Vol. 27 No. 2 (February 2017) pp. 22-23

ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF GRAFFITI AND STREET ART, by Jeffrey Ian Ross (ed). New York: Routledge, 2016. 491pp. Hardcover $225.00. ISBN: 1138792937.

Reviewed by G. James Daichendt, College of Arts and Humanities, Point Loma Nazarene University. Email:

THE ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK ON GRAFFITI AND STREET ART, edited by Jeffrey Ian Ross, aims to review current scholarship in the fields of graffiti and street art through original contributions by experts positioned around the world. The thirty-five entries are divided into four sections that are based upon the following themes: history, theoretical inquiries, regional views, and the effects of graffiti and street art. GRAFFITI AND STREET ART does not utilize an art historical lens typically used to study graffiti and street art, a choice that is at first surprising but ultimately refreshing. Instead, it proves to be a valuable resource for those digging into this growing field of study and hoping to expand upon discipline specific studies.

Ross situates the complexity of issues related to graffiti and street art based upon two urban trajectories: the growth of urban surveillance/policing regimes and a consumption-driven urban development. The former is about public safety and preventative policing in order to reduce reactive policing (social control). By installing cameras and surveillance measures into environmental design, the hope is to reduce crime and allow the urban area to flourish. The latter trajectory repurposes urban area such as abandoned factories and warehouses as privatized spaces with high end zones for consumerism and residences in the form of restaurants and trending shops (social class). The improvement in the quality of life of the residents is then the marker for success. These two urban developments are then used by Ross to see graffiti and street art as either an urban threat or an artistic contribution/opportunity to communities. This complexity explains the varied responses that graffiti and street artists receive that range from prison sentences to museum retrospectives (a contradiction experienced by many artists who have reached the highest levels).

Any text on graffiti and street art requires some foundational definitions. Ross takes on this burden at the outset through a short introduction that assumes the form of a truncated literature review. He lumps graffiti and street art together to reinforce their similarities in terms of these acts being performative, illegal, and ephemeral. Yet there are also cultural and conceptual differences between graffiti and street art that could have been helpful to explore. Graffiti continues to be understood as something more dangerous and mysterious compared to its cousin street art. Graffiti is a letter based art form utilizing spray paint and is often difficult to read by those outside the culture of graffiti. Street art in comparison is image-based and encourages a wide range of media like wheat-paste and stencils that often have a more friendly entry point for the general public. Ross is not seeking to claim any ground and instead emphasizes the importance of legality, aesthetics, and content for distinguishing differences yet also concludes by acknowledging the futility of objectively differentiating between graffiti and street art since there is debate within the communities and subcultures.

The first part of the text examines the historical aspects of graffiti and street art. Two articles are of particular interest because of their uniqueness in scope and detail. John F. Lennon contributes an article on the mysterious people behind hobo graffiti. This distinctive type of graffiti breaks free from urban geographical limitations as it travels across the landscape for thousands of miles into communities that may not see much graffiti at all. While we think of hobo graffiti as a distinct subculture all to itself, Lennon contextualizes these writers within the larger history of graffiti. In contrast, Jessica N. Pabón [*23] focuses on sexist ideologies that inform viewers of graffiti. Concepts such as gender-neutral monikers and hyper-sexualized imagery are discussed to help female artists progress beyond generalizations and stereotypes that plague these subcultures that are often understood to be male and macho. A huge step forward, Pabón introduces a needed voice into the field.
The second part of the text focuses on theoretical discussions and makes up the smallest part of the text. Of particular interest is Rafael Schacter’s work, when he writes about graffiti and street art as ornament. Schacter argues that graffiti and street art are additives to the public square. Because these images are additions to specific contexts and not added to neutral spaces like a blank canvas, the author believes they are secondary additions (or ornaments) and can only be understood by what they are attached to or exists within, essentially remodeling the environment we inhabit. A clever notion, it opens up a range of conversations that would be useful in a classroom setting.

Part Three of the book emphasizes regional variations of graffiti and street art. Chapters vary from Palestinian graffiti to the graffiti and street art in Paris, which has become one of the most exciting scenes for artists. Since most studies focus on western cities, it’s helpful to read entries that contextualize and explores these issues in locations like Asia and the Middle East. Reading about how graffiti and street art emerged in Japan and Tokyo during the 1990s heightened my awareness for the internationalization of these art forms. According to authors Hidetsugu Yamakoshi and Yasumasa Sekine, the history of graffiti spurred a unique style of Japanese graffiti and the authors address how others have expanded upon this tradition.

The final section of the text considers the effects of street art and graffiti. From how film depicts it to the impact these art forms have had on the art market, the range of perspectives is widest in this section but useful. One of the highlights is how Peter Bengtsen comments on the value and irony of street art taken from its original location. As the art form has become more popular, it has drawn many admirers who have gone to great lengths to remove it from the streets. There are several ethical issues that arise in these acts in addition to problems related to authentication. The ephemeral quality of street art lends itself to discouraging the removal of street art and there are also arguments made for its protection and preservation.

While completing a major book project in 2012 on street art, I found that the majority of academic texts and articles on graffiti addressed issues of controlling or curving the practice of graffiti in the public square. This is an issue that editor Jeffrey Ian Ross often takes note of throughout the text. Whether it’s in his contributions or within the introductions to each section, the lack of a robust base of academic writing is the main call for this collection of articles. The social control trajectory is complimented and expanded by the contributors in this volume and it’s the real strength of its organization. Expanding this field into a handbook is a large task, one that Ross tackled with enthusiasm and a sincere desire to push the field beyond its comfortable borders. Additional voices from artists (and to a lesser extent art critics) who work within the subcultures of graffiti and street art are missing from the text’s pages. This is a perspective that could potentially add a significant layer of analysis since these artists are the focus of the analysis throughout. By inviting contributors outside predictable fields of sociology and art history to include criminal justice, psychology, political science, art theory, and ethnography, Ross lays a foundation that many scholars will enjoy as a resource and teaching tool.

© Copyright 2017 by author, G. James Daichendt.