Cleaning up: graffiti removers' perceptions of order, place and identity

Author: Tom Sullivan

Sullivan, Tom, 2017 Cleaning up: graffiti removers' perceptions of order, place and identity, Flinders University, Flinders Law School

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A common response to illegal graffiti and street art is to ‘remove’ it by painting, applying chemical solvents, high-pressure spraying or another method. At the municipal level, removal is done by paid council staff members, contractors, and/or volunteers who live within a local government area and are resourced by their council. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with 23 voluntary and paid graffiti removers from six Adelaide councils, this thesis explores how these individuals understand the creation and erasure of illegal graffiti and street art, and investigates the role of place in these meanings. To respond to these questions, purposive sampling was used to select the councils from which interviewees were recruited. Interviews were designed to encourage graffiti removers to recount stories of their experiences. This provided detailed accounts of their place of residence or work, entry to graffiti removal, emotional responses to graffiti, techniques of removal, identity management and images of graffiti writers.

The thesis argues that, for Adelaide graffiti removers, the erasure of graffiti is important in maintaining a sense of place and managing a civic identity. The argument proceeds in three stages. First, I critically review the ‘disorder’ framework that has characterised much of the analysis of graffiti in criminology and sociology. I demonstrate how an important part of this disorder literature - the ‘broken windows’ thesis – has influenced police and policy makers, but has conceptual limitations, a narrow focus and little empirical support. I also draw on work showing how powerful groups have used ideas of disorder to define improper uses of space.

The second part of the argument contends that the ways graffiti removers in Adelaide talk about graffiti writing and erasure suggests an implicit belief in the ‘broken windows’ thesis. From this belief flows a collective hope that graffiti removers can reduce or prevent graffiti in their community and, by doing so, maintain the clean, original and proper condition of ‘socially visible’ places. Graffiti removers seek to maintain this sense of place in five main ways: overcoming graffiti writers, restoring surfaces, monitoring their area, curating graffiti and resolving complaints.

The final part of the argument suggests graffiti removers can only produce the orderly and proper places they imagine if graffiti continues. To develop these arguments, the thesis draws on the concepts of signal crimes, routine activities, dirty work and generativity to explore themes of the sacred, profane and mundane; care; cleanliness; isomorphism; and a dialectic of hope and futility.

The thesis concludes that the ways in which local governments manage graffiti removal programs can be differentiated on the basis of their flexibility, directness and the extent to which they are bounded. These variations may be important to the experiences of graffiti removers, but no single approach emerged as the most effective at controlling graffiti.

Keywords: Graffiti, street art, graffiti removal, crime, disorder, broken windows, sense of place, proper, collective hope, Adelaide

Subject: Law thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2017
School: Flinders Law School
Supervisor: Professor Mark Halsey