Crimes Of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality

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Jeff Ferrell’s Crimes Of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality is an intriguing and well-researched look into the social, aesthetic, and criminal aspects of the graffiti subculture in Denver, Colorado. Unlike many other books on the subject that have the simple documentation of the art form as their goal, Ferrell aims at achieving a complete understanding of the graffiti subculture, both of the subculture’s characteristics and society’s criminalization of graffiti. Moreover, Ferrell’s willingness to both participate in the subculture on its own terms and his ability to realistically analyze the culture, make it the best book I have read on the subject of graffiti art.

The first half of the book describes the graffiti subculture, covering the various art forms, for example, discussing the differences between pieces and throw-ups, the logistical aspects of writing graffiti–how some crews paint and how people tag, and discussing the social and communicative aspects of graffiti, such as the relationships between people in the graffiti scene and the way in which art functions as a form of communication connecting the subculture. While the book is centered on the somewhat unlikely location of Denver, in that Denver is not well-known for its graffiti scene, much of the discussion is universal enough that it remains relevant for people wanting to learn more about the graffiti scene as a whole. Ferrell relies on both his firsthand experience and numerous interviews with graffiti artists to develop his discussion of the graffiti scene. Of the books I have read on graffiti, Crimes of Style is the most balanced–at once capturing the allure of writing graffiti while remaining realistic in assessing the subculture’s limitations.

The second half of the book focuses on the criminalization of graffiti, by looking at the efforts of the city of Denver to criminalize graffiti and in the final chapter, presenting a framework for which this criminalization can be understood. Ferrell develops the idea of “anarchist criminology” to explain why city officials in Denver find graffiti to be such a threat, as it seems unlikely that city officials could consider people spray painting artwork on walls and other surfaces as a threat to the power structure. While Ferrell never makes the case that graffiti is directly threatening the governmental power structure, the analysis of graffiti culture from within the framework of anarchism is quite useful, as it allows one to address the ways in which graffiti is fundamentally challenging–the disregard for private property, its participation in the debate between what constitutes private space and the best use of that space, and the frequent glorification of criminality within the subculture. It would be easy for Ferrell to project a political context onto graffiti that is not there, as many academics do when they drone on about how subcultures are a manifestation of various cultural and political theories. To his credit, Ferrell does not do this, remaining cognizant of the fact that most writers do not see graffiti as fitting into some greater political framework. Nevertheless, his theorizing is intriguing and its analysis is beneficial to understanding the subculture, and perhaps more importantly, in the event that graffiti writers read this book, it may encourage them to develop a more comprehensive analysis of the potentiality of their actions.

As a result of his actual participation in the graffiti subculture, Ferrell is able to keep Crimes of Style from being a dull academic monograph written from the distant confines of the university milieu–over-analyzing a subculture and stripping it of its vitality–a phenomenon which is all to common in academic treatments of subcultures. Consequently, Crimes of Style is an interesting read for both those who are involved in or are interested in getting involved in the graffiti subculture, as well as academics who are approaching the subject from an interest in cultural studies or criminology.

Jeff Ferrell, Crimes Of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality, (Northeastern University Press, 1996).

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