The art of destruction : an ethnographic study of the urban graffiti subculture in London and New York
This thesis examines the urban graffiti subculture within the cities of New York and London. It was undertaken in an attempt to move beyond some of the negative stereotypes that characterise this subculture, its members and their illegal activities as inherently problematic, pointless and inane. Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in London and New York, it argues that graffiti is not senseless and mindless vandalism, but a pursuit that grants its mainly male and adolescent practitioners important and substantial rewards. Most notably these include fame, respect, autonomy, self direction and some sense of masculine status. Illegality is identified as the subcultural element underpinning these identity enhancing affordances. It is presented, firstly, as a masculine resource; a tool which young men can use to confront risk and danger and gain, through this, the recognition and respect of their peers and the defining elements of their masculine identities. Secondly, it is argued that adolescent subcultural members use their illegal status to promote societal rejection, discourage adult intervention and secure their subculture as a 'world apart'. This free space grants them autonomy, self direction and a chance to escape 'real life' and the problems and restraints which they may, as adolescents, experience there. On the basis of this, it is argued that three analytic revisions must be made if we are to understand this and other 'illegal' subcultures. First, we must move away from a passive model of delinquency. In this study, deviance is depicted as deliberate, functional and, thus, more than the consequence of an externally applied label. Second, we must move towards a more active model of identity construction. graffiti writers build and mould their identities through their illegal activities. This defines them as active agents rather than textual subjects who have merely taken up an inscribed position in a provided text or discourse. Third, we must look at what is being done in conjunction with who is doing it. Subcultural studies of the past have presented the subculture as a working class vehicle of resistance. However, they have rarely problematised its characteristically adolescent and masculine membership. Failure to include and analytically weave together factors of age, gender and illegality will, it is contended, result in a theoretically incomplete subcultural account.