Saturday, April 3, 2010

And with the spray of a can...


Graffiti is largely viewed as an act of vandalism that is interconnected to crime and gang activity. The City of Edmonton’s graffiti philosophy is also consistent with this view and it demonstrates this through its strict laws and the way it chooses to regulate graffiti. Through the use of different methods, the City of Edmonton, for the last two years, has pursued an aggressive initiative to clean up graffiti throughout the city. We as a group are largely concerned with Edmonton’s attitude towards graffiti; Edmonton has failed to notice that graffiti has a special place in society. Accordingly, we wish to convey that graffiti needs to be better acknowledged as an expression of art. Edmonton should be less strict in the way that it regulates graffiti and it should make it their priority to create more graffiti zone were graffiti is welcomed and encouraged. This,in turn,may perhaps reduce unwanted graffiti in other areas.

A Theoretical Perspective of Graffiti

Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction:A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, changed how the world interpreted and understood taste. “In Bourdieu’s theory, all aspects of life are interconnected and unified in what he called a habitus- a set of dispositions and preferences we share as social subjects that are related to our class position, education and social standing” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 60). The habitus to Bourdieu is not only a structuring structure, which organizes practices and the perception of practices, it is also a structured structure: “the principle of division into logical classes which organizes the perception of the social world is itself the product of internalization of the division of social classes” (Bourdieu 1979, 171). Thus, in the habitus the high/low and rich/poor establish themselves as: “the fundamental structuring principles of practices and the perception of practices” (Bourdieu 1979, 172). As a result, after Bourdieu, when we speak of one who “has taste” we are using cultural and class based concepts. And when we speak of someone who has “good taste” we mean that they participate in the middle or upper class notions of what is aesthetically pleasing (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 57). What Pierre Bourdieu is suggesting is that taste is something that is learned through culture one's subjective and objective experiences (57).

Bourdieu demonstrates that taste is something that is very structured and not natural at all:
Taste, a class culture turned into nature, that is, embodied, helps to shape the class body. It is an incorporated principle of classification which governs all forms of incorporation, choosing and modifying everything that the body ingests and digests, and assimilates, physiologically and psychologically (Bourdieu 1979, 190).

As a result, tastes provide the basis for connoisseurship (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 57).
The traditional image of a connoisseur evokes a “well-bred” person, a “gentleman” who posses “good taste” and knows the difference between a good work of art and a bad one and who can the “quality” work over the shoddy reproduction. A connoisseur is considered to be more capable than others of passing judgment on the quality of cultural objects” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 57).

Therefore, one’s taste is often tied to their class status, education level and profession. However, taste may work to the disadvantage of the lower class people because it downgrades objects and ways of seeing things as less worth of attention and respect (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 60).

Bourdieu's writing and Sturken’s and Cartwright’s reading of Bourdieu, reveal to us that elite society can criticize and degrade aspects of low cultur,e because these tastes are not ‘good tastes’. One can directly link this way of thinking when looking and talking about art. Who is to choose what art is and what art is not? Graffiti is just as worthy of recognition as any type of art, however, it is yet to be universally acknowledged of this. Sturken and Cartwright prove that graffiti is starting to be better recognized as an art form with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti and street work moving their way up to galleries in New York and Shepard Fairey’s street work being copyrighted by the OBEY giant (63).

For Bourdieu, habitus was essential in resolving the problem in the development of human experience: the interaction of objectivism and subjectivism. Habitus overcomes the problem of objective-subjective dualism by providing two sides of the story so to speak: by "inscribing subjective bodily action, with objective social force."(54). Anthony King argues that Bourdieu's habitus "relapses against Bourdieau's intentions into the very objectivism that it rejects"(King,2000). That Habitus is more objective than showing subjective-objective equality. This has an effect on the taste that Bourdieu was talking about. In Kings view, with a more objective view of taste, we are not so much the product of our own experiences but a product of society. As Berard puts it " The habitus is not seen as interacting with the objective structures of fields as a force of equal standing, but rather as decidedly secondary, first conditioned by an objective, structural position and then more or less serving as a vehicle for their production of objective, structural conditions". (Berard,2005).

Although critiqued for an unequal representation of objectivism in his theory of habitus, Bourdieau’s point of how taste is developed through one's experiences and society, is important when understanding Graffiti. It recognizes that graffiti is traditionally associated with low-culture art because the artists that are creating it are not a usually not a product of rich, high culture societies, and therefore their art is considered low class. With the emergence of popular culture and different media representations of graffiti, it is finding its way to a more acceptable form of art and is being recognized in fashion, advertising, and the art world. Auctions and exhibits of Graffiti art, by such artists as Banksy, are fetching prices well above $30 000 proving that even the high class tastes are accepting of this once ‘frowned upon’ art form.

Differentiating Graffiti

The City of Edmonton, in collaboration with the city police, define graffiti in three different ways:
Tagging is the simplest and quickest, involving only the marking of the tagger's initials, symbol, or alias. This may be in the manner of unreadable writing or initials, often made with spray paint in large rounded bubble style letters. They can also use markers to place their initials or "tag" on a variety of surfaces. These taggers are called "writers." Graffiti tags can contain explicit language, gang symbols, or other things that negatively effect a community.

Bombing takes a little more time to complete and may be multicoloured and detailed.

Piecing is the highest level and often takes extensive time and work to complete. Those who create these elaborate designs are called "piecers," after the "masterpieces" they do.

The photography below was captured between the Coliseum LRT station and the Churchill LRT station. These photographs all show examples of tagging, bombing and piecing.

The Regulation of Graffiti in the City of Edmonton

The Edmonton Police Service (EPS) views graffiti as a form of vandalism and as a criminal offense. (Capital City Clean up Graffiti Guide)The EPS views graffiti as damaging local architecture and causes damage to the cities natural beauty. The EPS's view on why graffiti is wrong is that "the presence of graffiti gives the impression that vandalism is tolerated and that owners do not take pride in the upkeep of their homes and business establishments. Property values can decrease and the safety of the neighborhood is questioned."(Edmonton Police Service 2009.) Edmonton Police Service will investigate graffiti crimes and pursue charges against graffiti offenders whenever possible. The City of Edmonton believes that graffiti is offensive, discriminatory, hateful harmful, makes the city less attractive place to visit and do business, and effects Edmonton sense of security and pride. (City of Edmonton Capital City Clean up)

In April of 2008 The Enhanced legislation in Community Standards Bylaw 14600 came into effect. 14600 requires property owners to remove graffiti in a timely manner. Tickets will be issued or action is put into place for clean up for with those who do not remove it themselves. Tax dollars are being used in this clean up on public property or else the individual is charged when on private property. (Capital City Clean up Graffiti Guide) It is estimated that the city spends around $1 million a year on the cleanup and removal of graffiti while the province has paid close to $12 million. The city of Edmonton works with groups to clean up graffiti as fast as it is put down. A major contributor to the crime concept of graffiti is tags. If Graffiti is done in places without the owners consent on their property it can become a cost and a burden to that individual.

In 2008 the city launched a Graffiti Removal Program dedicated to wiping out Graffiti works in Edmonton. In the first year of the program the GRP wiped out 83 185 square feet of Graffiti. The program funded a Graffiti removal van which wiped out 1000 square feet of Graffiti per each week it was in service (it is not in service in the winter months). There are currently 201 graffiti free zones in Edmonton, meaning that if graffiti is put on them, it is removed quickly. These areas include Old Strathcona, downtown, Stony Plain Road, Inglewood, Mill Woods and Alberta Avenue. The City of Edmonton has dedicated $925, 000 to the GRP in order to "clean up" the city.

Another group in Edmonton that contributes to clean up of Graffiti is the NET team (neighborhood empowerment team.) This is a group that comes into a neighborhood in Edmonton that might be struggling with crime, community involvement, or other unwanted behavior. Net removes all graffiti when first entering the neighborhood unless it is sanctioned as art. Graffiti is removed as quickly as possible. Graffiti appears in most NET neighborhoods because the neighborhoods that the net team works in are the type that attracts graffiti. Once a NET team is in a neighborhood for a few years they see a huge decrease in Graffiti. As the neighborhood is cleaned up and becomes a safer place to live, graffiti is decreased. (Neighborhood Empowerment Team) Communities look down on graffiti and do not want it in their neighborhood. This is why when cleaning up a neighborhood, one of the first things done is cleaning up graffiti.

In areas of high crime, graffiti tends to increase, which then in turn adds to the feelings of neighborhood decay and apathy by community members, which allows criminals to flourish. Graffiti cannot be seen as art because working in a policing environment our focus is crime reduction and prevention, and removing the graffiti is a very labor intensive process done with the community. (Neighborhood Empowerment Team) It's a little harder to justify teaching kids how to graffiti or that graffiti is art when it is such a problem in much of our city. Graffiti is criminal, there is a place for artwork in the city such as murals is designated areas but all graffiti does in a community is draw crime and unwanted vandalism. (Neighborhood Empowerment Team)

Alternative Methods Pursued in Edmonton

One of our group members, Alex Palamarek, worked to clean up graffiti in Edmonton last summer. He describes one of the methods that Edmonton has persued in order to rid the city of graffiti.

The McCauley Revitalization Project has put forth an inventive alternative to the
whitewashing method of cleaning up graffiti. Instead of purely covering up the vandalism with white paint, and leaving a blank canvas for more graffiti to be created, murals are painted over the vandalism. By creating a piece of art on the side of a building, the community hopes that graffiti taggers will be deterred from commiting vandalism, as such an action would be a mutilation of a piece of their community, rather than simply spray painting a white wall.

Graffiti is a form of artistic expression, characterized by its unorthodox painting style, and blatant disregard for conventional means of painting. The artists tend to be of the lower class of society, and use materials readily available to them. While an upper middle class youth may have the luxury of affording a canvas and painting supplies, an inner-city, lower class youth may only have the blank walls of a downtown warehouse and spray paint to express themselves. While middle class citizens may ride past old warehouses on the lrt, and assume the downtown area to be entirely industrial, the names and images of urban youth tagged on the sides of these buildings is a reminder of their often forgotten existences.

In attempt to minimize the vandalism of downtown buildings through graffiti, the McCauleyRevitalization Project has worked with the youth of the area to paint large murals on these buildings. By doing so, the community hopes that the youth will feel a sense of responsibility and pride for their work, and as a result will not feel the need to express themselves through graffiti. However, as can be seen in these images of several McCauley murals, this can often elicit an opposite effect. When a mural is painted which reflects white, middle class values, such as horse and buggy racing, as well as in displaying all the people in the picture to be white, this can evoke further feelings of rejection by society in the minority youth who populate the area.

As the neighborhood of McCauley has a large Aboriginal population, murals of an entirely white society with a white police presence may cause even more graffiti to be painted, so that the youth can make their voices heard. As seen in the image, the white people in the horse and buggy have been spray-painted over, with the names and tags of the youth artists who painted it. This sends the message that it is not the white, middle class who live in this area, but instead the lower class, minorities whom often we as a society cruelly attempt to pretend do not exist.

Yet, these murals can have a very positive effect when the values of the neighborhood are encapsulated by the artwork. As seen in another image, the mural depicting Aboriginal ways of life is left remarkably untagged. The piece shows dream catchers and tipis in unison with the environment, as well as the familiar skyline of downtown Edmonton depicted behind them. This creates a message that the Aboriginal culture has largely, and positively influenced the city, and has helped make Edmonton the city that it is today. The youth who may generally paint graffiti as a form of reaction against their rejection by the middle class standards of society now leave the pieces intact, with the only spray paint on them being small signatures at the bottom of the wall, perhaps as an artist’s signature at the corner of the canvas, or indeed, as a silent indicator of their approval.

Encouraging Graffiti as Art in the City of Edmonton

While Edmonton has largely expanded its graffiti removal projects they have encouraged graffiti in one specific zone in edmonton. The graffiti zone is a zone where the City of Edmonton allows graffiti artists to put their skills to use. The Edmonton Arts Council explains:
It is a graffiti zone where the City of Edmonton allows graffiti artists to put their skills to use. The Edmonton Arts Council explains:
Graffiti Zones are legal and permanent sites for an evolving public artwork, where artists have permission to create street art and graffiti-style open source murals, which are often complex in technique and composition. Illegal graffiti practice on private property without permission is vandalism. Graffiti artworks can have a significant artistic value, and have a legitimate place throughout art history.

Currently, this is the only legal graffiti zone in Edmonton. There is hope that more of these zones will be developed:
Edmonton currently has one designated legal graffiti site, where the LRT emerges from the underground between Churchill Station and Stadium. A second commonly known site where graffiti is tolerated but unofficially sanctioned is the 109th Street pedestrian corridor near the Legislature grounds.The Edmonton Arts Council is working together with the City of Edmonton's Capital Clean Up program in developing future legal graffiti zones.

Reducing the criminalization of graffiti and creating graffiti zones will increase unique forms of art expression in Edmonton.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder: A Look at a Graffiti Artists Pespective

Who gets to make that call on what’s art and what’s not? I do not see how a classic picture of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck could offend anyone. The teams that are painting over them and then putting something that they feel is aesthetically pleasing seems to be a little ignorant. Some of those pieces have grown to be part of Edmonton and have added to our culture. A lot of people actually appreciate graffiti, even more so than the murals that have taken over the majority of the walls along the LRT line.

Those who consider themselves experienced painters understand that there are acceptable and unacceptable areas to graffiti on. We do actually respect peoples private property. We usually paint on spaces we feel should not be as offensive to people. For the most part we stick to painting trains, under bridges, walls surrounding the LRT and legal spots such as the freewall.There is the odd “Hollywood” spot where you would want to be recognized by a lot of people but for the most part we want to be left alone and paint in peace. We don't have our own art galleries, and thus we use the walls that the public can see as our place to exhibit our art.

Furthermore, we also respect our own codes. We don't paint over other peoples work, especially those who are better than you or more experienced than you. Going beyond what you paint, you don’t open your mouth about other graffiti writers at all. You don’t want to be known as a snitch.

Of course there is always going to be those who are starting out, or find a paint can and feel like they want to test the waters, those are usually the ones who don’t understand what its all about and those are the ones who are going against the rules and painting houses, and personal property. The fact that the city fines these homeowners for not cleaning it up in a sufficient amount of time is ridiculous. This just makes people hate graffiti more; why would you fine them? They did not do it. Moreover, these beginners are usually incapable of expressing their vision and writers who are more experienced hate seeing the weaker graffiti. This puts a bad name on graffiti when you see messy tags everywhere..

If there is a way to limit the amount of graffiti around, it would be to keep on doing what the city is doing now. It is true that the longer NET or any other clean up group is in an area, and the more the graffiti artists get painted over, the less likely you will see graffiti up in that area, and the more likely the artist will move on. However, there will always be the game of cat and mouse, because there are people out there who have a real passion for this, and they probably won’t be stopping anytime soon.

Back in the day hip-hop and rap faced severe criticism and were not even considered to be a type of music. Today hip-hop is one of the most, if not the most, popular genre of music. Artists like, Ice-T, NWA, Sugarhill Gang and later Biggie,Dre and Tupac were among the best of the best and they showed the world that rap and hip-hop are a legitimate form of music. Moreover, that rap and hip-hop hold a special place in the world of music. Graffiti artists face the same kind of discrimination that rappers faced in the 1980's. We know that what we do is art and when we paint we feel that we make the walls come likes the walls are breathing. We do recognize that graffiti is becoming more acceptable and thus we hope that graffiti will soon be formally accepted as a type of art.

Painting is my creative outlet. It can be seen as a form of meditation. When paining, your mind just goes blank and you don’t have to think about anything. Without it, who knows what I would be caught up in. I’m blessed to have found something that I enjoying doing, a true passion. I don’t take it for granted at all. I realized that some people don’t have a passion and don’t understand, but to me I don’t know what I would do without it.

Credit to flickr for the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck picture.

In Conclusion...

Visiting different areas of Edmonton to discover new graffiti makes one realize that graffiti has many different faces. Graffiti is often assumed to be associated with gangs and criminal activity. This can be the case, but it does not always have to be the case. We, as a group, believe that graffiti deserves its own place in society; it deserves to be seen as a form of art. The difficult question is how to recognize graffiti and how to allow its presence in society.
Although traditionally associated with the “low-culture” taste that Bourdieau talks about, Graffiti is being recognized more and more as art to global perspectives (high-culture and low culture alike). Graffiti therefore, can be art and be viewed by many cultural groups as asthetically pleasing. It depends on the content of the image and the places in which graffiti is placed.


Berard, T.J. “Rethinking Practices and Structures” Philosophy of the Social
Sciences, Vol. 35, No. 2, 196-230 (2005).

Blewitt, John. “Film, Ideology and Critique of Public Taste”. The British Journal
of Aesthetics, 1993 33(4):367-372

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction : A social critique of the judgement of taste.
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Structures, Habitus, Practices.” Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Bourdieu, 1990,p. 54.

Edmonton Police Service. “Neighborhood Empowerment Team” Edmonton, Alberta

Graffiti and Tagging. Edmonton Police Service. Web. .

Graffiti Management Program. Capital City Clean Up Graffiti Guide. Edmonton,
Alberta. June 2009.
up.aspx. Edmonton, Alberta.

Graffiti Zones. Edmonton Arts Council. Web.

King, Anthony “Thinking with Bourdieu against Bourdieu: A 'Practical' Critique of
the Habitus” Sociological Theory, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Nov., 2000), pp. 417-433

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of looking : An introduction
to visual culture. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Project put together for SOC 344 by:
Tanja Crnogorac, Harriet Halse, Brianne Jones, Alex Palamarek, Candice Yurkiw