Why graffiti writers and graffiti matter

Published: 21/08/2018

A new book by York St John sociology and criminology lecturer, Dr Tyson Mitman, demystifies our preconceptions of graffiti writers by looking beyond the assumption of them having criminal origins. Instead, he offers a detailed portrait of graffiti as an urban culture with its own intricate rules.

Skateboarders in Philadelphia's FDR Skatepark

Young skateboarders skating in the famous FDR Skatepark under I-95 in south Philadelphia (credit: iStock)

This summer sees the launch of Dr Tyson Mitman’s book, The Art of Defiance, a fascinating portrait of how graffiti writers see their city and, in turn, how their city sees them. It explores how becoming a graffiti writer can help disaffected urban citizens negotiate their cultural identities to build their social capital and battle urban anomie. It also explains how graffiti writing, as a cultural practice, resists incorporation and commercialisation, whilst giving the writers a voice within a society that would often prefer them to be silent, passive and anonymous.

To achieve this, The Art of Defiance examines the cultural history of graffiti in Philadelphia, from the late 1960s onwards – and explores what it’s like to be a graffiti writer in the city today. Dr Mitman’s ultimate aim is to humanise graffiti writers and demonstrate that what they do is not destructive or pointless, but that it actually adds value to the urban experience by being a conscious and deliberate act to affect their city.

Praise for The Art of Defiance

Famed Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Philippe Bourgois, said of Dr Mitman’s book: “Written with love for both the art of graffiti writing and for the streets of Philly, Tyson Mitman has written an inspiring urban ethnography that combines erudition with the grit of being a Philly writer himself. He captures the magic, beauty, politics and energy of graffiti. In fact, this book gives you hope that popular culture can triumph over anything… even over 40,000 abandoned buildings and ignorant, brutal cops. This book makes me miss Philly because it’s got WICKET STYLE!”

About Dr Tyson Mitman

Tyson Mitman spent most of his adult life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, and now lives in York, UK, where he is a lecturer in sociology and criminology at York St John University. He earned his PhD in Media, Culture and Communications from Drexel University and has published peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, press pieces and now, The Art of Defiance. His work is primarily about space, power, resistance and identity, though he is also interested in subcultures, visual culture, access to political voice and agency – and graffiti. He believes graffiti is a culturally important, legitimate form of art and expression, and that some things “just look better covered in a bunch of tags.”

The Art of Defiance was published in August 2018. For more information visit University of Chicago Press Books.

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