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Graffiti can be problematic, but not all graffiti is.
Using quantitative data, we investigate whether these ideas hold among a larger population (i.e. Studying responses to graffiti has broader relevance for research and policies on disorder, as graffiti is part of a larger ‘grey area’ of deviant behaviour that is not obviously criminal or harmful but nonetheless often labelled as ‘disorder’ (e.g. For example, following Jane Jacobs’ () argument about the role of ‘eyes on the street’ in multifunctional neighbourhoods, people’s presence in the streets could contribute to safe street life and attract more people, but currently there is a tendency to see people hanging around in urban spaces as ‘social disorder’ (e.g. Particularly in the context of zero tolerance policies towards disorder, anti-social behaviour and incivilities, it is important to understand why and when behaviour is something that needs to be prevented, removed or punished.
Critics of zero tolerance policies warn that in public space only certain behaviours from certain people are tolerated, while everything that deviates from the ‘mainstream’ is removed or excluded (e.g. Diverging perspectives on disorder, graffiti included, lead to confusion about appropriate policy responses: if offensiveness is subjective, how can authorities discern what is acceptable and what is not?
Particularly the ‘creative city’ discourse offers opportunities to rethink the value of the creative practices of graffiti writers (Mc Auliffe ) ‘recipe’ for successful cities (the 3 T’s in short: Technology, Tolerance and Talent — the latter T is measured by the share of people working in the creative sector), urban governments have promoted creativity in all forms and places to make their cities attractive.
Indeed, in some places, graffiti in the form of murals is desired by policy makers to beautify locations and attract tourists (e.g. However, city marketing may also result in a ‘get tough on graffiti approach’, as was the case in Melbourne in response to the run-up to the Commonwealth Games to be hosted in Melbourne in March 2006 (Young ).
And to Even though ‘tough on graffiti’ approaches still dominate policies in countries such as Australia, the Netherlands, the UK and the US, the idea that the public responds in different ways to graffiti seems to be trickling down into policies, at least in some countries and cities.
Repressive policies are concerned with preventing and removing graffiti, for example through applying special coatings and quickly removing all graffiti (e.g. However, authorities have limited resources and thus need to prioritize which graffiti to remove first, which requires them to distinguish different types of graffiti (and for instance target offensive graffiti first, see Taylor et al. Moreover, local and national authorities do seem to distinguish between graffiti as a form of art and graffiti as crime, through mixing preventative and punitive measures with offering designated spaces for authorized graffiti (Kramer ).Given the ambiguity in how authorities deal with graffiti, we think it is striking that the dominant approach in criminological research on disorder views graffiti unambiguously as a social problem: something threatening that must be prevented and dealt with because it would cause fear and (more) crime.This idea is most common in studies following the ecological tradition (social disorganization theory) or the broken windows theory.Annoying paintings everywhere, [it] should be forbidden, and the perpetrators [should] clean everything with a toothbrush. There is an exception, what happens in cities, a boring wall is embellished with a nice painting made by experienced professional artists.The citation above, of a participant in our study who describes his first image of graffiti that comes to mind, summarizes our argument: public opinions on disorder (graffiti, in this case) may vary considerably, not only between people but people themselves make different judgments, depending on what they see in which context.First, we observe that there has been much less attention for diverging (and conflicting) interpretations among the public.Many studies point at the mismatch of interpretations of graffiti as either art or crime between writers on the one hand and authorities, (supposedly) reflecting the concerns of the public, on the other hand (Whitford ).According to Brighenti, graffiti is an ‘interstitial practice’: a practice about which different actors hold different conceptions, depending on how it is related to other practices such as ‘art and design (as aesthetic work), criminal law (as vandalism crime), politics (as a message of resistance and liberation), and market (as merchandisable product)’ (: 253) argues, we should not condemn, nor celebrate graffiti, without considering ‘the ambiguities inherent in its various manifestations’.Graffiti comes in many forms, varying from tag graffiti to artistic pieces and stencil art, and from illegal sprayings on public or private property to murals on legally designated walls.Within ecological research, graffiti is often taken as an example of physical disorder (although it may also be seen as social disorder, see Skogan ) study on perceived incivilities and fear of crime, respondents were asked to indicate on a 4-point scale whether they thought various ‘neighbourhood problems’ capturing ‘perceived incivilities’ were a ‘serious problem’ in their neighbourhood, one of which is ‘graffiti on sidewalks and walls’ (see also, with varying questions or items: Ross and Jang ).Moreover, the broken windows theory suggests that graffiti and other signs of disorder in neighbourhoods cause not only fear but also crime, because fear would weaken social control and thus signal opportunities for crime to motivated offenders (Wilson and Kelling ) which suggests that when people see norm transgression they are more likely to overstep a rule themselves.