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Graffiti Psychology - "Why do they do that?"

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

I’ve worked in the graffiti removal industry for 10 years and have researched every offshoot of graffiti that I can to stay on top of my industry. The questions we get when removing graffiti are a short reoccurring list, but the one question that is the hardest to answer is “why do they do that?” I’m not a psychologist, but I've researched this answer and this is what I’ve found.

First off, this answer has many branches, which is expected, since people are all different and have their personal twists on why they think they do graffiti. However, they tend to lead to a common area, which we’ll dig deeper into in each of the following sections.

It’s Not A Crime: Although we know this isn’t true, it’s the mindset of a lot of people who do graffiti. Some common “laws” that don’t get punished are lumped into the same category by them, such as jay-walking. We all know it’s a law, but who knows anyone who’s actually been ticketed for this? Maybe something larger like speeding. There’s also a very seldom chance you’re going to get a ticket on a highway going 5km over the speed limit by breaking this law too. Even stranger laws in Canada say things like “…citizens may not remove bandages from their body in public”. This is rather ridiculous in todays day, but these laws can be found at the base of the argument for why some laws just don’t need to be listened to. And who is dictating which ones we are allowed to ignore and which ones we need to listen to? The followup on the argument that graffiti isn’t a crime is because, like the bandaid removal, nobody is getting hurt by this law being broken. Nobody is being physically or mentally abused and plus, graffiti can be erased.

The only aspect of this reasoning that is not being accounting for is that someone else has to pay for the graffiti removal and graffiti removal products. But according to most taggers, it’s only rich people who own buildings anyways.

Anger: The little guy versus the big guy. The little guy is always the underdog and the big guy is probably corrupt, or has stepped on many small guys to get where he is today. This mentality is very dangerous because it’s often believed to be true.

Younger people tend to be the ones who graffiti, or at least are caught doing it. Older people are the ones who own the buildings more often than not. With this in mind, there’s already a divide happening. I don’t have any proof, but I’d bet that people who graffiti don’t think to themselves “I bet this building owner is probably maxed out in debt, having a tough time financially, and won’t be able to fix this building if he wants to”. And I would bet they’re leaning more towards the idea of “this guy has too much money, so who cares what I do”.

I don’t like to stereotype, or put words in peoples mouths, but I think these statements are more true than not. The divide is started there and grows in many directions. An unfair society with few options for many underprivileged kids creates a sense of not belonging, not being heard, or nowhere to put their energy.

Many kids from low income neighbourhoods don’t have the same access to activities after school like many affluent families do. Add boredom and loneliness to this and the resentment towards those affluent building owners starts to make sense. This area has been well researched and found as a root cause of graffiti. A social outsider can find a family to not just belong to, but be seen as champion among them.

A hero doing a victimless crime in an unfair society.

Skateboarding: This headline even gets my back up a bit too. Not all people who skateboard are bad, just like some police aren’t always good. However, there are some common links between the two that make sense for skateboarders to get into graffiti. I will also note that not everyone who graffiti’s is a skateboarder, but the following gives a good argument as to why the link is there.

The first is rather obvious and the blame should be placed on municipalities. Skate parks are notorious for being allowed to graffiti at them by the municipality. This is like giving kids a bag of candy and telling them they can only eat it in one specific place. It makes zero sense and as they get more addicted to the sugar, they’re just going to eat it everywhere.

Zero tolerance should be the standard in all skateparks because there is no chance graffiti will stay there. If I trained in parkour, I would be looking at every balcony, ledge, railing and so on, differently. The same would apply to spray painting on a canvas with a variety of bushes, ledges, lighting, textures, backdrops, etc.

The second reason skateboarding is a gateway to graffiti is because of the emotions that both graffiti and skateboarding share. There are a list of other hobbies that could be added, but remember that skateparks are the place people are more often allowed to tag than anywhere else in a city.

Fear is an emotion that anyone who’s stepped on a skateboard and started to get good at knows is part of the game. Fear is also an emotion that comes along with doing graffiti.

Adrenaline is the second emotion that comes along with both skateboarding and doing graffiti.

Lastly, both are driven by creativity. To link these 3 emotions together and then top it off with a safe place to learn at the exact same location only makes sense that skateboarding and the allowance by many municipalities would be a breading ground for future taggers.

Once they’ve mastered both, they now have a fast get-a-way and transportation throughout a city. It’s actually a really great match.

Antisocial Behaviour: A study was done at the University of Queensland by Professor Graham Martin, which found that people who graffiti are much different than those who don’t. His study found that people who graffiti meet the criteria for conduct disorder or delinquency and later go on to antisocial behaviour personality disorder. Their findings actually showed that the people who graffiti actually scored at the far extreme of antisocial behaviour.

Not having any remorse for their actions fits nicely into the mindset that must be required to vandalize hundreds of properties in a single night.

Other symptoms of the antisocial personality are disregard for right and wrong, being callous, cynical, disrespectful, using charm to manipulate others, arrogance, and being extremely opinionated. There are many more symptoms, but I think this draws a clear enough picture of what it would take to deface a city and still be able to fall asleep afterwards.

Recognition: I imagine seeing your face on a billboard for your next upcoming movie or debut album would be rather euphoric. There’s not many things people can do outside of becoming wealthy or famous to get that recognition, but it’s what many people strive for. The easiest way to get it is to just put the billboard up yourself and bask in the fame, even if it’s not your real name. Your entire community of taggers will know who it is and that’s often close enough for most. I believe recognition is what people who graffiti think they’re looking for. Although it might not be (on a deeper psychological reason), but if you ask people who tag, I would be surprised if they said they just need to get out their anger or satisfy their antisocial personality.

Taggers have crews that tag together and have a common tag, like a team logo. This connection of family for them is scratching the surface of their own personal need to show someone they belong somewhere and they have a family. It’s actually a sad thing to realize.

Writing the same name ten thousand times over definitely looks like someone is trying to be heard or seen, so this leads us into what can be done to prevent graffiti?

Solution: As you can see from the various reasons as to why people might get into doing graffiti, there are deeper cuts than what you see on the side of your building as the sun comes up. I think anger and recognition are the 2 strongest threads in the reason people graffiti, so it does seem weird to use punishment as an answer. Punishment is probably what created those 2 feelings for most people who graffiti in the first place. Perhaps a parent or mentor isn’t providing enough attention, so a person gets angry, breaks the law that’s not seen as a major law to break anyways and watch the snowball begin. Anger, notoriety, recognition, belonging, and then competition. A lack of after school activities was one of the reasons some get into graffiti in the Anger section, so now they have a place to compete in something on top of it all.

Raising punishments with fines, jail time, or community service has shown to not always be the best way to deal with a criminal offence. Today we have the knowledge as to why crimes are committed from the psychological point of view, but we’re treating many crimes with similar punishments. The majority of people doing graffiti are fairly young people in society, so I feel there’s a lot more hope with rehabilitating someone who is caught than with most other crimes.

The underlying reasons for why people do graffiti need to be addressed. I’m sure most 5th grade teachers could give a list of kids who are at the highest risk of doing graffiti in their lives.

I don’t have a perfect solution that fixes graffiti for everyone, but looking to the law to scare people is probably only raising the fear and giving attention (even though it’s negative) that they’re looking for. Digging deeper into their personal wellbeing is more likely to stop them than using the same punishment that may have caused them to start in the first place.

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