Submitted on 4/2/2014 by reader, Emma Hart

Graffiti - What Causes It, and What It Causes

Why do people graffiti? Some claim that graffiti is an expression of the irrepressible urge to create art – although those who have to live with the illiterate spray-painted scrawlings of such ‘artists’ may very well disagree with this assessment. Others see it as an act of rebellion, a ‘vent’ for frustrations which the spray-can wielder can apparently not express in any other manner. Others point out that graffiti tends to breed more graffiti, and urge neighborhood improvement schemes to prevent graffiti ‘artists’ from being ‘inspired’ by the tags of their predecessors. What is clear from numerous studies and the experience of those familiar with the problem is that graffiti tends to escalate in a vicious cycle – and often occurs concurrently with an increase in generalized antisocial behavior. The Mandan Police Department are well aware of the fact that “Once a neighborhood looks uncared for, crime problems tend to increase”, and graffiti is a prime factor in that ‘uncared for’ look. Clearly this is a problem which, if tackled at the spray-canned source, could have untold positive repercussions throughout the chain of antisocial behavior and petty crime.

The Art of Delinquency

The psychology behind graffiti is sometimes very simple, sometimes more complex. When considered from a juvenile, ‘gang’ format it appears quite easy to comprehend – although no less annoying for that. It’s tribal – a way of marking territory in much the same manner as a dog peeing on a lamppost. ‘Tagging’ can also serve as a sort of initiation rite – trespassing upon forbidden territory and leaving a gang mark there is the equivalent, for a juvenile gang, of the old Stone Age raids into enemy territory. For others, it may come as a form of ‘venting’ or ‘artistic expression’ in which the perpetrator may believe that their cause is lent validity through being given physical form. According to some reports, others may even think that they are “doing a public service by adding color to a place that was once dull and boring”. Graffiti is noticeably more prominent in areas which are deprived or have significant problems with antisocial behavior. This may be because making graffiti is sometimes an attractive proposition to the delinquently drunk or those with inhibitions lowered through illegal substances like cannabis, which can, bring about “euphoria and relaxation”, which, when combined, may induce the taker into believing themselves an ‘artist’ of note with a Byronic compulsion to create beyond the restrictive bounds of society.  However, on another level, graffiti is often present because graffiti breeds more graffiti – and engenders other problems besides.

The Vicious Cycle

It starts with a single tag on a wall. The weary property owner, tired of cleaning their walls day in, day out, leave the stark, sprayed scrawl until next week to clear off. But, when they return, they find to their horror that that one tag has acted like a beacon to graffiti wannabes all over the neighborhood. The wall is now crowded with a swirling mess of signatures, doodles, obscenities and angry aerosol slashes in a tangle of colors and allegiances impossible to make any sense of. It’s a mammoth task to clean up and, understandably, many simply throw up their hands and write off this wall as a lost cause – surrender it to the graffiti artists. However, there is considerable evidence to support the idea that simply leaving graffiti to – in bacterial fashion – multiply and proliferate has far wider-reaching consequences than may at first be supposed.

Environmental Pride and Behavior

There are deep environmental factors involved in the urge to tag and graffiti. It’s a simple correlation, really. Environments which look run-down, derelict, and worthless naturally do not inculcate feelings of pride within those who populate them. People are much more likely to damage and vandalize places which seem decrepit, with nobody caring about them or their appearance. Given that graffiti is one significant aspect which makes a place look run-down, the appearance of one small tag can thus very quickly lead to more graffiti, building a vicious cycle of vandalism which can denigrate the appearance of a neighborhood quite significantly in very short order. Perhaps more worryingly, a Dutch study at the University of Groningen discovered that being constantly surrounded by evidence of antisocial behaviors like vandalism positively encouraged people to partake in other antisocial behaviors – “actions ranging from littering to trespassing and minor stealing all increased when people saw evidence of others ignoring the rules of good behavior”. All it takes is a single broken window to remove the sense of worth from a place and encourage the initial graffiti artists to move in. The difference between graffiti and wall art can thus be discerned by the results it brings about. Wall art enhances an environment, and brings about a concurrent desire to preserve and cherish the surroundings. Graffiti, by contrast, denigrates a neighborhood, makes it look shabby, and by so doing encourages the proliferation of more graffiti and vandalism.

Far-Reaching Effects

Given that such vandalism can clearly reduce a person’s sense of satisfaction with and pride in their environment, it should come as no surprise that such things can have significant impacts upon human quality of life. A UK study into what are in Britain termed ‘environmental incivilities’ (a blanket term covering a host of antisocial behaviors affecting neighborhoods including late-night noise, littering, and vandalism) discovered that “those who reported the highest incidence of environmental incivilities were more likely to report anxiety, depression, poor health, smoking and poor exercise than those with more positive views on this aspect of their local environment”. Put simply, being surrounded by vandalism and graffiti gets you down. It’s a problem which many may consider trivial – but the evidence shows that environmental factors like graffiti have a far greater subliminal effect than it may at first appear. Graffiti encourages crime which is generally considered more ‘serious’. Not only this, but it causes people significant distress on a cumulative, day-to-day basis and impairs the quality of life of those who have to live surrounded by it. It removes the sense of pride and community which people could otherwise feel for their neighborhoods. All of these factors render it a more significant problem than many suppose – and one which needs to be tackled head-on.