Friday, April 9, 2010

Graffiti and Discourse in Edmonton

'Discourses produce knowledge and knowledge is always a weapon of power'
(Storey, 2006)


Discourse is a particular way of constructing a topic. It uses a set of identifiable languages that can immediately illustrate a meaning that goes beyond a few words. By creating specific words and notions, and then associating them with topics, discourse is implicated in power. Discourse influences people’s notions of what they consider to be fact or fiction, regardless of accuracy. The effects of discourse therefore must be critically regarded. The danger of discourse is a result of the power it holds, especially since a discursive perspective is affixing factual truth in a concrete way to a topic that is dynamic or intangible, or both.


The discursive construct of lawfulness and order must be considered when discussing graffiti. Afterall, the existence of graffiti is often in places where it breaks the law. But as we know, positive associations present with notions of lawfulness are not always correct. One can think of many instances in which the law is not just. Edmonton’s campaign against graffiti is fuelled by discursive unreality that what is lawful is essentially good and what is unlawful is essentially bad. But the very campaign itself is partly responsible for the lack of graffiti that is artistic and aesthetic. According to the Edmonton Wipe Out Graffiti campaign, graffiti is “unsightly”, “offensive” and “undermines our feelings of pride and security.” The campaign relies on discursive constructs of graffiti as incongruous with art. But why is public advertising allowed to “litter” our streets unfettered? Graffiti in other cities without such campaign has developed into a serious and respected art form, where tagging is frowned upon. But Edmonton remains behind despite having a strong visual-arts community because of limitations imposed by a campaign fuelled by discourse. Tags and stencil graffiti are often viewed as lower forms of graffiti by artists, but they are much easier and faster to put up.


Discourse is essential to understanding how the City of Edmonton regulates graffiti. Most forms of graffiti in the downtown area are viewed in the eyes of society as deviant and unsightly. The City of Edmonton promotes these views through their anti-graffiti policies. The city feeds the idea that graffiti is nonstandard and dangerous by saying things like they are ‘working to prevent graffiti to promote safer and cleaner communities’. This enforces the stereotype of the thug ‘tagging’ the streets in the name of his gang. The standards put forth by the City of Edmonton help to protect the city from vandalism, but in doing so they hinder the creativity of those using graffiti as an art form rather then a form of destruction. Due to the stereotypes placed on their work it is not given the same amount of respect as other art forms; this makes it difficult for them to get people interested in viewing their work as a legitimate form of expression.

The government is able to use the discourse of art against itself to regulate the graffiti. John Storey stated that ‘discourses work in three ways, they enable, they constrain, and they constitute’ (Storey, 2006). Though art is viewed as a fairly liberal form of expression, it must still abide by certain rules, or constraints that popular artists also must follow. Those that do not stay within these guidelines are cast out from the main stream, which is what has happened to graffiti within the City of Edmonton.


There has always been an iconoclash when referring to graffiti artists. Some people believe it is pure defacement and destruction of property, while others claim that it is the purest form of unmediated art, that has the ability to reach many without any hindrances of society. In many ways graffiti breaks out of discourse, in allowing its artists to speak outside of the norms and values of a certain society. Many statements can be made both politically and socially through graffiti. With the power of anonymity, many messages are able to be conveyed without the fear of reprisal. There also is the secret encoding of messages. Street art can be seen as an encoding of messages, some of which are easily decoded by the masses, some that can only truly be read by other graffiti artists.

The place in which the graffiti is painted can help improve the message. As said ‘ the medium is the message’ Sometimes where graffiti is painted is almost as important as the graffiti itself. If a message is used in reference to a person/place/thing, than it is usually next to or near an image that is being referred to.


The aesthetic value of street art plays very strongly into the acceptance of it.There also is a divide within communities of what is considered ‘art’ and ‘vandalism’ . Much like regular art, The more complex, aesthetic and intricate the design, usually the greater the admiration, and the more likely it will be accepted. However simple ‘tags’ or stencil graffiti usually gains negative reactions, both by graffiti artists and everyone else. This in many ways mirrors conventional art, where the most eloquent pieces, or the works of art with the greatest societal value and message are the most appreciated. In many ways there are ‘high’ and ‘low’ versions of this art form.

In many ways, Graffiti has challenged the idea of discourse by its general acceptance from the population. While it is not universally accepted, the general public has liking for ‘high art’ forms of graffiti. This shows that this form, once seen as purely destruction, can slowly be accepted as a positive in society.


To View more graffiti around downtown Edmonton copy and paste this link to your web browser:

Graffiti is a criminal offense when placed on public or private property without the

owner's consent. Private property owners are required to remove graffiti within a reasonable time from their property. Buildings and structures should not have graffiti on them that is visible from any surrounding property.

If you witness a graffiti crime in progress call 911.

Written by Briana Raposo, Gregory Melenka & Lacey McNally.

Cited Works

Storey, John. Cultural theory and popular culture. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2006.

Works Referenced

Schachter, Rafael. An Ethnography of Iconoclash. Journal of Material Culture, 2008.

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