one of the youth workers involved in the
project. She says: “Someone actually graffitied over it but the
young people were so pissed off they grassed them up and got them
to wipe out the stuff. Before, anyone could write on the wall. Now
they say ‘we did that’.”