by Mateja Mihinjac
Many walls and underpasses in the city of Ljubljana are covered with graffiti. A great number of these are considered non-artistic forms of graffiti or tagging. But there is another perspective worth considering.
Crime prevention and CPTED thinking teaches us that graffitied walls signify poor maintenance and lack of ownership thus contributing to crime and fear. In many western cities, authorities counteract this by legitimising the visually appealing forms of graffiti and containing them to particular areas of cities.
However, while the question of vandalism versus art has received much traction, the intended messaging behind graffiti has been neglected or discredited as acts of vandalism and youth misconduct.
URBAN VOICES - A DEMOCRATIC MEDIUM OF COMMUNICATION
Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, has had a long history of walls covered in socio-political messages. Following the 2nd World War, graffiti has been used as an important avenue for sharing political views and resistance to occupational rule. Today, graffiti is still used as an important medium for expressing dissatisfaction with the current system, and as a form of political activism calling for public protest and social justice.
As a bottom-up form of political activism, some scholars consider graffiti the most democratic medium for expressing personal opinions publicly. Graffiti can express values while at the same time encourage a dialogue about conflicting social issues. This has been especially popularised in the work of the famous British graffiti artist Banksy.
Through graffiti, young people can also become more active in expressing their political opinions while marginalized groups use it to publicly voice their concerns and respond to criticisms. Despite the view of law and society, graffiti can be one of the most inclusive mediums of public discourse.
SOCIO-POLITICAL GRAFFITI AS A MIRROR OF SOCIETY
The messaging behind graffiti in Ljubljana demonstrates these points. It communicates several contentious public issues, for example, some graffiti expresses dissatisfaction with the political system and government decisions appearing during the 2007/2008 financial crisis. Graffiti were used throughout the city to call for social change and entice civic organisation to join the protests to preserve social protections threatened by reforms. Graffiti were a form of resistance calling for collective social action.
More recent graffiti reflect an increase in homophobic messages regarding a same-sex marriage referendum and also ethnic-nationalist sentiments concerning the European refugee crisis. This graffiti appeared in response to unfounded community concerns.
Realising the powerful effect of forming public opinion through graffiti, graffiti activists have found a way to transform these hate messages. Graffitists do this by rewriting over an existing message or adding to it thus neutralizing negative messaging or transforming it into a positive public debate. This type of graffiti promotes tolerance and counteracts the damage that intolerant messages have on society.
"BLANK WALLS MAKE BLANK PEOPLE"
Finding the consensus between graffiti legality and alternative democratic expression is not straightforward. In SafeGrowth we encourage resident empowerment, caring for neighbors, and active citizenship. Such empowered citizens, especially when marginalized, need a suitable medium for expression. Until they find a better solution, they will continue to use walls to speak up.