Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Ma’ayan Dembo: Abstract for Senior Capstone Project

Even though Hip-Hop graffiti first surfaced 45 years ago, city governments still struggle to come up with policies to address it. While researchers have discussed the negative, unintended consequences of city policies regarding graffiti/street art, none have explored the implications of these laws on the content and processes of the artists.  To do so, an international study was chosen between San Francisco, California, and Berlin, Germany, due to graffiti’s ubiquitous nature today. By looking at different countries, unique cultural and historic factors can be highlighted that affect the consistent core characteristics of this global movement. Both Berlin and San Francisco have had a thriving graffiti culture for over thirty years, and each city has differences in their regulatory approach.

Interviews with artists (ranging from traditional muralists, taggers, wheatpasters, stickerers, and chalk artists) were the best research method. Artists seldom have an opportunity to be in dialogue with city policies, and have to maintain anonymity due to the illegal nature of their work. Artists gave descriptive answers to the open ended questions that allowed common themes to be drawn across, or within, each city. While in San Francisco, artists were recruited through snowball sampling, in Berlin, artists were selected through a different process. I contacted subjects by recording signed works throughout the city and finding the corresponding email addresses or social media accounts. Berlin required a different sampling methodology because there were fewer initial contacts there than in San Francisco. Eleven artists from Berlin and ten artists from San Francisco were interviewed, all focusing in a variety of media. To gain perspective from the city’s side, one representative of the San Francisco Arts Commission was interview, and the Berlin Anti-Graffiti task force referred me to a series of documents outlining Berlin’s stance towards vandalism and street art.

In both San Francisco and Berlin, cultural and historical factors largely explain where graffiti/street artists’ prefer to create their works. While Berlin’s policies and programs also contribute to these artists’ spatial preferences, San Francisco’s robust programs have little influence on artists. In San Francisco, the majority of artists interviewed created works in alleyways, while most Berlin artists mentioned painting in abandoned buildings. These differing spatial preferences in turn inform each city’s scale and content of artists’ pieces, as well as potential barriers to creating legal works for younger artists. San Francisco’s artists focused more on creating works that were relevant, or at least acknowledged, the community. Local artists worked on a smaller scale, preventing them from painting many of the city’s large-scale works. Moreover in San Francisco there are greater barriers to making legal pieces for younger artists due to the lack of free space available for experimentation. In Berlin, artists did not have the same connection to the community in San Francisco because their preferred spaces– abandoned buildings– are outside of the public eye. Berlin artists, though, have more access to larger surfaces and thus are experienced at painting large murals. In addition, by painting in abandoned buildings, Berlin artists can paint on the same scale as San Francisco artists, but have more opportunities to play with the architecture and niches of a specific space. Finally, in Berlin, making legal works is easier since there is an abundance of empty and secluded wall space, as well as many legal Halls of Fame.

In 2014, graffiti is 45 years old– having already started a family and now raising children, it’s viewing the world through a different lens. In a similar life stage, traditional muralism is witnessing younger generations using its techniques and modifying the content and purpose of their works. Graffiti/street art forms are being re-defined right now, and cities must critically evaluate the laws they put in place regarding these urban art forms to fully understand both the consequences and the implications of these policies.