Wednesday, 29 June 2016

If Graffiti is Hidden is it Still Anti-Social?

Graffiti on a wall in Orton Northgate
Artistic expression, social comment or simply vandalism?

Graffiti recently appeared on a wall that separates a residential street from a recreational field in Orton Northgate.

I'm sure my immediate reaction to it is the same as most residents': Yuck. What a selfish thing to do.

But the location of this particular graffiti gave me pause. Why here? By whom? What for?

The 'what for' is complicated. Is it a desire of make one's voice heard or a deliberate act of vandalism, intended to annoy and offend? Without speaking to the person who did this (and they never stick around for a conversation, do they?!) I guess we'll never know.

Why here? The 'artist' chose to daub on a part of the wall that very few people, other than those living close to it, will see. It is halfhearted and lacks confidence or conviction. There is no discernible message. It brings nothing. It adds no value. It's just sad.

Being almost hidden (though not from my eagle-eyes!) is it even anti-social? If no one sees a gesture is it a gesture at all?

"Graffiti is as old as civilisation"

I'm no expert on this so I asked my Green Party colleagues Alex Airey and Peter Slinger what they thought.

Alex says, "All life wants to leave its mark on the world. Graffiti is as old as civilisation. Just imagine if some prehistoric busy-body had gone around after the cave painters cleaning the walls, or the slave quarters at the Colosseum or the medieval guard posts had been repaired..."

It's a fair point. Who are the rest of us to judge the future social value of contemporary graffiti?

Peter says, "It is a democratic space and graffiti is about taking ownership. It is marking possession by one group that may well upset another group with equal rights to that environment. So in that sense it is anti-social. What makes it disagreeable is that it does not attempt to communicate anything to the wider population - there is no message (unless you are part of that particular culture). If it was imagery or a message that was accessible to the population as a whole, it would be more democratic and I would have more time for it."

Well, funny Peter should say that...

Over in Stanground, some graffiti appeared recently that most definitely communicated a clear message to the wider population. Photos of the graffiti quickly circulated around local social media.

The words VOTE LEAVE sprayed on an underpass in Stanground

What do you think? It this form of graffiti more legitimate or less offensive because it is legible and its message is easy to understand? Whoever did this clearly did so with confidence and conviction, unlike the person who left the graffiti in Northgate. Are both sets of graffiti equally anti-social, or is one less offensive than the other? Is all graffiti selfish, or is some justified?

£50,000 Cleaning Bill

Peterborough City Council spends around £50,000 per year on graffiti removal. That is a lot of council tax that might be spent on facilities and services that the whole community could enjoy. The graffiti in Northgate has been reported to the City Council and I've been told they will remove it soon. I hope there will be no repeat of it here or anywhere across Orton, but how might we otherwise meet this need to be heard, and to leave a mark?

I'd be interested to hear your views.


  1. Graffiti takes many forms. How it is perceived by people who may see can differ significantly too. I used to believe all graffiti was wrong but in recent years I've modified my view. It can be an outlet, to express anger or a social concern, where no other visible means of surfacing your issue exists or is readily found by the wider population. That's quite positive, and it might even lead to a local authority taking steps to ensure some sort of permanent protest facility is made available. It can be a scrawl, or sheer vandalism, which does nothing to enhance a local area. That needs to be discouraged because very quickly graffiti can become a highly visible symbol of a locality going rapidly downhill, from which it will be hard, and take many resources and time to fully recover. I have lately moved to live in New Milton in SW Hampshire. Our town council has made available a 30 foot graffiti wall in the town's main park. They struck a bargain with youth groups and young people a couple of years back: we'll provide a wall for you to decorate if you'll desist from spraying graffiti elsewhere in the town, and actively discourage others thinking of doing that. It's an innovative arrangement that's working well still. The graffiti wall even made the national press in 2013:

  2. Thank you, John, I share these views. There has been a sudden explosion of graffiti around some parts of the parish. I don't like it at all when it's on signage, and it's not nice for residents to have to remove it from their property. But I'm open to different views when it appears elsewhere. People have a right to be heard and acknowledged, and I suspect a lot of what we call ASB happens simply as a result of people feeling invisible, i.e. it's a social issue rather than a criminal justice issue.