Of Graffiti, Youth and Space

Written by Doug Ragan

Doug is a Senior Associate with Sustainable Cities. He currently is under fellowship at the University of Colorado’s Children, Youth and Environments Centre finishing his PhD in Urban Planning and Design.

Photos by Doug Ragan

Rio is a gorgeous city – stunning really. The city is up against both the mountains and the ocean. The people are vibrant. The music amazing.

Yet one thing that i missed that my 12 years old son, Liam, noticed immediately was the graffiti. It was everywhere. The last time i noticed graffiti was in Rome, where i found the incongruence between the ancient monuments such as the Coliseum with the proliferation of graffiti everywhere quite striking. The graffiti in Rome struck me as a way that youth were trying to take back a city they did not feel part of. The graffiti had an angry, gritty feel to it. The young against the old – an urban inter-generational argument of sorts.

Graffiti in a Rome Subway

What was different with the graffiti in Rio was that though there was seemingly an equal amount of it, the graffiti was, according to Liam, “#$%^ awesome”. These were truly graffiti artists, a cut above the scrawl that I saw in Rome. At Liam’s behest we took a quick urban safari and took photos of the different graffiti, some pictured here. From this safari I learned a lot about graffiti culture such as what “toying” is  (“toying” or writing over someones graffiti is a way to show  disrespect for inferior work); that EVERYONE has a tag, dad; and that you have to be careful not to toy or copy a gang’s tag. Complicated, illuminating and yet another thing I as parent had to get a handle on.

In stepping back and reflecting, there were are two things struck me about the graffiti. First, on my two experiences with graffiti – the angst filled graffiti of Rome vs the graffiti art of Rio – I think the difference between the two cities has a lot to do with the demographic context within which the graffiti was being done. Italy, as is most of Europe and the developed world, is demographically much older; compared to Rio where, like in much of the developing world, there is a much larger percentage of the population which is youthful. You can see this in the age pyramids below, where the bulge for Brazil is from 0-25 years old, and Italy where the bulge is between 30 and 50.

My experience in some developing country cities is that though youth often face oppression, there is also a growing realization that they are the majority, and, if the country is moving in a positive direction and they are able to engage meaningfully in everyday life, they are the ones to benefit first and there is a sense of hope.[1] In the developed world youth make up a much smaller percentage of the population and  they have a level of say in their city equal to their numbers. This lack of power and influence can breed discontent and often leads to violence. We have seen  some of this urban violence in Europe in the last few years, often  by youth from immigrant communities who are in the majority, but have little power within in their society. See an excellent article done by Jackie Amsden on the violence in France in 2005 – Fires, Festivals and Franchise – Youth Citizenship in France.

Second, it strikes me that graffiti is an important way for youth to claim their space within their respective cities. Research has shown that cities are not an inviting or engaging space for youth – in fact planners often design cities to “manage” the youth “problem”. Urban design is often focused on assuring youth activities such as skateboarding, biking, or hanging out are discouraged. Often recreation space and services for youth are in short supply. Through graffiti youth are able to symbolically claim their space and mark their territory so to speak. It is  important to note that some cities and international agencies recognize that space for youth is in short supply, and so are working to create space which can  engage their burgeoning youth populations. For example, UN-HABITAT and local governments have  developed programs such as the One Stop Youth Resource Centres, which are youth led and initiated, and focus on providing a safe and generative space for youth to work.

So, in the end, I come back to where I started – Rio is a beautiful city. What is less obvious but arguably more important for the long-term sustainability of the city, is that it is the cities youth who in large part are responsible for bringing about this beauty. They are its principal inhabitants, and through public demonstrations such as graffiti we can see both what they are capable of today and what promise they can bring for tomorrow.

[1] Having said this, if the country is not going in a positive direction, then youth can as well be the ones who bring violence to the streets. The violence following the Kenyan elections is an example of this.

* this article is as well published on ny blog the Practical Radical.


About practicalradical

I am practical by nature, radical by design. I believe in patterns not lines; paradox not certainty; and the chaotic not the orderly.
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5 Responses to Of Graffiti, Youth and Space

  1. Eric Brown says:

    Thanks for this interesting post Doug. Coincidently, I recently overheard a couple of youths (they were maybe a year or two younger than me) lamenting the lack of graffiti on a particular white wall here in Vancouver. “White walls like that are begging to have art put on them,” one of the young men commented.

    Their conversation wasn’t aggressive or malevolent, it was about beautifying their city in a way that reflected their values and artistic preference. Graffiti, it seemed, strengthened their sense of place. I guess this supports your point that Graffiti is a way for youth to claim their space, although I didn’t get the sense that for these two young people it was antagonistic or territorial, just better than boring white walls.

  2. Caitlin Purvis says:

    Doug, your post has reminded me of the 4 month volunteer placement I did with Ser Paz, an organization dedicated to eradicating violence within and between gangs, in Ecuador. I worked with high risk youth in the most marginalized communities of Guayaquil. It was very apparent which gangs ruled which neighbourhoods by the graffiti that was present on store fronts, bus stops, fences etc.
    Los Latin Kings, Los Netas and Big Clan to name a few not only have their own tags, but also their own colours, symbols and codes. It is important for these youth to be able to express themselves and feel a part of something and graffiti along with other forms of artistic expression such as hip hop music and break dancing have become their means to be heard. It has also been a way for them to stake out their territory and have a sense of belonging in a city and often a world, that wants nothing to do with them. The street is their world, their life, their home.
    Ser Paz is an organization that is tapping into their world and recognizing the potential these young people have. In fact, Ser Paz is assisting these youth in developing their skills whether they are artistic or entrepreneurial. I have attached a link to a video titled Barrio de Paz. It outlines the work of Nelsa Curbelo, the director of Ser Paz, and gives a brief summary of the life of these youth in Guayaquil. I think you will find it interesting.


  3. hi. Thanks for your comments eric and caitlin. Your video is amazing Caitlin – it really goes deep into what gangs are, how they start and what they mean to the youth in them. How long did you work in that program for?

    As you both have pointed out, I think that there are many reasons for youth to do graffiti, from just wanting to beautify a white wall, to staking out gang territory. But usually, unless the city really has it together, it is against some law or bylaw, so it does have some ‘edge’ to it and is breaking some law.

    It gets me wondering what would a city be like that meaningfully engaged youth? What would the built environment look like? what services would it provide? All questions to ponder!

  4. Gis Méndez says:

    Hi Doug,
    I like your analysis about graffiti being quiet familiar with Italian perspective and recently visit Rio as well.
    As far as I could see there is an enormous difference in intergenerational relationships between young and old, but also what I called the “conqueror/conquered dna theory”
    Intergenerational relationships in Italy are so fractured and full of confrontation, some time you feel like young people wants so desperately to deny their own past so they look for their future elsewhere as individuals, looking for something different as they do not find their place in the old world.
    So the opposite with Brazilians that act so jointly, so tied to their roots, their land, their identity as a group. Seems like they are natural defenders of collective property of any kind, even if the enemy is in the house, no matter which side of the glass you are looking through.
    A friend told us that graffiti and tags are young people communicating. I was amazed by “tags” in Rio. The highs and outstanding places that they we able to tag it was unbelievable, and felt as proud as part of the gang, and at the same time ashamed for not understand if that meant fear for the carioca next to me.
    Maybe I’m wrong buy in my city, graffiti has been losing some of the “bad stigma” over the last 6 years. Government has encouraged young people to express themselves giving them walls and spray. But we are far from understanding the meaning of these open communication channels… good that Caitlin is working with us now. 😉

  5. Thanks for your post Gis, sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I like you concept of the conquered/conquered dna theory. I think many of the developed world inter-generational relationships are fractured. Often it seems that people want to see the world stand still, and now, of any time in the last while, that is not the case. Whether we look at north/south immigration, or information moving through cables at the speed of light, the biggest challenge to sustainability is the need to manage – some may survive – ever accelerating change.

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