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Book Review | Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art

Published onApr 01, 2018
Book Review | Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art

Jeffrey Ian Ross (ed.). Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art. Routledge, 2016; 491 pp.; ISBN: 97804158792937.

Expressing oneself by depicting images on public surfaces for others to view is a system of communication that has been around since the earliest societies formed and developed their own languages. This tradition of public communication has continued into the present in the form of graffiti and street art. The development of contemporary graffiti and street art is often attributed to the scenes in Philadelphia and New York City, which arose during the 1970s. In fact, it has been contended that these art forms spread to and mixed with graffiti/street art scenes across the globe due to NYC’s status as a “world city” with international influence (Austin; chapter 17). It is also important to note that throughout time, the subject matter depicted (i.e. symbols, icons, etc.), techniques used, and locations chosen by artists/writers, as well as who actually participates in graffiti and street art, have been highly variable.

It was not until the past several decades that the issues surrounding graffiti and street art were defined and scholarship began to consider them, despite this long history of public illustration. The factors contributing to this focus include the association of graffiti/street art with crime and urban violence, especially when related to gang-activity, but these art forms have also been viewed as symbolic of urban decay. These negative views of graffiti and street art have been purported by various social institutions (i.e. politics, law enforcement, news media, etc.) which has led to legal statutes condemning graffiti/street art and even the militarization of responses to them (Ross, chapter 29). While many use the association with gang-activity to vilify graffiti/street art, this is only a small portion of the art being created. Instead, many artists/writers of graffiti and street art are just seeking to express their creativity in alternative manners.

Thus, graffiti and street are highly complex subjects built on contradictions including definitional disputes. For instance, graffiti and street art have most frequently been considered through “four interrelated contextual axes” (p.1). This includes some researchers focusing on the illegality of graffiti and street art; that is, debates of criminal versus the artistic and commercial aspects. Alternatively, some have considered graffiti/street art’s content, composition, and aesthetic; while others have considered the dynamics of who defines what constitutes graffiti/street art and its practitioners.

Coinciding with these growing, negative views of graffiti/street art and the inherent definitional contradictions, scholarly attention began to focus on graffiti/street art in the 1980s. However, this area of research has remained relatively obscure and has had varying levels of subjective-ness, methodological rigor, and social scientific focus. What has been missing, until now, is a reference book that encompasses a wide assortment of research, theory, and ideas considering graffiti and street art. The Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art is a comprehensive attempt to fill this knowledge void by providing reviews of the causes, reactions to, and the challenges surrounding graffiti/street art throughout history and around the world. While it is impossible to discuss every type and all the research pertaining to graffiti and street art, this assortment covers a wide-range of topics and approaches in studying graffiti/street art. Ultimately, the Handbook provides a collection of objective, theoretically, and social scientifically-focused chapters improving on previous graffiti and street art literature.

Included in the Handbook are 35 chapters arranged into four overarching thematic parts focusing on history, the artists/writers involved, and types of graffiti/street art; theoretical approaches and causal questions; variations across place; and the reactions to graffiti/street art, which have been overlooked in much of the literature. The chapters featured draw from a range of areas of study: art history and theory, communications, criminology and criminal justice, urban sociology, subculture theory, and youth studies to name several. These chapters were written by scholars and experts from around the world (more than half of the contributors are from countries outside the United States and United Kingdom). Additionally, some of the authors have participated or still actively participate in graffiti and street art scenes.

While each chapter could stand on its own, together they form an indispensable wealth of knowledge regarding the study of graffiti and street art. While an exhaustive review of everything enclosed is beyond the scope of this review, there are significant contributions this collection makes that are important to note. First, several chapters wrestle with the complexities and contradictions inherent to graffiti and street art by highlighting reactions to graffiti/street art, but also how these art forms have been appropriated and commodified. For example, chapters discuss how graffiti/street art have progressed closer to contemporary art (Brighenti, chapter 12) and where it fits into art history and theory (Schacter, chapter 11); how they have been embraced and celebrated for tourism and city branding (Evans, chapter 13); “legal”/permitted graffiti and street art (Kramer, chapter 9); and issues surrounding copyright law for the artists/writers and the preservation of their creations (Schwender, chapter 34). Second, chapters draw attention to several examples of graffiti/street art being highly variable (not just gang-related) regarding types, who participates, and why they participate. Some of the chapters highlighting these variabilities include discussions of the use of graffiti as it related to the American railroad system and hobo subculture (Lennon, chapter 2; Weide, chapter 3), graffiti in public restrooms—termed “latrinalia”—(Trahan, chapter 7), a recently developed type of graffiti/street art known as “yarn bombing” (Haveri, chapter 8), the use of graffiti/street art as a political tool in Chile (Palmer, chapter 20), and why marginalized adolescents are drawn to joining graffiti/street art subcultures (Taylor, Pooley, & Carragher, chapter 15).

In short, the Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art is a one of a kind collection of scholarly chapters devoted to the study of a complex, urban phenomenon. Graffiti and street art are as old as civilization and communication itself, but it was not until the last several decades that research began to tackle this phenomenon. While it is unable to cover every aspect of graffiti and street art, the Handbook is an immensely important contribution to an area of research that is still developing. At the outset of this collection, Editor Jeffrey Ian Ross notes, “perhaps no other contemporary predominantly urban phenomenon is as misunderstood as graffiti and street art” (p.3). In addressing this point, the chapters collected here effectively illuminate the complexities and contradictions surrounding graffiti/street art while dispelling commonly held, inaccurate beliefs about them and their artists/writers. This Handbook provides an accessible tool that will likely be a staple in the study of graffiti and street art for years to come whether that be in the classroom or for one’s own research interests.

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