Graffiti Art: A Contemporary Study of Toronto Artists

By Bowen, Tracey E. | Studies in Art Education, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Graffiti Art: A Contemporary Study of Toronto Artists


Bowen, Tracey E., Studies in Art Education


This study examined graffiti artists in the Greater Toronto Area who had formal art education at either the senior secondary or postsecondary level. Six participants were chosen: one who had specialized senior secondary training, three who had graduated from college art programs, and two who were still completing college-level art programs. The average age of the participants was 24 years. The data were collected through tape-recorded interviews and transcribed verbatim. Participants answered 16 questions and were permitted to discuss issues not addressed in the questions. The study looked at who they are, how they view the graffiti community, how they relate their education to their graffiti work, and whom they perceive their audience to be. It was concluded that the participants were creative individuals who were community minded and concerned about the inherent aesthetics of the city. They were active in creating quality graffiti murals that they believed enhanced derelict areas and back alleys. The results of the study highlighted the need for understanding and acceptance when considering the work of these artists. It also questioned the need to redefine the term graffiti, or at least to extend the definition to include other contexts that may not have been included historically. As well, recommendations were made to revisit teaching practices in the visual arts to include discussions about public audiences and contexts.

Since it first appeared as an art form in late- I 960s New York City, graffiti and graffiti artists have been controversial. Misconceptions about their motives and stereotypes linking the artists to crime and vandalism have been fuelled by media reports that are often biased. Graffiti as an art form has been given minimal attention by scientific research. The voices of the graffiti artists themselves have rarely been heard by either the art community or broader society, especially outside the United States. Graffiti has crossed the boundaries of street culture, youth culture, and the art community, and while this may be attractive to many artists it also places them in contradictory relationships. For the most part, they may see themselves as outsiders to conventional social structures. Yet, many believe their work enlivens the city's derelict areas and is their contribution to the community.

Graffiti art enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s, in locales such as the Greater Toronto Area. There was a great deal of speculation by the media about graffiti in Toronto, some of which linked it to activity historically based in the United States. Much of the media publicity in The Toronto Star (Black, 1997; Hume, 1996), The Sun (Cairns, 1996a, 1996b), and The Globe and Mail (Grange, 1995; Ross, 1996) became a forum for confrontation between outspoken artists and an establishment looking to rid the city of graffiti. Because of this battle, the definition of graffiti has been obscured. The purpose of this study was to define graffiti art as it has appeared in Toronto and provide the participating Toronto-based graffiti artists with an opportunity to tell their stories. My intent was to promote a greater understanding both of current practices in graffiti art and of artists motivations.

The study was based on interviews with six graffiti artists who had formal art training at either the senior secondary or postsecondary levels. The reason for choosing artists with formal art training was to provide a specific context for the study beyond the location and, in so doing, to help determine how these graffiti artists situated themselves within the broader community of emerging artists and art students. The objective of the study was to provide greater insight into artists who have chosen graffiti as a public art form. The research attempted to answer the following questions:

1. Who are these artists?

2. Why have they chosen graffiti murals as a form of public selfexpression?

3. …

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