Jessica Hocking

In this essay I will look at graffiti as a cultural text, with specific reference to graffiti in Plymouth, Devon.  I chose to focus on Plymouth as I know many of the local graffiti writers.


Firstly I will give a brief history of urban graffiti and why people do it.  I will then look at how graffiti is perceived both by youth and authority, showing how graffiti is seen to be out of place in many societies, but is now increasingly becoming in place, especially in Plymouth.  I will also examine the concept of outsiders as discussed by David Sibley (1981).  Finally, I will try and relate graffiti to some of the work of Roland Barthes (1977).


Graffiti has always been visible in human society from the first cavemen drawing pictures of their lives on the walls of caves to the ancient Egyptians writing complex hieroglyphics inside pyramids.  However, what I am going to discuss is modern urban graffiti.  This kind of graffiti apparently originated in 1971 in New York  when a young man started writing TAKI 183 on walls around the city, “the name appeared to signify nothing other than a made-up name – not so much an identity as a pseudo identity” (Cresswell 1996:32).  Others soon followed the example and ‘tags’ started springing up on walls all over New York.  At first the graffiti was just restricted to tags, a made up name, sometimes with a street number added, young men marking out their territories.  The area to get the most attention, however, was the New York subway and as the writers discovered the advantages of spray paint over felt pens the graffiti became more and more artistic with pieces (masterpieces) taking up whole subway carriages, “it was rarely obscene.  This graffiti was all style.  The work would often take crews of graffitists all night in a dark and dangerous subway yard.  The results were often breathtakingly striking” (Cresswell 1996:32).  Graffiti varied from “tags” (simple names on the inside of subway cars), through “throw-ups” (bigger names on the outside), to “pieces” (masterpieces – symbols, names, and messages covering whole cars) (Cresswell 1996:33).  In this essay I will mainly be discussing ‘pieces’ as opposed to ‘tags’ as ‘pieces’ have a great deal more artistic value.

As would be expected a moral panic ensued (well the youth were having fun doing something that the dominant society neither liked nor understood) and all kinds of methods from the use of antigraffiti paint to an annual antigraffiti day, where Boy and Girl scouts would clean graffiti off of subway trains and public buildings, were initiated by the city government.  However, as with most youth subcultures, after attempts by the government to prohibit it, graffiti became common place in New York.  Graffiti has now spread worldwide and is common place in most urban areas.


Sibley (1981) discussed how outsiders are linked with words such as dirt, filth and rubbish as they are not accepted parts of the dominant society, he looks at how the hegemonic binary oppositions define what is right and wrong, ‘in place’ and ‘out of place’, one part will ultimately define the other.  If clean is good, then dirty is bad, if rural is good then urban is bad and those who do not fit in with one or the other, in Sibley’s case, gipsies, then they are deviant, they do not conform to either of the oppositions and are therefore ‘out of place’.  Cresswell (1996) discusses how the same words are used to describe graffiti and how to the dominant society graffiti is seen as pollution, filth and dirt, but these perceptions of what is and is not dirt are socially constructed due to the transgression, by people, objects or texts, of socially constructed symbolic boundaries.  Without these socially constructed symbolic boundaries there would be no ‘in place’ or ‘out of place’,

“Things that transgress become dirt – they are in the wrong place.  If there was no “wrong place,” there could be no transgression”

(Cresswell, 1996:38-39).


Douglas also discusses how things which are out of place are perceived as dirt,


“Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing; similarly, bathroom equipment in the drawing room; clothing lying on chairs; out-door things in-doors; upstairs things downstairs; under clothing appearing where over-clothing should be, and so on”

(Douglas, 1966:36).


Graffiti is seen by members of older generations as out of place, as vandalism and dirt.  Graffiti is common place in urban areas and to younger generations is seen as part of the urban landscape and some even see it as art.  The concept of something being out of place is dependent on the values of those who are experiencing it.  I have spoken to a number of young people in Plymouth about urban graffiti, many of whom have offered positive comments, saying that graffiti brightens up a space and looks much better than a tatty, concrete ‘tagged’ wall.  However, those that I spoke to did feel that graffiti in rural areas would be out of place.  So, although graffiti has become part of the urban cultural landscape there are still certain areas where graffiti would be inappropriate.


There are however those who condemn graffiti completely, they see no value and are unable to accept that it has become an integral part of the urban landscape.


Graffiti is the skin cancer of our civilization…if it has value it is because it is a symptom of something rotten…Turn your head because the stuff is bloody, bloodless brutality”

            (Hagopian 1988 quoted in Cresswell 1996).


The language used in this quote, by Hagopian, is really interesting, Cresswell goes on to describe how graffiti is seen by some as a disease, a rash on the environment and a symptom of urban decay and disorder.   It is common to see graffiti in run down urban areas blighted by crime as opposed to safe, ordered urban areas.  Some even go as far as to describe graffiti writers as insane, illiterate beings connecting them to asylum inmates who are encouraged to write on the walls in order to express their feelings.


Graffiti has always been seen as out of place, it is illegal and much of it is done at night in hidden away railway yards and other such places.  It takes quite a while to complete a piece that is why it is rare to see very good pieces in open public areas.  It is however, quite easy to see out of place graffiti.  Walking around any city you will see walls and signs covered in tags (plate 1).

Plate 1 – A ‘Tagged’ sign in Plymouth, Devon.

Graffiti is art, if an unmade bed (plate 2) or a dead sheep (plate 3) can be art, then it is relatively easy to understand how a colourful picture painted onto a wall (plate 4) can also be perceived as art. 



Plate 2 – “My bed” by Tracey Emin (source:, art?



Plate 3 – “Away from the flock” by Damien Hirst (source:, art?



Plate 4 – “Fish” – by Chex, art?


Looking at these three pieces of ‘art’ could you say that one was more artistic than the others?  What skills do you need to display in order for something to be ‘art’?  Can you just call something ‘art’ for it to be ‘art’, it seems that in the case of Emin and Hirst just by calling something ‘art’ and exhibiting it in a gallery makes it ‘art’.  But to many, the painting on the wall by Chex (although painting is one of the most basic forms of art) is not perceived as art.  Of course there are those who do not see Emin’s and Hirst’s work as art, in the same way there are those who do not see Chex’s work as art, but a large part of the dominant society will be happy to accept something as art, if it is in a gallery and they are told that it is art.


There are those who would feel that unless the art is displayed in a gallery or some other appropriate space, then it is not art, this highlights how the meaning of a cultural text can differ greatly depending on those who are experiencing it and the location in which it is being experienced, and whilst graffiti remains out of place in society it is increasingly difficult for it to be recognised as art.  There have been attempts all over the world to exhibit graffiti in galleries, but it does not have the same meaning as when it is sprayed on a wall in an urban environment, “while they [peripheral groups] may be considered exotic and interesting at a distance, they become deviant when enmeshed in the social mainstream because of the hegemony of the dominant value system” (Sibley, 1981:5).  For graffiti to be ‘in place’ it needs to be  part of the urban landscape but for many this would appear to be ‘out of place’, so in order for graffiti to be perceived as ‘in place’, it is necessary to change the values and perceptions of those who feel that within an urban landscape graffiti is ‘out of place’.


Graffiti is now, however, becoming more in place.  Recently Plymouth City Council has been actively encouraging graffiti in certain areas of the city.  Something, that I have been told, is already practiced in other urban areas.  The Plymouth Writers Bench have made an agreement with the council that they will only write in specially designated areas in exchange, the council have been supplying them with spray paint.  You can see some of this work around Plymouth, mainly on Exeter Street, on boards surrounding building sites or boarded up buildings.   



Plate 5 – Graffiti on Exeter Street in Plymouth.


Whilst I was out photographing some of this work on a Saturday afternoon I spoke to some passers by, from families to pensioners, and many commented that they liked it and felt that it brightened up the area.  An unspoken rule of graffiti writers is that you do not tag on a piece, so places that have been decorated tend to remain so, unlike a freshly painted wall of a building which will soon be covered in unsightly tags.  A really good example of this can be seen outside Bigga Records on Looe Street in Plymouth.  An archway leads from the main road onto Looe Street and the wall was always covered in various tags.  The owners of the Breton Arms pub and Bigga Records paid a local graffiti writer to spray a piece on the wall, since then it has remained untouched, an old lady who lives near by actually went into the shop to tell them how nice it now looks.  The authorities are actively encouraging graffiti in certain areas and because of the hegemony of the dominant society, this encourages members of the dominant society to change their opinions about graffiti, if the authorities say that graffiti is acceptable in certain places then it must be.


Another example of graffiti becoming in place is in the Bus Stop Club in Bretonside bus station, Plymouth.  The entire building is decorated inside and out with graffiti and is somewhat of a gallery for local graffiti talent.  The décor is very fitting for a night club space but does not seem out of place during the day when the venue is open as a café.



Plate 6 – Graffiti covered walls inside The Bus Stop, Plymouth.

Graffiti is an important aspect with regards to the Bus Stop.  The research I undertook for my dissertation highlighted how the Bus Stop was a locals’ venue and the use of graffiti to decorate the space has ensured that it feels like a locals’ venue.  Graffiti has long been seen to be young males marking their territory by writing their names, or pseudonyms, on walls, they are letting others know that they are there and it is their space, “the practice of graffiti by dominant groups makes claims upon the meaning of spaces” (Cresswell, 1996:47).  The fact that the owners of the Bus Stop have encouraged local graffiti writers to decorate the space with their personal writings is again enforcing the idea that it is a local space.  Many of the locals who attend the venue know the graffiti writers, therefore, the writing on the walls will mean more to them than to non-locals.  An example of this would be that one of the writers always adds his girlfriend’s name to his work, this is something that would only be known by those who are part of this local core group and those that recognise this will be able to further develop their sense of belonging to the space.  The use of graffiti to mark territory can be greatly contested, not only by authorities but also by other graffiti writers.  A wall can become a battle ground with the graffiti changing regularly as different writers battle it out on a wall to claim their space,


“Its weapons are sprayed words and its war wounds amount to nothing more than a few dented egos.  This fight is between two graffiti writers and it takes place on the wall”

(Macdonald, 2001:1).



Finally, I want to discuss some semiotics in relation to graffiti, I want to try and show how I feel that graffiti relates really well to the chapter by Roland Barthes on the death of the author in his book Music-Image-Text (1977).  Barthes says that once a cultural text is produced the author cannot add to or produce any meaning for it, and what is important is what the cultural text means to the audience, which can be affected by numerous different factors from the audience’s background to the environment in which it is experienced, “you bring to it your own ways of seeing and other kinds of knowledges” (Rose, 2001:25), for example, a book will have a very different meaning to a reader who is unable to read or who does not understand the language it is written in, as compared to the meaning given to it by a literary academic.  In discussing Barthes’ work, Rose (2001) puts forward the argument  that “since the image is always made and seen in relation to other images, this wider visual context is more significant for what the image means than what the artist thought they were doing” (23).  Graffiti is produced by anonymous authors due to its illegality and the artistic style of graffiti means that it is sometimes difficult to decipher what is actually written, plate 7 shows some indecipherable graffiti, it is not important what the text says, what is important is what the audience thinks it says or what it may mean to them. 


Plate 7 – Indecipherable graffiti, Plymouth, Devon.


Sometimes the author will try to give the text a specific meaning, plate 8 shows a graffiti advertisement for a local free magazine which sponsors some of the graffiti writing in Plymouth, but this will only have the meaning that the author wanted if the audience is from the same social background as the author and is aware of what “24-7” actually is.

Plate 8 – Graffiti with meaning?  Plymouth, Devon.


The meaning of graffiti can change depending on the environment that it is viewed in, as I mentioned earlier, the attempts to display graffiti in galleries meant that it’s meaning was different from when it was sprayed on a wall in an urban area.  “Just as dirt becomes dirty according to its context, graffiti's displacement to art galleries changes its meaning. When appropriated and commodified (bought and sold for money) by the art world, graffiti changes to art” (Vogeler, 1996):  "Crime becomes creativity, madness becomes insight, dirt becomes something to hang over the fireplace" (Cresswell, 1996:49).   Once graffiti is transformed into art its audience also changes, and as Barthes (1977) will tell us, this will give the text a completely new and different meaning from the meaning given to it by those who have viewed it on the street.


Graffiti means many different things to many different people, to some it is a way of life, I know people who spend all of their time designing new pieces, saving up for paints and spending all of their spare time spraying walls; to others it is a part of their culture, like me, I know writers and will notice graffiti on walls because of my association with writers; many do not even really notice graffiti, it is just a part of the urban environment; and to some it is filth, disease and vandalism produced by illiterate, mindless idiots.


In this essay I have shown how graffiti means so many different things to different people.  Graffiti can be art or graffiti can be vandalism, graffiti can mark territory or brighten up dull urban areas.  The meaning of graffiti and other cultural texts can vary greatly depending on who is experiencing it and where they are experiencing it.  I have told you what graffiti means to me and why and I hope that I have made you think about graffiti and what it means to you.



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Barthes, R. (1977) Image-Music-Text.  Fontana Press, London.


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