Graffiti is a form of subculture which conveys the author’s message and applies a code in its application that befits the elements necessary for classification as a subculture. Graffiti can be defined as an example of subculture corresponding to the main criteria of contemporary definitions of subculture.
Contemporary theoreticians dispute the origin and meaning of subculture as a social phenomenon, analyzing the sociological parameters of the groups of population and their primary motivation for deciding on self-expression in the form of subculture. McCracken (2002) noted that “The new groups are the necessary inevitable product of our world, not a transgressive reaction to it” (Plenitude: Culture by commotion).
McCracken’s assertions can be defined as revolutionary and gave rise to debates with other theoreticians who consider subculture as the phenomenon separated from the mainstream of the community, opposing and struggling against it.
Titley shifts the emphasis to the sociological characteristics of subculture representatives, admitting that “subcultures are often the creative expression of cultural difference by marginal groups” (A New approach to youth subculture theory). Actually, this definition does not contradict McCracken’s statements concerning the subculture groups as an integral product of society, but rather evaluates the psychological basis of the phenomenon.
The same idea of joining subculture for expressing their protest was developed by Hebdige (2002): “Subcultures are expressive forms but what they express is, in the last instance, a fundamental tension between those in power and those condemned to subordinate positions and second-class lives” (p. 132). Using these parameters, graffiti can be defined as an example of subculture used by contemporary youths for expressing their protest against the generally accepted society norms.
The ‘art’ of graffiti is a unique one. It aims at producing a graphic, which passes on a message. The location of choice for the placement of graffiti is visual areas such as walls and bridges, or in easily accessible hidden areas such as public toilets. The developers pass on context specific information depending on the theme of their protest.
To produce a successful piece of graffiti, there is a set of skills required in addition to a defiant mindset. Graffiti finds placement in strategic locations to achieve the effects the creator desires. Different members of this subculture have varying levels of skill in as far as the development of graffiti is concerned. Some produce very intricate diagrams with visually attractive graphics while others use simpler techniques to produce their work.
The illegality of writing graffiti in public places makes it a rushed job in some places while the relative lack of stringent policing in neighborhoods with a graffiti subculture makes it possible to produce intricate designs. Some use graffiti as a means of decorating bland surfaces while others use it to disfigure well-embellished ones. What ties the subculture together is the form of art used to express the ideas, and not necessarily, the specific content of the work produced.
The second characteristic of graffiti as an example of subculture is the expression of the views of minority in a non-facilitated environment. In whatever geographical area that a graffiti subculture exists, most likely, it will be in areas where there are no channels of facilitated communication to make possible the effective voicing of the issues.
Since there is no channel to vent the frustration experienced, perpetrators use graffiti to communicate their thoughts and desires. The subculture speaks for the silent masses. Some members use graffiti for other purposes such as humor or for passing on witty comments.
The type of graffiti by a single person meant for a small audience finds placement in hidden but highly accessible areas. The expression of the protest against the generally accepted norms is one of the main factors which make the art of graffiti so appealing to the youths. The issue of doing harm to the city landscape and public places is discussed even more often than the art value of particular graffiti.
Still, the fact that some of the contemporary painters use traditional canvases for creating their masterpieces proves that in some cases graffiti aesthetics has dominated over the expression of the protest. Taking into account the popularity of graffiti among certain population groups, the development of its aesthetics and the tradition of graffiti painters, graffiti can be defined as a peculiar form of self expression and social protest of the subculture representatives.
Titley noted that “Many of these groups engage in protest, but what is interesting is how different this protest is” (A New approach to youth subculture theory). Graffiti is a peculiar form of expression of the youths’ protest, and the overview of the numerous samples and the peculiarities of the styles of particular painters shows the development of this subculture and its unique aesthetics.
The analysis of the sociological characteristics of graffiti painters, their motivation for creating pictures on the walls and the symbolic meaning of their masterpieces proves that graffiti at its contemporary stage corresponds to the contemporary definitions of subculture.
Hebdige, D. 2002. Subculture; the meaning of style. New York: Routledge.
McCracken, G. 2002. Plenitude: Culture by commotion. [online] Available from http://cultureby.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Plenitude2.0-for-pdf-may-2010.pdf [Accessed 1st January 2011].
Tittley, M. n.d. A New approach to youth subculture theory. [online] Available from http://www.ethnomusicscape.de/clabalitpdf/youthsub.pdf [Accessed 1st January 2011].